In Letter XXIV Voltaire offers a comparison between the learned societies of England and those of France. His principal interest is London’s Royal Society, which he compares with France’s Académie des Sciences.
Voltaire's choice of poets included in the Lettres was somewhat idiosyncratic.
Today Voltaire is most remembered for his satirical contes, chief among them Candide, and for his interventions in public debates about the freedom of expression and religious toleration. Yet at the time he was writing the Lettres, as indeed for most of his life, Voltaire was known primarily as a poet and a dramatist.
Voltaire opens his discussion of English natural philosophy by painting a picture of two completely different universes on either side of the Channel: ‘A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find Philosophy, like every Thing else, very much chang’d there. He had left the World a plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. … In France, ’tis the Pressure of the Moon that causes the Tides; but in England ’tis the Sea that gravitates towards the Moon’.
In December of 1732, Voltaire wrote to his close friend (and royal censor) Jean Baptiste Nicolas Formont that he felt pressured to water down what he had to say about Locke’s philosophy in the Lettres:
Most of the Lettres are written in an expository style, as descriptions for the curious reader of aspects of English history and society. When Voltaire’s own point of view can be discerned, it usually comes in the form of ironic (if not always subtle) comments made en passant. Letter XI, on inoculation for smallpox, is different.
‘This is the country of sects. An Englishman, being free, may take to Heaven whichever path appeals to him’. Thus Voltaire begins his fifth letter, and continues his description of England’s religious landscape. Having devoted his first four letters to the Quakers, in his next three, Voltaire turns his attention to the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Antitrinitarians.
Opening the Lettres for the first time, readers may be surprised to find themselves reading four successive letters devoted entirely to the small religious sect of the Quakers – more letters than Voltaire devotes to any other topic. His justification? He believed ‘that the doctrine and the history of so extraordinary a people were worthy the attention of the curious’. So what was it about the Quakers that Voltaire found so extraordinary?
Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais is a primer to the French Enlightenment. In this short collection of texts we find the themes of religious freedom, liberal government and commerce, empirical science, and philosophical enquiry that we now associate with certain thinkers and writers in eighteenth-century France – chief among them Voltaire. But this text was published for the first time in 1733, nearly twenty years before the first volume of the Encyclopédie, and thirty years before Voltaire’s own Traité sur la tolérance.
Eighteenth-century Paris was a vibrant centre of scholarly activity, publishing, and consumption. As the number of prints multiplied, the demand for condensed up-to-date summaries of all fields of knowledge increased. In my book The Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia I tell the story of a hitherto unknown encyclopedic project that was being developed in Paris at the same time as Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie.