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Voltaire at the residence of Frederick II in Potsdam, Prussia. Partial view of an engraving by Pierre Charles Baquoy, after N. A. Monsiau. (Caption and photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Age of Enlightenment

Towering figures: Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau

Montesquieu (18 January 1689 – 10 February 1755), François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), who renamed himself Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) are the three figures who dominate the Age of Enlightenment in France, the 18th century. They were its most prominent philosophes (intellectuals).

There were other philosophes, such as the encyclopédistes, Denis Diderot (5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (16 November 1717 – 29 October 1783). Many are associated with la Querelle des bouffons (“Quarrel of the Comic Actors”), a paper war waged between 1752 and 1754 and opposing reason and sentiment. Others, I will not mention to avoid a truly lengthy post.

A Constitutional Monarchy

The philosophes, however, could not have envisaged the events of the French Revolution and, in particular, the death by guillotine of Louis XVI (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793),  Marie-Antoinette (2 November 1755 – 16 October 1793), and Louis-Philippe II, Duke of Orleans (13 April 1747 – 6 November 1793), also known as Philippe Égalité. A revolution and a regicide, they could not have predicted.

The constitutional government held as a model, was England’s Constitutional Monarchy. A constitution limits the power of a monarch. Given his advocacy of a constitution, Montesquieu opposed absolute monarchy, which was France’s government. However, the word monarchy could include the concept of a constitution, spoken inaudibly.

Moreover, a constitutional monarchy remained the model until the early months of the French Revolution (1789 -1789) and, in particular, the Tennis Court Oath. On that day, 20 June 1789, members of the Third Estate were locked out of Estates-General. They took refuge in an indoor tennis court and all, with the exception of one delegate vowed “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.” The delegate who abstained wanted to vote in the presence of his king, Louis XVI.


Drawing by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath. In 1792, David became a deputy in the National Convention (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Letters Concerning the English: Background

The Regency: 1715 – 1723

After the death, in 1715, of Louis XIV, France had heirs to the throne: the illegitimate children of Louis XIV’s mistresses whom Louis had legitimized. However, the royal family quarrelled and it was decided that the next king would not be a légitimé. He would be the grandson of Louis XIV, the future Louis XV (15 February 1710 – 10 May 1774), but he was only five when the Sun King passed away. A regent (the Regency) would therefore rule France until 1723. He was Louis-Philippe, duc d’Orléans, the son of Philippe I, duc d’Orléans, Louis the XIV’s brother, known as Monsieur.

Voltaire thrown into the Bastille

Voltaire was a bit of a rebel as an adolescent. For instance, he would not attend law school, his father’s wish. He wanted to be a man of letters. He produced a few obnoxious verses on the Regent’s “incestuous” love life. Such audacity had a major impact on the remainder of Voltaire’s life. He would keep fleeing. Voltaire was thrown into the Bastille prison, in Paris, where he spent 11 months, or 18 months. Sources differ. He was imprisoned without the benefit of a trial or the opportunity to defend himself.

Justice would become his cause. Upon his release, he was sent on a retreat. The Duke de Béthune invited him to the château de Sully.

Voltaire would not have suffered this gratuitous imprisonment had he lived in England where there was a constitution and a bill of habeas corpus. England had its Magna Carta, its great charter or liberties since the 13th century.

In 1718, Voltaire feared being sent to the Bastille once again, but the Regent sent him to Sully. So, the plea for justice expressed in Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) would be Voltaire’s plea. It nearly summarizes his life, and England would be a source of inspiration.

The Lettre de cachet

The lettre de cachet was an infamy. It made it possible to incarcerate a man without the benefit of a trial and the possibility of his defending himself. The letter was signed by the king, or by his regent, countersigned by an official, sealed (le cachet) and then delivered. It was arbitrary, which fully explains why Montesquieu insisted that “[a] man is innocent until a jury finds him guilty.”

As we have seen, Voltaire had spent 11 to 18 months (sources differ) in the Bastille because of verses that had offended the Regent. He had a narrow escape in 1718. The Regent spared him the Bastille by sending him to Sully, the duc de Béthune’s castle. However, in 1726, after insulting the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, Voltaire, who was at Sully, was beaten by men hired by the chevalier who had also obtained a lettre de cachet.

Voltaire was exiled to England where he spent the following two years (sources differ), from 1726 to 1728. During his stay in England, he learned English, mingled with fine minds, met the King of England, and drew information and inspiration for his Lettres philosophiques (The Letters on England).


The Letters on England

The Letters Concerning the English (a translation, not by Voltaire) were first published in London, in 1733. A year later, the letters were published in the original French (London, 1734), but a French version was also published in France. The Letters were censored immediately. Prudence dictated that the 25 letters be entitled Lettres philosophiques, rather than Lettres anglaises or Lettres sur les Anglais, and that, henceforth, they be published abroad. As I wrote above, Voltaire kept fleeing. The complete text of both the English translation and a French edition may be read online:

The letters may be read at Lettres philosophiques pdf FR
or as Letters on England pdf EN

An ‘Enriched’ Summary

The Letters on the English are difficult to summarize as they consist in 25 short articles, letters, on various subjects. The topics are listed under Wikipedia’s entry on the Letters on the English. I would therefore invite you to supplement the quotations I have inserted below this summary and the quotations inserted below.

In the first seven Letters on England, Voltaire discusses religions or sects: the Quakers (1–4), the Anglicans (5), the Presbyterians (6), and the Socinians (7). Socinians are nontrinitarians. Socinians are Deists, as was Voltaire who also became a Freemason the year of his death. Deists believe in a single creator of the universe and reject the knowledge of religious authorities. They favour tolerance. (See Deism, Wikipedia.)

On the Quakers (Letter I), Voltaire quotes a Quaker who says that Quakers are not baptised:

  • “Friends [Quakers]…  swear not; Christ indeed was baptised by John, but He himself never baptised anyone. We are the disciples of Christ, not of John.” Friends are not circumcised.
  • They have no communion. “Only that spiritual one,” replied he, “of hearts.”
  • “We never swear, not even in a court of justice, being of opinion that the most holy name of God ought not to be  prostituted in the miserable contests betwixt man and man.”
  • “Quakers have no priests (Letter II): “Why should we abandon our babe to mercenary nurses, when we ourselves have milk enough for it?”

On the Church of England (Letter V)

  • “England is properly the country of sectarists. Multæ sunt mansiones in domo patris mei (in my Father’s house are many mansions). An Englishman, as one to whom liberty is natural, may go to heaven his own way.”
  • In this letter, we read that: “With regard to the morals of the English clergy, they are more regular than those of France[.]”
  • The ceremonies of the Church of England are at times too “Romish.”

On the Presbyterians (Letter VI)

Voltaire speaks of another Cato, the first being Cato the Younger (95 – 46 BCE), a Stoic:

“The latter [Voltaire’s Cato] affects a serious gait, puts on a sour look, wears a vastly broad-brimmed hat and a long cloak over a very short coat, preaches through the nose, and gives the name of the whore of Babylon to all churches where the ministers are so fortunate as to enjoy an annual revenue of five or six thousand pounds, and where the people are weak enough to suffer this, and to give them the titles of my lord, your lordship, or your eminence.”

“These gentlemen, who have also some churches in England, introduced there the mode of grave and severe exhortations.”

Of Parliament (Letter VIII)

Voltaire uses ancient Rome as a point of reference.

  • “But here follows a more essential difference between Rome and England, which gives the advantage entirely to the latter—viz., that the civil wars of Rome ended in slavery, and those of the English in liberty. The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all-powerful to do good, and, at the same time, is restrained from committing evil; where the nobles are great without insolence, though there are no vassals; and where the people share in the Government without confusion.”

  • “The Romans never knew the dreadful folly of religious wars, an abomination reserved for devout preachers of patience and humility.”

  • “House of Lords and that of the Commons divide the legislative power under the king, but the Romans had no such balance.”

Of the Government (Letter IX) (taxes)

  • “Liberty in England sprang from the quarrels of tyrants. The barons forced King John and King Henry III to grant the famous Magna Charta, the chief design of which was indeed to make kings dependent on the Lords; but then the rest of the nation were a little favoured in it, in order that they might join on proper occasions with their pretended masters. This great Charter, which is considered as the sacred origin of the English liberties, shows in itself how little liberty was known.”
  • On the subject of taxes, Voltaire writes that: “When the Bill has passed the Lords and is signed by the king, then the whole nation pays, every man in proportion to his revenue or estate, not according to his title, which would be absurd.”
  • “No one is exempted in this country from paying certain taxes because he is a nobleman or a priest. All duties and taxes are settled by the House of Commons, whose power is greater than that of the Peers, though inferior to it in dignity.”

Letter X is on Trade

In the above letters on England, Voltaire praises:

  • England’s religious pluralism (tolerance);
  • its balance between the monarchy and the parliament, i.e. a constitutional monarchy; and
  • its Magna Carta, the charter of liberties that has long protected the English.

The Letters on England continued

Voltaire goes on to praise inoculation which the English have accepted and which prevents smallpox: death or disfigurement. He praises Lord Bacon (Letter XII) and Mr Locke (Letter XIII).

“Philosophers will never form a religious sect, the reason of which is, their writings are not calculated for the vulgar, and they themselves are free from enthusiasm.” (XIII)

Voltaire admired not only England’s scientists and intellectuals, but also Descartes.

“Descartes was injuriously accused of being an atheist, the last refuge of religious scandal: and he who had employed all the sagacity and penetration of his genius, in searching for new proofs of the existence of a God, was suspected to believe there was no such Being.” (Letter XIV)

“The progress of Sir Isaac Newton’s life was quite different. He lived happy, and very much honoured in his native country, to the age of fourscore and five years. It was his peculiar felicity, not only to be born in a country of liberty, but in an age when all scholastic impertinences were banished from the world. Reason alone was cultivated, and mankind could only be his pupil, not his enemy.” (Letter XIV)

Descartes gave sight to the blind.” (Letter XIV)

[I have left out a few letters, devoted to great minds.]

In England merit is rewarded:

“Merit, indeed, meets in England with rewards of another kind, which redound more to the honour of the nation.” (Letter XXIII)

[I have left out a few letters.]

In the following letter, Voltaire discusses the English Royal Society (XXIV) and other learned societies. He praises the French Academy.

Letter XXV is devoted to Pascal who insists that man is “miserable.” It has been omitted from the English edition I used, but can be read in French. Lettres philosophiques pdf FR

Let me now summarize the letters I omitted using Britannica:

“A stay in England (1726–28) led to the Lettres philosophiques (1734; Letters on England), which—taking England as a polemical model of philosophical freedom, experimental use of reason, enlightened patronage of arts and science, and respect for the new merchant classes and their contribution to the nation’s economic well-being—offered a program for a whole civilization, as well as sharp satire of a despotic, authoritarian, and outdated France.”[1]


In the Letters Concerning the English, Voltaire expresses his admiration for a country where tolerance allows religious pluralism.

“Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There 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. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word.” (Letter VI)

Religion is a crucial component of the Letters concerning the English, which led to censorship. Publication of his Lettres philosophiques forced him to go into hiding. He would otherwise have been imprisoned.

However, Voltaire admired French literature as well as many British authors. He is eclectic in his choice of authors and texts and shows a surprizing knowledge of both the literature of France and that of England. Would that merit be rewarded in France! Descartes was not given a pension. Fortunately, members of the Académie française were remunerated.


I have introduced the famous lettre de cachet as a biographical element. In Voltaire’s days, an individual could have another individual incarcerated by obtaining a lettre de cachet, signed by the king and sealed. Next, I would like to tell about Jean Calas. France had l’affaire Dreyfus, but it also had l’affaire Calas.

Candide, a novella and Voltaire’s jewel, will be introduced latter.

Sources and Resources: full texts

The letters may be read at Lettres philosophiques pdf FR
or as Letters on England pdf EN

This post published itself on its own on 2 March 2015.

Love to all of you.

[1] “French literature”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 03 mars. 2015

Robert Casadesus plays Jean-Philippe Rameau‘s Gavotte for piano


Voltaire seated
Voltaire seated

© Micheline Walker
3 March 2015