Lettres sur les Anglais (volumes 6A, 6B)
The Lettres sur les Anglais (also known as the Lettres philosophiques) is one of the key masterpieces of the European eighteenth century, a manifesto of Enlightenment thinking that helped to shape a way of understanding the world which remains influential to this day. It also marked a turning-point in Voltaire’s career when the poet and dramatist established himself as a prose writer of the first rank.
Drawing on the experiences of his stay in England (1726-1728), the Lettres are made up of a series of short articles, covering a range of themes, from religion and politics to literature, and they aim to present an overall view of contemporary English culture. Voltaire experiments with a new type of cultural history, suggesting the interconnection of religious tolerance, political freedom and a dynamic literary culture.
The first edition to appear was an English translation, Letters concerning the English Nation (London, 1733); the original French version followed, Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais (London, 1734); and thirdly, a rather different French edition was published the same year under the title Lettres philosophiques: this French edition was immediately censored. The work continued to be published throughout the century, but it was a work with a scandalous reputation, and the title Lettres philosophiques had to be avoided for legal reasons.