Roy Lotz's Reviews > Letters on England

Letters on England by Voltaire
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bookshelves: person-of-letters, francophilia

Time, which alone gives reputation to writers, at last makes their very faults venerable.

Voltaire and Rousseau are usually grouped together as the twin pillars of the 18th century, the first championing reason and reform, the second romanticism and revolution. After reading them back to back, I know who I prefer. Rousseau is arguably a far more original thinker and writer; yet his personality is so irksome and his arguments so irrational that it can be unpleasant to read him. Voltaire, by contrast, is witty, charming, and delightful; and after Rousseau’s lyrical fantasies, Voltaire’s deflating sarcasm is extremely refreshing.

This book is a collection of essays on topics related to England, written after Voltaire’s three-year stay on the island nation. He interviews a Quaker, visits Parliament, goes to the theater, and then expounds the philosophy of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. He skips lightly from topic to topic, a barb here, a jest there, while revealing an impressive range of knowledge—from inoculation to history, from theater to physics. In general his opinion of England is quite positive, arguably idealized, seeing England as a land of toleration and philosophy. Indeed, the only thing that Voltaire shows some reservation towards is Shakespeare, whose dramas struck Voltaire’s Enlightenment taste as lacking refinement.

The book was controversial when published, since many in France saw Voltaire’s praise of England—correctly—as veiled criticism of their own country. Nowadays, this political purpose only adds to the essays’ charms, as we see Voltaire as a champion of an open society, from religion to science to literature, in addition to an omnivorous intellectual. Few books pack so much into so little space.
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Reading Progress

January 27, 2014 – Shelved
January 27, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
June 15, 2016 – Shelved as: person-of-letters
September 29, 2017 – Shelved as: francophilia
Started Reading
May 2, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Fergus (new)

Fergus You're absolutely right, Roy - these essays are delightful! And as you say, so much more balanced than Rousseau's writing.


message 2: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Fergus wrote: "You're absolutely right, Roy - these essays are delightful! And as you say, so much more balanced than Rousseau's writing."

I'm glad you agree!


message 3: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel It's easy to view history as all alike, and all civilisations as equivalent; but when you see how people in history viewed their neighbours, you remember how existential their differences really were. In particular, intellectuals across Europe from the Enlightenment through to the First World War (and beyond, I guess) spoke of England as a beacon of liberty and morality to the rest of the world (or hated it for similar reasons, as Nietzsche did). It's not usually an unvarnished praise - there's often a sense of the English as dull, uncultured, and overly impressed by money - but it should remind us that, for all its faults, it really did represent to people a step forward in human society.

I suspect it's much the same way America, and the West more generally, is seen around the world today, in both its positive and negative aspects...

[that's a really great quote you start with, btw...]


message 4: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Wastrel wrote: "It's easy to view history as all alike, and all civilisations as equivalent; but when you see how people in history viewed their neighbours, you remember how existential their differences really we..."

Certainly compared to Voltaire's France, England was an oasis of liberty! Rousseau said so, too, although he ultimately quarrelled with his hosts (which included Hume), as he quarrelled with everybody, and then left.


message 5: by RK-ïsme (new) - added it

RK-ïsme Also interesting to compare Voltaire’s views with those of the American national myth of backward, intolerant, undemocratic England during the 18th century. Given the state of the World at large, England seemed pretty progressive to Voltaire. Perspective is everything.

Thanks for the review Roy. I have added the book to my ‘to-read’ list and shall go in search of it.


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