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November 28, 2005

Outre-Manche, Autre-Monde - Voltaire's Lettres sur les Anglais

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lettres sur les Anglais
by Voltaire
first published 1733
Pp. 192. Cambridge University Press, 1931

Available as an Oxford World Classics paperback, Letters Concerning the English Nation, or online.

Lincoln Allison - recently retired as a Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - considers Voltaire's Lettres sur les Anglais and argues that Voltaire's analysis of the differences between England and France still holds true today. In fact, the French have learnt far less from their near neighbour than Voltaire would have wished.

Voltaire wrote his twenty-four "Lettres" as a consequence of his first exile in England in the years 1726-8. They were not really letters and contain no personal details or references either to Voltaire himself or to Thierriot, the former fellow clerk to whom they were nominally directed. They were essays, intended for publication and the pretence that they were personal letters was a ruse intended to deflect (French) criticism and avoid another stint in gaol. One consequent curiosity is that they were first published in England in a translation by John Lockman. When they did appear in France, however, they were extremely successful and went through five editions in a year.

They are also known as Lettres Philosophiques and this is a fair indication of their content. Of the twenty-four, seven are about religion and six are about philosophy in the contemporary sense (including physics and mathematics); the rest are about trade, politics and the arts. The central theme is that England is the land of free speech and toleration and therefore of religious diversity and philosophical excitement.

Quite how this has come about is a matter of mystery; Voltaire observes that the English have had their vicious wars of politics and religion just like the French and the Germans, but that in England they have not ended in a victory for one side or the other. Rather, they have ended in a kind of laissez-croire draw in which it is quite possible to travel the country as an essayist openly interviewing Quakers, "Arians", Presbyterians etc. without either you or them ending up in the Bastille. Voltaire comments on this happy condition (VI):

If only one religion were allowed in England, the government would very probably become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another's throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happily and in peace.
He also notes that many people pay a high price for their beliefs through exclusion from the privileges and stipends which are available through the state and are only available to Anglicans. However this is not so high a price as such exclusion would be in France or other European countries because in England trade offers an alternative route to wealth and power. Also status: Voltaire stresses that even among the relatively small aristocracy of England the younger sons of great houses feel no shame in moving into trade.

This argument has often been inverted in our own times: Martin Wiener's English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (1981) argues that English capitalist families have been uniquely likely to attempt to exit from industrial capitalism in the direction of land and the professions, but the two arguments are not incompatible and Wiener is concerned mainly with manufacturing industry which lies beyond Voltaire's period. He compares (X),

the courtier who gives himself airs of grandeur and state at the same time that he is acting the slave in the ante-chamber of a prime minister
with the,
merchant, who enriches his country, despatches orders from his counting-house to Surat and Grand Cairo and contributes to the felicity of the world.
We are left in no doubt as to which he admires the more.

I confess to having read the likes of Candide and Zadig without being much impressed by Voltaire. I now think that the reason for that is that the essay, rather than any other literary form, is his best genre. He has too much which is clear and intelligent to say to need to dress it up; he is a first rate journalist in the best sense of that word. We have to be a little careful, though because, given his treatment in France and the warmth of the hospitality extended to him in England, he is fairly determined to find much in England from which France should learn. But his most important judgements stand the test of time brilliantly. Shakespeare, unknown in France, is said to share with Lope de Vega the status of founding father of modern European theatre. Newton's greatness is seen as incomparable, though Voltaire is clear that this accolade is for his account of the mainspring of the universe and that his theology and his account of the chronology of the earth are not on the same level.

Thus his more eccentric judgements are not to be dismissed lightly. He portrays Bacon as the founding father of modern English intellectual life to whom the likes of Locke and Newton owe important debts. Reading Voltaire one would expect that by now, in England Bacon would be revered and Descartes ignored, whereas the reality is that Descartes features in almost all philosophy courses and Bacon is almost completely absent. He completely ignores Daniel Defoe, surely the best-selling author of the day? For that matter, he ignores the Welsh, frequently distinguishing what happens in England from what goes on in Ireland or Scotland, but never mentioning Wales. (In this respect he was neither the first nor the last.)

It is also curious to note that Voltaire, despite his respect for Shakespeare and the acknowledged influence on himself of Othello and Julius Caesar in particular, despite himself being accused as an author of "obscenity", is still sufficient of a French classicist to castigate Shakespeare as a vulgarian. The Bard lacks both taste and an understanding of form: he is (XVIII):

sans la moindre eticinelle de bon gout et sans la moindre connaissance des regles.
Gravediggers! Skulls! Women strangled on stage! Indeed!

Voltaire is serious about philosophy, prepared to follow the mathematicians into mathematics and the physicists into physics. Letter XV is devoted to a philosophical investigation of the Newtonian idea that attraction, as opposed to the Cartesian impulsion is the nature of the origin of motion, what it means and whether it is true, concluding that Descartes must be considered worthy but "useless" as a guide to the understanding of physics.

There is a particular charm about being in the very best of eighteenth century company: Voltaire, like Hume and Smith, is talking about essentially modern ideas, but talking about them freely and as a whole, moving naturally on from mathematics to theatre, trammelled by neither the religious obsessions of earlier periods nor the ideologies and specialisation of more recent times. He also tends to make interesting connections between the ideas of his own day and those of much earlier periods. Unitarian or anti-trinitarian religious belief is seen as Arianism and Presbyterianism as descended from the philosophy of Diogenes, for instance.

An entire essay (XVI) is devoted to comparing the English acceptance of the practice of inoculating against smallpox to the French repugnance, but Voltaire portrays inoculation not as a new invention, but as the sensible importation of an ancient Asian method.

The most interesting question which the Lettres now suggest is how Voltaire's constant Anglo-French comparisons relate to those which might be made today, bearing in mind that few French visitors have arrived at Dover so determined to see what was good and exciting about what lay beyond the white cliffs. In many respects Voltaire thinks that he has seen the future and it works; it consists of religious toleration, free speech, free trade and parliamentary government (though he is little interested in the details of the last named). In the City of London, he says:

the Jew, the Mahometan and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts.
One can read globalisation, modernity and capitalism into that very Voltairian soundbite.

France may now be secular and republican, but if one were to judge from much of what happened in France in 2005 and the tone and content of the debate on the European constitution, it remains inward-looking, etatiste, suspicious of trade and globalisation and prone to collectivism and orthodoxy. Reste la difference: Voltaire's analysis holds true, but the French have learned far less from their neighbours than he would have wished.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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