Rethinking Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais: in the footsteps of Gustave Lanson

With the publication of volume 6B, containing the full annotated text of the Lettres philosophiques, we have just moved one step closer to celebrating the completion of the Complete works of Voltaire in 2021. We are familiar with the challenge of trying to make sense of a text that has hitherto been little studied – the recently completed edition of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV is a case in point. A challenge of a different sort is presented by the small number of texts that are well known and much edited: in these cases, is there anything left to say? That problem is especially stark in the case of the Lettres philosophiques, where one epoch-making critical edition, that of Gustave Lanson, casts a long shadow over those of us following in his footsteps.

Gustave Lanson

Gustave Lanson at work at the Sorbonne. (Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne; photographer unknown)

Lanson was a devoted lycée teacher much involved in the reform of the school syllabus before he became professor at the Sorbonne in 1904. He didn’t just edit the Lettres philosophiques, he pretty much invented the work for the twentieth century and beyond. The title was scarcely known in the nineteenth century, and the Lanson edition of 1909 (re)created it very deliberately to turn it into a teaching text.

In the years before the First World War, when Lanson was lecturing on Voltaire at the Sorbonne, the French faculty in Oxford was still in its infancy – its only significant contribution to Enlightenment studies was from Miss Eleanor Jourdain, vice-principal of St Hugh’s, who published an account of meeting the ghost of Marie-Antoinette at the Petit Trianon… but that story must wait for another blog. Voltaire first came onto the Oxford French syllabus in 1923, when the Siècle de Louis XIV was set for the Pass School (how many students read that work now?). Then, as part of a comprehensive revision of the syllabus in 1927, it was resolved, rather boldly, that the nineteenth century should begin in 1715, and so Voltaire became a prescribed author on the Finals syllabus (where he has remained ever since): the two works chosen for ‘special study’ were Candide (in the 1913 edition of André Morize, a pupil of Lanson) and the Lettres philosophiques (in Lanson’s own edition, of course). During World War II the teaching of Voltaire carried on unchanged and, given the impossibility of importing books from France, the Oxford publisher Basil Blackwell commissioned student editions of Candide and the Lettres philosophiques. The editors had to work quickly, and Owen Taylor’s edition of Candide came out in 1942, followed the year after by the Lettres philosophiques, edited by Frank Taylor, a tutor at Christ Church. This excellent edition remains in print and was still the prescribed edition in Oxford when I studied Voltaire as an undergraduate in the 1970s. I remember my surprise when I discovered at Thornton’s in Broad Street a copy of the original 1943 printing, produced on poor-quality paper with the ‘Book production war economy standard’ logo at the front. I didn’t know it at the time, but my introduction to Voltaire by way of the Lettres philosophiques was entirely due to Gustave Lanson.

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson (1909).

Lanson taught literature at the Sorbonne at a time when ‘French literature’ was considered inferior to ‘History’ as a university subject. He devoted much of his career to defending the seriousness of literary study, hence the pressing need to produce a ‘scientific’ edition of a literary work that would prove the credentials of this emerging subject. So, the importance of Lanson’s Lettres philosophiques was not just that it was the first proper critical edition of any Voltaire work; it was intended to be the model for all future literary scholarship, no less. As he writes in his edition of the Lettres:

‘Il m’a paru utile de donner une édition critique des Lettres philosophiques, une édition qui fût non seulement la première édition critique de cet ouvrage, mais la première aussi, à ce que je crois, d’un écrit de Voltaire, et qui inaugurât une série de travaux qu’il serait vraiment temps de commencer.’

These circumstances help to explain both the strengths and some of the oddities of Lanson’s pioneering work. The bibliographical descriptions, for example, are needlessly complicated and confusing, with their stemmas of different textual traditions that Lanson seems to have borrowed from medievalist colleagues such as Joseph Bédier. This aspect of his editorial work has not been emulated, and we hope that the bibliographical section in our new edition will be simpler and clearer to follow.

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lanson’s stemma from the second edition. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The annotation is a remarkable feature of Lanson’s edition. He explains that he does not aim to produce a historical commentary on the work, still less to say whether Voltaire’s judgements are well founded; nor does he wish to put Voltaire’s text in the context of earlier travel accounts to England (something that F. A. Taylor does in his edition). Instead, his goal is to identify and explain as precisely as possible the sources of Voltaire’s text:

‘Mon but a été d’aider à comprendre comment Voltaire a fait son livre, comment et sur quels matériaux son esprit a travaillé. J’ai voulu présenter un commentaire de “sources”, rien de plus. L’idéal eût été d’arriver à découvrir pour chaque phrase le fait, le texte ou le propos qui avait mis en branle l’intelligence ou l’imagination de Voltaire: on se fût ainsi rendu compte du travail intérieur qui les a utilisés, fécondés, déformés, transformés. Je n’ai pas besoin de dire que je n’ai pas atteint cet idéal.’

This ‘ideal’ of attempting to pin down the sources of every single phrase in the book strikes us now as somewhat surreal, and of course Lanson has been much mocked by later generations for his unrelenting positivism. Where Lanson produced his commentary in the form of long endnotes, our style of annotation is not only different in approach, it is also more concise. That said, we remain enormously indebted to Lanson’s work, which in important respects remains unsurpassed.

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition.

A particular challenge posed by this text lies in the choice of base text and the presentation of (so-called) variants. The problem begins with the fact that there is not really one first edition. The work was initially published by William Bowyer in London, in English, as the Letters concerning the English nation (1733). Early in 1734 Bowyer produced in London the first French edition, the Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais (with the false imprint ‘A Basle’); and then later that year, another enlarged French edition was published, without privilège, by Jore in Rouen. For Lanson, there was no problem: the English edition could be dismissed as a mere translation; and the first French edition had the double disadvantage of being foreign and of being less complete (it lacked the 25th letter on Pascal). It seemed obvious to him that the ‘real’ version of the text was the one published in France, the one that had caused the scandal that nearly landed Voltaire in jail. And so this multi-faceted work became reduced to the Lettres philosophiques, and the other two early versions, though noted, were eclipsed. There have been many editions of this work since 1909, and all editors have followed Lanson in their basic decision to choose the Jore printing over the other two.

Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais, first edition in French

Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais, first edition in French.

It was an American scholar, Harcourt Brown, who first confused this picture by arguing intriguingly in an article of 1967 that Voltaire had composed about half of the text in English, and that the Letters concerning the English nation were in fact part English original and part translation. His arguments were taken further by André-Michel Rousseau, who in 1964 had updated Lanson’s edition of the Lettres philosophiques, and who wrote a remarkable doctorat d’état on L’Angleterre et Voltaire. A.-M. Rousseau was originally invited to edit this work for the Complete works of Voltaire, and in a lecture given at the Taylor Institution in Oxford in 1978, celebrating the bicentenary of Voltaire’s death, he laid out his plan for an edition that would break radically with the Lanson tradition: he argued forcefully that the Jore French text was in many respects inferior to the Bowyer French version printed in London and, crucially, that it was this London version that lived on in later editions. He proposed therefore to side-line the Jore edition, and present the two London editions as a bilingual edition, with the English and French on facing pages:

‘Au lecteur du vingtième siècle, on doit la vérité: une édition bilingue. A main gauche, comme sur un clavier, l’anglais de Voltaire; à main droite, le français de Voltaire, non le texte imprimé par Jore, déjà légèrement, mais nettement marqué par la sénescence, mais la rédaction verte, drue, candide, de l’édition de Londres. En somme, les vraies “Lettres anglaises” – et parfois “philosophiques” – en un seul concert visuel.’

This was fighting talk – how I wish we had a podcast of that lecture, and how I wish Rousseau had gone on to produce his edition as planned. When I prepared the first modern edition of the Letters concerning the English nation, I still went along with the Harcourt Brown thesis that Voltaire had begun to write this book in English. But I soon began to have doubts, which I discussed over the years with a good friend, the late Pat Lee: in due course, we each found evidence disproving Harcourt Brown’s central argument, and there is now a scholarly consensus that Voltaire wrote this book in French, and that the English version is in its entirety a translation by John Lockman.

But that does not mean that Lanson was right to dismiss the English version out of hand. They may be a translation, but the Letters concerning the English nation are still, strictly speaking, the first edition of our work. More than that, there is clear evidence that from the start Voltaire intended his Lettres to appear in both French and English (even if he didn’t originally intend the English version to come out first). Lanson’s stirring declaration that the Lettres philosophiques were ‘the first bomb thrown at the Ancien Régime’ (the quote that launched a thousand essay questions…) makes sense in the context of the Third Republic, but is simply not sustainable when we examine the work’s complex international publishing history. Voltaire was clearly writing not just for a French readership, but also for English and European readers more widely. So, in the new Oxford edition, we will include the English version as a text possessing its intrinsic interest as part of the overall European reception of this work.

Where does that leave us with regard to the choice of copy text? Should we stay with Lanson in choosing the Jore edition, the Lettres philosophiques? Or should we follow A.-M. Rousseau’s preference for the Bowyer text, the Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais? Rousseau was not wrong to say that the Bowyer printing is technically of higher quality than the Jore edition – the Rouen printer was producing a clandestine edition, and no doubt had to work fast. It is also true that because subsequent reworkings of the text mostly took the Bowyer edition as their starting point, the recording of variants to that edition is in practical terms simpler than recording variants to the Jore edition. Only the Jore edition, however, has the 25th letter, the Anti-Pascal, which was a key part of the book’s polemical impact; and Lanson is right to say that this edition provoked the censorship storm that overwhelmed Voltaire in 1734. Our decision was finely balanced but, in the end, we decided to keep Jore as the base text, not least so as to give the Anti-Pascal its proper prominence.

We resolved, however, to present the variants in a different way from Lanson. The variants in his edition are scrupulously recorded, of course, yet they are frankly hard to interpret, and we need to ask why that is. The censorship of the Lettres philosophiques was savage, and given that Voltaire was legally obliged to abandon the title, he worked to recast the work in a disguised form, under a different name. While individual ‘letters’ largely survive, redesignated as ‘chapters’ from 1739, they are in places substantially rewritten and transformed, and entirely new chapters are added. In other words, we are not dealing here with ‘one’ book and its textual ‘variants’, but rather with a shifting text that continued to evolve throughout Voltaire’s lifetime – so much so, indeed, that Voltaire really questions our received notion of a ‘fixed’ or ‘closed’ text. The challenge for the editor of a print edition is to find a way of taming this shifting entity within the two dimensions of the printed page. So, in our new edition, while we have retained the Lettres philosophiques as base text, we have given full prominence to the other French version, the Lettres écrites de Londres, by including its distinctive paratexts and index in a separate section, and we have created a third section, ‘Mélanges (1739-1775)’, which seeks to track and explain as clearly as we can the various permutations (not variants!) of the letters as they evolve over four decades.

This leaves the dilemma of the title. Our decision to name the overall edition the Lettres sur les Anglais certainly breaks with recent tradition, although the more familiar Lettres philosophiques has only been standard since Lanson imposed it in 1909. Before that, the work was habitually referred to as the Lettres anglaises or Lettres sur les Anglais, titles that Voltaire himself used in his letters. Writing after Voltaire’s death, both Condorcet and Frederick II refer to the Lettres sur les Anglais, and we have followed their example. The great advantage of this title is that it can designate collectively a whole cluster of related printed texts (and the associated manuscript Lettre sur M. Locke). In choosing this title, we wanted to emphasise the fundamentally fluid nature of the Lettres and not to single out any one expression in print.

For all Lanson’s supposedly ‘scientific’ critical approach, his edition of the Lettres philosophiques is a highly politicised work. The Entente cordiale of 1904 was an ambitious diplomatic attempt to strengthen the links between England and France at a moment when war with Germany seemed imminent. For this first exemplary scholarly edition, Lanson’s choice of a work in 1909 that celebrated European Enlightenment and the cultural connections between France and England was hardly fortuitous. And what of the new Oxford edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais, which emphasises Voltaire’s European readership, and that we have been working on in lockdown in 2020 while the UK was discussing severing its ties with the European Union? Whether its editors realise it or not, no critical edition is ever neutral.

Nicholas Cronk

Lettres sur les Anglais (II) was published in December 2020, an edition by Nicholas Cronk, Nick Treuherz, Nicolas Fréry and Ruggero Sciuto.


Lettres philosophiques 4D – coming soon to libraries near you!

Letters concerning the English nation

Title page of 1733 edition. (Taylor Institution, Arch.8o.E.1733)

Lettres philosophiques! Lettres philosophiques!’, I hear you cry. And I bring you glad tidings: the time has almost come and your thirst will soon be quenched; volume 6B of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire will be released in a matter of months.

The cherry on the cake of our 200-volume edition, vol.6B has been a somewhat tough row to hoe, and for good reason. One of Voltaire’s most iconic texts, the Lettres philosophiques also had a terribly complicated publication history: originally appearing in English in 1733, they were only published in French the following year, simultaneously in London and Rouen. No sooner had they been released than the letter about Locke and the nature of the soul, significantly reworked by the author himself, began to circulate clandestinely (ask Antony McKenna and Gianluca Mori, whose great edition of the ‘Lettre sur M. Locke’ only appeared a few months ago!). Met with more than a bit of resistance by the French authorities, the Lettres soon stopped being printed under their original title, and were merged into the Mélanges de littérature, d’histoire et de philosophie first, and, after Voltaire’s death, into the big potpourri that is the Kehl Dictionnaire philosophique.

Lettres philosophiques

Title page of 1734 Jore edition. (British Library, 8465.aa.3.(1.) DRT)

As they moved from one edition to another, from one miscellany to the next, the individual ‘letters’ underwent several changes. And we are not talking about occasional, minor corrections; we are talking about entire ‘letters’ being suppressed, combined with others, or replaced by brand new content. An example? The Jore edition of 1734, the one that we still read today, contained no fewer than four chapters on Newton; by 1756, however, ‘Sur le système de l’attraction’ and ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton’ were entirely suppressed, and the first half of letter 17 (‘Sur l’infini et la chronologie’) met with the same, tragic destiny. In their place stood ‘De Newton’, a much shorter text in which gravitation and optics were mostly passed over in silence, pre-eminence being rather given to some not particularly laudatory anecdotes: the great Newton – Voltaire writes, possibly gesturing to his own niece, Marie-Louise Denis, who, at the time, also happened to be his lover – would have never risen to fame had it not been for ‘[sa] jolie nièce’ [Catherine Barton]. After all, in 1756 the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton also underwent major cuts, and all elements conspire to suggest that, by the mid-50s, Voltaire’s infatuation with the British mathematician had significantly lost momentum.

Gaining a better understanding of how the Lettres philosophiques may have changed over the forty-odd years between their publication and Voltaire’s death – looking at them in four dimensions, if you like – may cast much-needed light also on the history of other texts. Take, for instance, the Traité sur la tolerance. The impression that one gets from reading the letters that Voltaire sent and received between 1762 and 1763 is that this work was written almost impromptu in the months immediately following the execution of Jean Calas. But is that really the case? To a certain extent, yes. But it is also true that an early version of what would later become chapters 7, 8, 12, and 13 of the Traité could already be found in a rewriting of Letter 13, dating from about 1750: ‘Que les philosophes ne peuvent jamais nuire’. After all, as shown by Gianluigi Goggi, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, and Olivier Ferret in a wonderful collection of essays published in 2007, Voltaire was an undisputed master of réécriture.[1]

Simple variant readings printed at the bottom of a page of a critical edition are usually sufficient to give the reader a sense of how a text evolved over time. But with the Lettres philosophiques we soon realised that things had to be scaled up a little. Alongside the canonical 25 letters, each with its own variants, vol.6B will therefore contain twenty substantial rewritings as texts in their own right, all furnished with footnotes and (guess what?!) variants! Any overlaps and repetitions between ‘letters’ and variants, or even between variants and substantial rewritings, will be highlighted in grey, and footnotes will guide readers and help them to navigate these somewhat intimidating waters. But might there be other, even better ways of editing a text with such a complex history? Well, that’s one of the questions that we are addressing, as we begin to work on Digital Voltaire.

– Ruggero Sciuto

[1] Copier/coller: écriture et réécriture chez Voltaire. Actes du colloque international (Pise, 30 juin – 2 juillet 2005) (Pisa, 2007).

Artifex quidam nomine Newton

Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium

Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium, t.1, page de titre. (Google Books)

Dans la première réédition des Lettres philosophiques parue en 1739, Voltaire a remplacé la dernière phrase de la XVIe Lettre ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton’ par les lignes suivantes: ‘Il était encore peu connu en Europe quand il fit cette découverte. J’ai vu un petit livre composé environ ce temps-là dans lequel, en parlant du télescope de Newton, on le prend pour un lunetier: Artifex quidam Anglus nomine Newton. La renommée l’a bien vengé depuis.’[1]

Gustave Lanson avait cherché en vain la source du syntagme latin que Voltaire répétera à chaque nouvelle édition jusqu’en 1756. Nous savons désormais qu’il l’a déniché dans l’ouvrage très technique d’un savant prémontré (et non jésuite, comme il l’écrira en 1756[2]), le bavarois Johann Zahn (1641-1707), publié à Würzburg en trois tomes en 1685-1686 sous le titre Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium. Dans cette nouvelle fin de la XVIe Lettre, Voltaire observe avec étonnement que la renommée de Newton, déjà bien établie en Angleterre grâce à son télescope et ses recherches sur la lumière publiées en 1672 et 1675, était encore inexistante sur le continent au moment où Zahn publia son ‘petit livre’ – un in-quarto de 181 pages tout de même. Alors que Voltaire a consacré, dans la première version de 1734, pas moins de trois lettres aux grandes découvertes de Newton, mentionnant comme en passant son invention du télescope à réflexion, cette invention acquiert de plus en plus d’importance dans les versions ultérieures grâce à l’immortelle formule du prémontré bavarois: Anglus quidam artifex Newtonus (Oculus artificialis, t.3, p.151).

Newtonian telescope

Réplique du télescope que Newton présenta à la Royal Society en 1672. (Wikimedia Commons, © Andrew Dunn)

De 1739 à 1756, ce syntagme latin revient avec insistance, mais la signification symbolique dont il est chargé change selon le contexte. En 1739, Voltaire peut se flatter d’avoir contribué à la renommée dont Newton commence à jouir sur le continent, mais un patriotisme étroit et borné continue de rejeter les découvertes du savant anglais pour des raisons mesquines de fierté nationale. Attaqué par le cartésien Banières d’être mauvais Français, Voltaire répond dans l’édition de 1742 que la renommée du ‘lunetier’ n’est plus à faire.

En 1751, Newton a définitivement gagné la partie mais l’affrontement entre les philosophes et leurs adversaires a commencé. Ceux-ci sont loin de confondre Newton avec un lunetier, mais lui intentent un procès en athéisme. Au moment où paraît le Discours préliminaire de D’Alembert, il ne s’agit plus de défendre Descartes contre Newton ni la France contre l’Angleterre, mais la nouvelle philosophie, dont les hérauts s’appellent Newton, Locke, Clarke et Leibniz.

En 1756, Voltaire modifie les lettres sur Newton une dernière fois, et de façon radicale: toute la partie scientifique est supprimée. Face au triomphe de Newton en France, il estime probablement que ses explications ne font plus le poids. Qui plus est, Voltaire a commencé à prendre ses distances avec la ‘métaphysique’ de Newton, attitude qui s’accentuera dans les années qui vont suivre.[3] Dans un court morceau intitulé sobrement ‘De Newton’, les trois découvertes du savant anglais sont ramassées dans un court paragraphe, puis Voltaire passe à l’invention du télescope à réflexion, à laquelle il accorde deux fois plus de place qu’au calcul infinitésimal, à l’attraction et à la lumière.

Ce qui reste, c’est l’ouvrier Newton, le faiseur de lunettes, artifex quidam. Voltaire avait le don de repérer et d’exploiter le détail qui fait mouche: après la pomme et le prisme, l’artifex quidam du prémontré bavarois Zahn s’est taillé une place de choix dans l’imaginaire scientifique voltairien.[4]

– Gerhardt Stenger

[1] Lettres philosophiques, suivies des Derniers écrits sur Dieu, éd. Gerhardt Stenger (Paris, 2006), p.170, var. b.

[2] Ibid., p.293.

[3] Voir l’introduction à notre édition des Lettres philosophiques, p.50-57.

[4] Voir notre article ‘Artifex quidam nomine Newton: à propos de la XVIe Lettre philosophique de Voltaire’ à paraître dans la Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France en novembre 2020.


Voltaire’s Letters on the English and the story of smallpox

‘It is inadvertently affirmed in the Christian countries of Europe, that the English are fools and madmen. Fools, because they give their children the small-pox to prevent their catching it; and madmen, because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadful distemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil.’

Letters concerning the English nation

Title page of Letters concerning the English nation, London, 1733.

Here is Voltaire explaining inoculation to the French, quoted here in the translation Letters concerning the English nation, first printed in London in 1733 (published in French as the Lettres philosophiques). Voltaire lived in London between 1726 and 1728, and it is then that he learned at first hand about the English practice of inoculation. He decided, perhaps surprisingly, to include a letter on the subject in his Letters on the English, a work begun in London and published a few years later when he was back in France.

Letter 11, ‘On Inoculation’, is on the surface a description of how the English have embraced a modern medical technique then regarded with huge suspicion in France. But at its heart, this is a morality tale about the tension between empirical evidence and superstition, and that makes the letter seem a whole lot more topical. In her recent blog post, Leadership matters in the first days and weeks of an outbreak: lessons from the Great Plague of Marseille, 300 years later, Cindy Ermus wrote graphically about the outbreak of plague in Marseille in 1720, drawing uncomfortable parallels between the management of the crisis then and now. Voltaire’s letter on inoculation similarly acquires unexpected resonance in the context of the present crisis.

Le célèbre docteur Ane voulant introduire la mode de l'inoculation

Le célèbre docteur Ane voulant introduire la mode de l’inoculation, à Paris (c. 1784-1785). (BnF/Gallica)

The practice that Voltaire is describing is now strictly called variolation, and involves inoculating with the smallpox virus; inoculation with cowpox, that is vaccination, was a safer method introduced by Edward Jenner and others from the 1760s. Variolation was practiced widely in China, from where it spread to the Ottoman Empire and then to Europe. The first European country to take up variolation was England, where the practice became common from the 1720s, precisely the time when Voltaire was living in London.

Voltaire would have seen at first hand that even in England, inoculation was still mistrusted, and he uses what we would now call evidence-based argument to show the brute statistics of death. Modern journalists are currently talking a lot about the economic damage caused by the present pandemic, and the challenge of weighing human life against the health of the economy. Voltaire is in his time perhaps unusual in understanding that there is a link between a health crisis and a country’s commercial interests: ‘A trading nation is always watchful over its own interests, and grasps at every discovery that may be of advantage to its commerce.’

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress, by Jean-Etienne Liotard

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress, by Jean-Etienne Liotard (c.1756).

The most human note in Voltaire’s letter on inoculation is when he talks of the courage of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘a woman of as fine a genius, and endued with as great a strength of mind, as any of her sex in the British kingdoms’, who learned of inoculation in Constantinople (where her husband was British ambassador), and introduced the practice in England, with the active support of the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Anspach – ‘this Princess’, writes Voltaire, ‘born to encourage the whole circle of arts, and to do good to mankind’. The Letters on the English present a world of politics, science and literature that is predictably male-centred, and the letter on inoculation is a refreshing exception in presenting two remarkable female protagonists. And there have been journalists recently suggesting that many of the countries having most success in the fight against Covid-19 are those led by women…

Voltaire mentions in his letter the particularly severe epidemic that had swept Paris just a few years before he came to England: ‘Twenty thousand persons whom the small-pox swept away at Paris in 1723, would have been alive at this time’, he writes – no exaggeration, since modern historians put the figure at closer to 40,000 deaths. But what Voltaire does not say is that he experienced this epidemic at first hand. His close friend Génonville died of smallpox in September 1723, and in late October he went to stay with the président de Maisons at his house outside Paris, known nowadays as the château de Maisons-Laffitte (a beautiful baroque house designed by Mansart). From there he wrote to his friend the marquise de Bernières saying that ‘Paris is ravaged by this illness’ (30 October 1723), and listing their common friends who had died. Then Voltaire himself was diagnosed with smallpox, and he became dangerously ill, too ill to be moved. His friends feared for his life, a doctor was summoned from Paris (who apparently bled him copiously), and several weeks passed before he was out of danger. Finally, Voltaire was fit enough to leave the château de Maisons, and just as he left, a huge fire broke out, destroying a large part of the house: Voltaire’s visit to Maisons was not one his hosts quickly forgot.

Château de Maisons-Laffitte, by Jacques Rigaud

Château de Maisons-Laffitte, by Jacques Rigaud (1681-1754).

No sooner was Voltaire back in Paris than he got down to work. On the principle that you should never waste a good crisis, he wrote a poem addressed to Gervasi, the doctor who had, as he thought, saved him, and another poem to Mlle Lecouvreur, the great actress who had been present at Maisons when he was taken ill. He also wrote a letter to the baron de Breteuil (c. 5 December 1723), describing in fulsome detail the course of his illness; and then another anonymous letter appeared (c. 10 December 1723), apparently written to Voltaire by a fervent admirer, lauding the heroism of the poet, ‘truly the only poet’ in France, for having worked even during his illness. Voltaire could not have written a more glowing eulogy himself, and in fact that does seem to be what he did – forge a fan letter. These four pieces have long been known, but separately, and it was only when they were edited in the Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire (volume 3A, 2004, p.256-76) that we were able to understand for the first time that this amalgam of two prose letters and two poems was constructed deliberately as one single literary work, an epistle in prose and verse that Voltaire published in the Mercure de France in December 1723. The young ambitious poet had been out of the limelight for too long, and he was anxious to remind the literary world of the capital that he was back in Paris and in business – and his recovery from smallpox was a good story to tell.

What is interesting, to return to the Letters on the English, is that Voltaire does not tell that story here. This is a book written directly out of his experience of English life, but Voltaire never, ever, tells us everything. The Complete Works of Voltaire were begun in 1968, and the Voltaire Foundation plans to celebrate the completion of the 203 volumes at the end of 2020. When we chose the Letters on the English as the last major text to appear in the collection, we could not have known it would have this contemporary resonance. But Voltaire’s Enlightenment voice continues to resonate, powerfully, and often in ways we don’t expect.

– Nicholas Cronk

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 ‘Lettres sur les Anglais: getting your bearings’ 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

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.


‘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.


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.

Voltaire: historian of modernity

Voltaire’s historical writings form a significant part of his output, including works on Louis XIV, Louis XV, Charles XII, Peter the Great, the Holy Roman Empire, and even a pioneering universal history. These histories were highly regarded in his lifetime, and Voltaire was a powerful influence on the other great historians of the age, Hume, Gibbon and Robertson.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by Alix.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by P. M. Alix. Voltaire’s achievements are listed as ‘Philosophie, Tragédie, Histoire, Poème, La Henriade, Comédies, Temple du goût, La Pucelle, Contes, Œuvres divers’. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite this, writers now are uncomfortable in trying to explain the importance of Voltaire as a historian. Karen O’Brien, for example, remarks that ‘Voltaire’s histories have not recovered today from the low reputation to which they sank after the French Revolution’. [1] We typically criticise Voltaire’s histories for being polemical and tendentious: his determination to view everything from a resolutely modern point of view can make him seem naïve, and some find it puzzling that his histories were once held in such esteem.

The aim of the Voltaire: historian of modernity project is to come to a better understanding of Voltaire’s overall philosophical project, by focusing on a neglected aspect of his work: his determination to write ‘modern’ history. Much of his historical writing, especially in the earlier years, is devoted to the modern world. Voltaire first explores the defining characteristics of the modern world (the benefits of trade, the scientific revolution, religious toleration) in a book about England (Lettres sur les Anglais, or Lettres philosophiques), before studying the flourishing culture of France during the previous century (Le Siècle de Louis XIV). He then extends this exploration, forwards into modern France (Précis du siècle de Louis XV)and outwards into the recent history of the whole world (Essai sur les mœurs).

The study of recent history was, Voltaire declared bluntly, ‘a matter of necessity’. [2] The study of modern times was more precise than the study of ancient history, because sources were more numerous and more reliable. Most importantly – and here Voltaire seems influenced by the English writer Bolingbroke – modern history is best placed to offer us instructive examples. Traditionally, it had always been ancient history that was thought to be significant as a source of morally improving examples of conduct. Voltaire turns that idea on its head. As an Enlightenment philosopher, he wants to teach the lessons of free thought and religious tolerance, and he turns to modern history for telling examples to prove his point.

Voltaire’s histories are not in a separate category on the margins of his œuvre: they are at its very core. We need to (re)read the modern histories alongside Voltaire’s other polemical works, and to understand them as part of one and the same project. The spirit of criticism that characterises the Enlightenment begins when we scrutinise our own age, and we cannot fully understand Voltaire the philosopher without appreciating his commitment to the study of modern history. [3]

– Nicholas Cronk

[1] Narratives of Enlightenment: cosmopolitan history from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), p.21.

[2] Conseils à un journaliste, see Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.20A (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2003), p.482.

[3] This blog post is based on an article that first appeared in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter in 2014.


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.


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.


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.’


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.


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.