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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.
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on March 11, 2005
Letters on England is enlightening on several levels and a very interesting description of the society politics and science of England in the mid 18th century from a French point of view. Voltaire being profoundly interested in all aspects of life and all types of knowledge provides an astounding account of sundry aspects of England from his patently Voltaire style. He makes the book interesting by including his take on some of the peculiarities of English life. Many of the letters are rather short and they need not be read in any particular sequence. The style is strait forward and they are relatively objective for Voltaire's work. I think these letters are indicative of Voltaire's style and provide a unique glimpse of many often overlooked aspects of English culture in the 18th century.

He is particularly interested in the Quakers and devotes several of his letters entirely to their customs and beliefs. Yes these letters are certainly interesting. For anyone studying religious toleration (or intolerance) in England these letters may be of certain value.

My favorite and possibly the most endearing letters is the one devoted to Francis Bacon. He alludes to the fact that Bacon was involved in an embezzlement scandal for which he was removed from office. Of course this is certainly true but he, as many others have, forgives him for this since he has provided so much for mankind. I feel that Voltaire saw much of the same in Bacon that he saw in himself. We must remember that Voltaire too was a fantastic speculator (investor) and many accused him of possibly crossing into the realm of less than legal activities.

Voltaire's Letters on England are wonderful to read and after breezing through this book you will probably wish, as I have, that there were more to read. That being said I will note that I believe that had anyone else written these letters (except for maybe Montaigne) they would be in some academic library but not published widely. We can thank Voltaire for achieving the fame he did because having such immediate access to these letters is great for students historians and curious readers alike.

-- Ted Murena
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on July 18, 2011
This is one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time. Voltaire's (mostly complimentary) commentary on the English spans religion, government, philosophy, and science. It's always interesting to read a great thinker's take on other great thinkers. Most of Voltaire's subjects will be familiar to modern readers (e.g. Quakers, John Locke, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Shakespeare...) which makes the book easily readable by a contemporary audience.

The humor is sharp and the observations are keen throughout. And it's free!

Note that this version leaves out a letter on Pascal that is included in some other collections.
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on March 16, 2014
Voltaire spent the years from 1726 to 1729 in exile in England. His striking observations about that country were published a few years later, but were banned in his home country of France. In these twenty-five letters, he holds up a mirror to France by praising English liberty, democracy, and tolerance.

Voltaire was an eighteenth-century deist but was enamored of England's religious tolerance vis-à-vis France, and discusses the Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and describes how religious freedom worked. He examines Blaise Pascal's Pensées, noting his areas of disagreement in many areas, including that of the nature of man.

Many of Voltaire's views are what we would describe today as libertarian, and he was a great admirer of English trade, commerce, and businessmen. The author also comments on John Locke, Isaac Newton, and figures from English literature and their styles. He even devotes a letter to smallpox inoculation.

"Letters on England" is a fascinating look at key aspects of English culture and life, and American readers will recognize some of the characteristics of England that later found even greater expression in this country. As it is true that in the area of liberty England is an outlier compared with the rest of Europe, America is an outlier compared to England (and Texas is an outlier compared to America).
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on February 22, 2013
Material receive in great condition. Very cost worthy and practical. Highly recommend future purchases for my continued education needs. Material will be added to reference.
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on November 22, 2012
Great writing, refreshingly intellectual, yet clear. Makes me think. An excellent break from the novels that make up the majority of my reading materials.
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on July 4, 2015
Voltaire was one of the most remarkable persons to have ever lived. This book is a microcosm of his beliefs, values, and a display of his cutting wit.
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on April 21, 2016
I find it fascinating to read an outsiders point of view on any culture no matter what the historical time period.
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on August 14, 2014
There are very few giants who have walked this earth that can fill the shoes of Voltaire.
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on February 4, 2016
Not as a lively as Candide, but still worth reading.
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