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The book Letters on England is a series of twenty four letters by Voltaire and is a reference of his experiences in England between 1722 and 1734. The letters were originally published in 1734 in both French and English and most of today’s texts rely of the French translation. This paper reports on the six main concerns of Voltaire in the 24 letters in letters on England which include religion, politics, trade and commerce, science, famous Britons and art.
Voltaire’s short biography
Voltaire or Francois Marie Arouet was born in 1694 and experienced the break out of the great French revolution in which he was a leader of a thought movement before the revolution. Voltaire attended Jesuits College Louis-le-grand where for seven years he gained his interest in literature, public speaking and writing.
He would later leave the college after seven years complaining that he has gained only Latin and stupidities. Voltaire then joined the law schools wrote his first lovely poem ‘Ode on the Misfortunes of Life’. In 1731, his Lettres sur les Anglais were published and appeared in 1733 volume from which the letters analyzed in this paper are adopted.
In the book, Voltaire addressed the issue of religion in his first seven letters. The first four letters talk of Quakers, the fifth of Anglicans, the sixth of Presbyterians and the seventh of Socinians. The first letter starts by setting pace for the interest Voltaire had on religion and he writes, “I was of opinion that the doctrine and history of so extraordinary a people were worthy the attention of the curious” (Voltaire 1).
From there on Voltaire gives a deep description of Quakers’ history, beliefs and customs. He appreciates the way their rituals are rendered in simplicity and acknowledges their lack of baptism. This is seen when a Quaker he was interviewing told him that, “… to be good Christians…we are not of opinion that the sprinkling water on a child’s head makes him a Christian” (Voltaire 2).
The writer is seen to express concern on the nature of organized religion and the way it can be manipulated. In letter five, Anglican religion is compared favorably with Catholicism. However, he criticizes Anglicans for maintaining attachments with catholic ritual and he says that, “The English clergy have retained a great number of the Romish ceremonies and especially that of receiving…their tithes” (Voltaire 17).
However it is in letter six where Voltaire unleashes attacks on Presbyterians when he describes them as intolerant and over strict in their way of doing things and he says the Presbyterians;
…affects a serious gait, puts on a sour look, wears a vastly broad-
brimmed hat and a long cloak over a very short coat, preaches through
the nose, …where the people are weak enough to suffer this, and to give them the titles of my lord, your lordship…No operas, plays, or concerts are allowed in London on Sundays, and even cards are so expressly
forbidden that none…play on that day… (Voltaire 19).
In letter seven the Socinian’s belief is praised as having members who are great thinkers like Isaac Newton and John Locke, but this can not be used to show that the sect is logical. In fact people preferred reading authors like Martin Luther, John Calvin among others.
In letters eight and nine, Voltaire analyzes that while Rome has not had religious wars, Britain has and Voltaire is critical on this face. However Britain is preferred for upholding liberty instead of tyranny as in Rome.
The eighth letter is dedicated to the British judicial system which is not able to handle murder cases and serial attempted cases against Henry IV of France. Letter nine gives a brief history of Magna Charta and explains the unequal dispensation of justice and taxation process. The Charta does not mention the House of Commons and only states that, “We grant, of our own free will, the following privileges to the archbishops, bishops, priors, and barons of our kingdom” (Voltaire 32).
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The importance of English trade system has been discussed in letter ten and highlighted is the way it has led to people’s liberty and the growth of economies since 1707. The letter outlines that trade gave England its naval riches and power and thus nobles are less important than businessmen because they (nobles) only contributes to the felicity of the world (Voltaire 36).
Letter eleven argues in favor of the English science of inoculation which was held with disdain in Europe. It responds to a 1723 small pox epidemic that killed 20,000 people in Paris and Voltaire argues that “… had inoculation been practiced in France it would have saved the lives of thousands” (Voltaire 38).
Letters twelve to seventeen, Voltaire talks of famous British scholars such as Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Newton’s work in letters 12, 13, 14 and 15 respectively. The rest of letters are dedicated to art and he includes tragedy writer William Shakespeare, comedy writer William Wycherley, and the Belles Lettres of nobility by Edmund Waller among others.
In writing the letters on England, Voltaire combined the three spheres of society covering economic, social and political agendas of the time. The fact that he touched religion more than any of the mentioned components shows his ability to see the kind of influence religion had on the lives of people by then.
In these letters therefore, Voltaire sought to expose the ins and outs of the then England and France while he remained true and loyal to the positive aspects of the countries. However, Voltaire depicts aspects of English culture, society and government as favorable as compared to their French equivalents.
Voltaire, Francois. Letters on England. New York: Penguin Classics edition, 1980. Print.