Voltaire and the Letters concerning the English Nation
In 1733, Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire published Letters concerning the English Nation. The material was considered too politically dangerous for the author or any French printer to have the work to appear in France. Voltaire wanted to show the continentals that English had superceded the religious question and were already set on a path of progress that embodied the principles of the French Enlightenment. . What the French termed philosophe came to mean more than just philosopher. A philosophe is distinctly not concerned with metaphysics.
He oversteps the question of what “is”, but concentrates instead on what should be. He is thoroughly infused with the notion of progress, and that of “the infinite perfectibility of man”. This is the attitude that characterized the Age of Enlightenment, of which the philosophes formed the vanguard. The Marquis de Condorcet speaks on behalf of this group when he says: [T]he perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite; that the progress of this perfectibility, henceforth above the controul of every power that would impede it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has placed us.
In short, an unbounded optimism in the powers of man to control destiny through the pursuit of rationalism and empirical science, such characterized the philosophe. Voltaire became a leading light among the philosophes. Edmund Burke, in a subsequent age, described the Enlightenment as a “destructive movement of the human intellect. ” Criticism was its modus operandi. They were against the Church and all forms of tradition, and championed the deterministic science of Galileo and Newton as basis of which to build society anew.
But to build anew required a new metaphysic, to replace the Christian one that has served European society thus far. Because the philosophes shunned metaphysics completely they were reduced to the role of opposition, a role that they carried out with the utmost fervor and efficiency. Nietzsche was not amiss when he blamed the philosophes for the worst excesses of the French Revolution. The metaphysical dearth was finally met by the Scottish philosophe David Hume, who tackled empirical skepticism squarely, and proposed that Newtonian science be replaced by a new “science of man”, where Newton’s methodology is re-applied to the humanities.
Hume’s approach was the beginning of the social sciences, which superceded mere optimism, the attitude held by the French philosophes, and put the cart of progress on a constructive path, ending criticism for criticism’s sake. Voltaire can be said to be anticipating Hume, for his optimism for Newtonian science was tempered by a profound empathy for the human. As a philosophe he was a wise man among brats, and thus commanded respect. He didn’t support the general cry for the overthrow of monarchy, but instead appealed for enlightened monarchy.
He thought democracy would turn out to be the worst calamity, and would propagate the idiocies of the rabble. Even education and enlightened thinking has its boundaries. “Once the people begins to reason, all is lost! ” he is reported to have said. The background to the Enlightenment was religious strife. The Protestant Reformation introduced religious freedom in Catholic Europe. Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith” was indeed a precursor to the Enlightenment, for it stressed personal faith and dispensed with ecclesiastical sacrament.
However as Protestantism became institutionalized under various factions Europe was plunged into anarchic wars of religion. The Enlightenment was indeed a reaction to religious anarchy, and most of the philosophes classed themselves as Deist, if not atheist. As a proclaimed Deist Voltaire raged against all forms of organized religion, and his outburst against the Catholic Church “Ecrasez l’infame! ” became the rallying cry of the Enlightenment. Such outbursts was the cause of him being imprisoned in the Bastille twice, and exiled from France on two other occasions, one of which constituted a two year stay in England.
His Letters concerning the English Nation is a highly trenchant commentary on English norms. “What is faith? ” he quizzed. “Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason. ” On reflection, there is very little between this position and that of Luther’s “justification by faith”, thus Voltaire’s position is not incompatible with the fundamental doctrine of Protestantism.
His war is against organized religion only. By the same token he finds the spirit of his particular faith in the attitudes and institutions of Protestant England, and in his Letters concerning the English Nation he proceeds to contrast them favorably with those found in Catholic France. This made the book highly dangerous to publish in France in 1733. The 24 letters manage to give a fairly comprehensive account of the English. The most forceful aspect that stands out is the exemplification of Bacon, Newton and Locke as the inspired purveyors of reason.
The first six letters covers the aspects of Quakerism, Episcopalism and Presbyterianism. In the first letter is given an intimate account of meeting at home a Quaker retired from a life of trade. We are privy to a passionate explanation of the Quaker religion. We learn that the Catholic rite of baptism is Jewish in origin, and that Jesus was baptized by John as part of Jewish custom. Jesus never baptized anyone himself, and the gentleman quotes from the Bible where John is proclaiming that Jesus will not baptize with water but instead with “the Holy Ghost and with fire”.
We gain a picture of a Quaker affirming personal faith without the intermediation of any sacrament. The gentleman harangues against the sacraments, calling them fictions and nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Voltaire applies two levels of criticism in this letter. Allowing the gentleman to be so explicit in his exposure of the Catholic religion, he has leveled a broadside against the religious establishment of France. At the same time he dismisses the Quaker, at the end of the letter, as another brand of fanatic, as quoting scripture selectively, and not to be reasoned with.
In the second letter Voltaire joins the same gentleman to a Quaker meeting, and is taken aback by the incoherent outburst of one among them when moved by religious ecstasy. Voltaire is astonished that no minister presides of this communion. “We don’t pay a set of men clothed in black to assist our poor, to bury our dead, or to preach to the brethren,” explains the Quaker gentleman, likening it to trade and thus cheapening the communion. He goes on to explain that there is no Christianity without personal and immediate revelation.
Voltaire doesn’t comment directly in this letter, leaving the weirdness of the situation to speak for itself. In the third letter an oblique account is given of the history of the Quakers. Christ is described as the first Quaker, but the original faith quickly disappeared. George Fox reinstated the faith, suffered abuse and torture for its sake, preached the faith of immediate revelation in states of divinely inspired ecstasy, with writhing body and contorted face. Cromwell enticed the Quakers with gold, to break their vows against war and join his army, but was forced to concede that this was the only religion that resisted gold.
In 1675 Robert Barclay published his “Apology for the Quakers,” and gave the movement its definitive representation. The fourth letter describes the heroic exploits of William Penn. His conversion to Quakerism caused embarrassment to his father, who served as rear admiral to the Duke of York, later James II, and was forced to disown him. In due course he accompanied George Fox to preach on the Continent. After the death of his father he accosted the king to recover debts owed to his father, and James II granted him land in America as repayment.
Pennsylvania thus became the refuge of Quakerism. “I am not able to guess what fate Quakerism may have in America,” says Voltaire, “but I perceive it dwindles away daily in England. ” The fifth letter carries on the theme of how the Anglican Church stifles the aspirations of all minor sects in the formation of government. But Voltaire is careful to distinguish this behavior from religious persecution as practiced on the continent. “England is properly the country of sectarists,” he opines. “An Englishman, as one to whom liberty is natural, may go to heaven his own way.
” The Whigs are introduced as the political faction striving to abolish Episcopalism, which is beginning to mimic Romanary, and Voltaire expresses sympathy towards the Whigs. In the sixth letter Scottish Presbyterianism is introduced, taking after Calvinism. The austere moral code of this religion is described as introducing the custom of strict observance of the Sabbath. After having accounted for all the main religious denominations in England, Voltaire goes on to suggest where the real religion of the country is enacted.
He writes: “Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. ” All religious differences melt in the arena of trade and commerce, where the only infidels are the bankrupts. Here Voltaire is confiding to us the secret of how the English have overcome the religious question. Not by doctrines in the head, but through instincts in the marketplace have the English sought salvation.
Throughout the letters Voltaire is eager to convey to the continentals the practical talent of the English, and to whom “liberty is natural”. His general portrayal of English society was of spontaneous progress borne of a natural talent for liberty, and how such embodied the principles of the Enlightenment.
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