Of Voltaire’s London years and the Lettres sur les Anglais

Thanks to support from the AHRC for the publication of one of the iconic texts of the Enlightenment, Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, a.k.a. Lettres sur les Anglais (1733, published in English the same year under the title Letters concerning the English nation), the Voltaire Foundation launched both online and offline events this summer.

First page of the preface to the Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733), the first edition of Voltaire’s text to be published.

First page of the preface to the Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733), the first edition of Voltaire’s text to be published.

On 27 September Professor Nicholas Cronk gave a talk entitled ‘Voltaire in London: Cultural life in the 1720s’, hosted at the Handel House Museum in London. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in Mayfair from 1723 to 1759; Voltaire, for his part, was lodging at a rather less smart address in Soho in the latter part of the 1720s. We do not know if Handel and Voltaire ever met, but both men made significant contributions to the cosmopolitan cultural life of London in the 1720s.

Voltaire was in his early thirties and already a well-known poet when he came to London to launch a subscription to publish La Henriade, an epic poem glorifying King Henri IV of France, which touches upon the evils of religious fanaticism, among other topics. Originally, he had hoped to get permission to have it published in France with a dedication to the young Louis XV, but the subject matter of his poem was such that permission was not granted. Voltaire decided to go to London to have it published by Huguenot printers, free from censorship, and the book was dedicated to Queen Caroline.

Voltaire settled at the White Perruke on Maiden Lane in Soho, in a Huguenot area of the capital where French was widely spoken and which extended to Spitalfields. He stayed in London for two and a half years and taught himself English. He was a regular visitor at the Drury Lane theatre, where he discovered Shakespeare. He read Gulliver’s Travels in English and attended an early performance of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.

Voltaire read Addison’s Spectator, a publication whose tone and format was to prove a big influence on his own Lettres philosophiques. He met Pope, Gray and Swift, and was instrumental in popularizing Newton’s ideas in France. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1743.

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

Interestingly, an exhibition of waxworks organised on the Strand not long after Voltaire’s death featured an effigy of ‘that justly admired French genius’ who had been ‘in his lifetime an intimate friend to Pope, Congreve and Young’ – testament to the lasting impact of his stay in London many decades earlier.

Thanks to the AHRC grant, the Voltaire Foundation also commissioned Oxford DPhil student Cameron Quinn to write ‘Stories around the Lettres sur les Anglais’ for our website. This resource provides background information about the Lettres and their importance as a seminal text for the Enlightenment, and sheds light on the reasons that drove Voltaire to spend two years of his life in England; it also gives an overview of the political, as well as economic and cultural, situation in England during the years Voltaire lived here.

Thematic pages focus on several key topics that were important for society in general or to Voltaire in particular at the time the Lettres were written, and they also offer links to relevant websites. The themes covered are immensely varied in scope; they include, among others, religion, poetry, the Newtonian revolution, the English adoption of the practice of inoculation, and the question of the soul.

These webpages can be a resource for those without much prior knowledge of the wider historic or cultural contexts of the time, or of the issues at stake.

We hope our readers will enjoy this ‘rough guide’ to the Lettres sur les Anglais and the historical context in which they were written!

– Clare Fletcher

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Strange skies: Voltaire’s physics

Letter XIV of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques provides an insight into the early days of modern science, contrasting the theories of Descartes and Newton at a time in which Newtonian physics was new and controversial. The vitality of the debate as approached in this volume struck me, as a humanities student, more intensely than GCSE science lessons ever managed to; it made me realise that even the laws of gravity were a new discovery once.

VA39_Tourbillons

‘Figure des tourbillons de Descartes’, in Voltaire, La Henriade, divers autres poèmes etc. [Geneva, Cramer and Bardin], 1775, 37 vol., vol.26, facing p.355.

However, it was the way in which Descartes’ world was depicted that left a greater mark on me, through its apparent strangeness (although, had I heard about it in a physics classroom, no doubt it would seem as banal as gravity). In Voltaire’s portrayal, the emphasis is on movement, ‘tourbillons de matière subtile’,[1]  next to which our modern conception of gravity seems, if more accurate, somehow less dynamic. This theoretical universe is a crowded one, where light ‘existe dans l’air’ and the dominant forces are pushing ones; Newton’s is an elegant void, where movement is due to attraction.

After studying the letter, I wrote the poem below, inspired both by the painterly quality of Voltaire’s images, and the way in which reading it had offered me a new perspective on the way human knowledge changes. Letter XIV typifies a time very different from our era of specialization, where science and the humanities are carefully cordoned off from one another. Voltaire was spreading something that was, at that time, revolutionary, and it seems unlikely nowadays that a literary figure could be so fully involved with the cutting edge of science. I wanted to capture this sense of change, and the related fact that, while these competing explanations for the universe once ranked side by side, one has now been relegated to the status of image, while the other has become (relatively) unquestioned scientific fact.

Descartes thought the sky was made of spirals,
spangled whirlwind scrawls, a tide of starlight,
oily brushstrokes crowding in the midnight,
currents sweeping past the moon. His rival,
a Mr Newton, won; the Lumières jeered,
and though the sciences were an art those days,
the pictures Descartes saw were just a phase,
an early Van Gogh in the wrong career.

StarryNight_VanGogh

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889.

– Rowan Lyster

(Poem first published in the ISIS magazine, Oxford)

[1] All quotes are from Letter XIV, Lettres philosophiques.

#NousSommesArouet?

A constantly recurring theme throughout Voltaire’s œuvre is the intolerance exhibited by established religions and the barbarity that all too often follows on from that.

Throughout his life he was haunted by the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French Protestants at the hands of Catholics. He described it in his epic poem La Henriade (1723), later complaining to Frederic the Great: ‘Croiriez-vous bien qu’on m’a reproché plus d’une fois d’avoir peint avec des couleurs trop odieuses la St Barthelemy?’ (letter of c.15 January 1737). He maintained that he always suffered illness on the anniversary of the atrocity.

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The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, by François Dubois (c.1576).

During his exile in London (1726-1728) he drafted essays about England which he published first in English as the Letters concerning the English nation in 1733, then in French in 1734, and many later editions, in the version we now know as Lettres philosophiques. This work opens with chapters on the religions of England, in which he praises the tolerance of some, such as the Quakers, and criticises others for their intolerance.

Arouet2

While Voltaire repeatedly condemns the godly massacres by the Jews described in the Old Testament, and Islam’s violent conquests (see Diego Venturino, ‘Imposteur ou législateur? Le Mahomet des Lumières’, in Religions en transition dans la seconde moitié du dix-huitième siècle, SVEC 2000:02), his main target always remains Christian intolerance.

The adoption of the battle-cry ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’, first used in a letter to D’Alembert in October 1760, and referring to the crimes of the Church, indicates that his concern was not merely historical or literary. On three occasions he waged campaigns against the intolerance and violent injustice committed in the name of religion in France in the cases of Jean Calas (1762) and the Sirven family (1764), falsely charged with the murder of a family member to prevent their conversion to Catholicism, and the chevalier de La Barre (1766), a young nobleman wrongly accused of blasphemy and brutally executed. The first of these provoked Voltaire’s wide-ranging study of intolerance, the Traité sur la tolérance (OCV, vol.56c). Of La Barre he wrote, in the Dictionnaire philosophique article ‘Torture’: ‘Lorsque le chevalier de La Barre, petit-fils d’un lieutenant général des armées, jeune homme de beaucoup d’esprit et d’une grande espérance, mais ayant toute l’étourderie d’une jeunesse effrénée, fut convaincu d’avoir chanté des chansons impies, et même d’avoir passé devant une procession de capucins sans avoir ôté son chapeau, les juges d’Abbeville, gens comparables aux sénateurs romains, ordonnèrent non seulement qu’on lui arrachât la langue, qu’on lui coupât la main et qu’on brûlât son corps à petit feu; mais ils l’appliquèrent encore à la torture pour savoir précisément combien de chansons il avait chanté, et combien de processions il avait vues passer, le chapeau sur la tête.’

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Voltaire promettant son appui a la famille Calas, by C. de Last (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Major works that deal with the theme of Christian intolerance and persecution include: the Dictionnaire philosophique (OCV, vol.35-36), La Philosophie de l’histoire (OCV, vol.59), Des conspirations contre les peuples (OCV, vol.61b), L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke (OCV, vol.62), Dieu et les hommes (OCV, vol.69), and De la paix perpétuelle (OCV, vol.70, forthcoming). In the last years of his life Voltaire gathered all his arguments against dogmatic religion in three closely related works: La Bible enfin expliquée (OCV, vol.79a), a passage-by-passage dissection of the basis of Christianity; Un chrétien contre six Juifs and Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme (both OCV, vol.79b, newly published by the Voltaire Foundation). The three together, benefitting from a lifetime’s consideration of the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, form a compelling summation of his argument for toleration and justice.

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The interrogation of the chevalier de La Barre as depicted on the monument to him in Abbeville (1907).

Of De la paix perpétuelle the Mémoires secrets of 17 September 1769 wrote: ‘Ce projet […] traité politiquement par l’abbé de Saint-Pierre et par M. Rousseau de Genève, ne sert ici que de cadre au développement du système de tolérance que ne cesse de prêcher depuis si longtemps le fameux philosophe de Ferney. Il voudrait qu’on détruisît tous les dogmes, sources intarissables de troubles et de divisions; il trace en conséquence un tableau des horreurs du fanatisme, et ce sujet remanié cent fois par le même auteur, reprend sous son pinceau encore plus de chaleur et d’énergie: le fiel qu’il broie avec ses couleurs, donne à sa touche tout le terrible des peintures de Michel Ange. M. de Voltaire est toujours sublime quand il parle d’après son cœur.’

Voltaire himself, in the article ‘Fanatisme’ of the Dictionnaire philosophique, asked a question that has acquired a chilling relevance from the recent events in France: ‘Que répondre à un homme qui vous dit qu’il aime mieux obéir à Dieu qu’aux hommes, et qui, en conséquence, est sûr de mériter le ciel en vous égorgeant?’

The answer to this that he gives at the end of the Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme not only has relevance to the supposed ‘right to offend’ so frequently claimed in these days, but questions in its turn all sides in such conflicts:

‘Je me donnerai bien de garde de m’élever avec colère contre les malheureux qui ont perverti ainsi leur raison; je me bornerai à les plaindre, en cas que leur folie n’aille pas jusqu’à la persécution et au meurtre; car alors ils ne seraient que des voleurs de grand chemin. Quiconque n’est coupable que de se tromper mérite compassion; quiconque persécute mérite d’être traité comme une bête féroce.

Pardonnons aux hommes, et qu’on nous pardonne. Je finis par ce souhait unique que Dieu veuille exaucer!’

– M.S.