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Common Sense, Forward Thinking, Double-Edged Satire
on August 8, 2001
I'm starting to think that there is a certain clique of authors, to wit, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Swift, and Voltaire, who have developed a popular perception that tragically limits or constrains their legacy in the world of to-day. For Voltaire's part, when he is spoken of, it is generally in regard to "Candide," certainly a great work, but not the be-all or end-all of his particular genius. "Letters on England," a series of musings on his exile in England from 1726-1729, is a work which gives a much different perspective on Voltaire from the cynical, suspected atheist we've all come to know and love.
The primary focal points of the "Letters" are comparsions of England and France in the realms of religion, politics, and the arts and sciences. While Voltaire clearly criticizes the French institutions of his day, he does not intend us to look at England as the ideal society. In religious matters, Voltaire derides the monolith of French Catholicism, acknowledging the relative harmlessness of English sectarianism - saying "if there were only one relgion in England, there would be danger of despotism...but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness". Politically, Voltaire admires the progress England has made since the Magna Carta, even though it means limited enfranchisement, and division of legislative power. In the arts and sciences, Voltaire examines the ingenuity of philosophers like Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and the ability of authors like Shakespeare, Pope, Swift, Wycherley, and others, to make their reputations and livings largely independent of a feudal patronage system.
Throughout the "Letters," Voltaire privileges common sense, forward thinking, and right reasoning. As I understand it, the main purpose of satire is as a social corrective. Voltaire points out the flaws in both the French and English nations, not to be simply critical, but to encourage progress in thought, in science, and the institutions that govern civilized countries. Voltaire was no revolutionary, mind you, but it is obvious throughout the text that he cares deeply about France and its international relations. Voltaire looks so far ahead in his writing to anticipate our own current debates over health care (the availability of infant innoculation, and euthanasia), equal opportunity regardless of faith or race, and so on.
For such a brief work, Voltaire covers a lot of intellectual ground in "Letters on England". His style, enthusiasm, sense of wonder, and incisive commentary makes this a non-fiction counterpart to Montesquieu's fictional "Persian Letters". While Voltaire himself dislikes and distrusts translations, I've always thought that if you can read a translation, react strongly to the material, and get the basic points, then the translation must be counted as successful. Leonard Tancock's translation in this Penguin Classic edition must be counted by me, at least, as successful. My admiration of Voltaire has been enhanced, and I feel just a little bit more enlightened. "Letters on England" is an excellent work in any language.