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Lettres sur les Anglais - Newtonianism (letters 14-17)

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’.

Lettres sur les Anglais - Religion in 18th-century England (letters 5-7)

‘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.

Lettres sur les Anglais - Quakers in 18th-century England (letters 1-4)

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?

Lettres sur les Anglais - Getting your bearings

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.

Exploring an abandoned 18th-century encyclopedia: an academic detective story

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.

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