Durant 1926: London: The Letters on the English (Voltaire)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  

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II. London: The Letters on the English

He set to work with courage to master the new language. He was displeased to find that plague had one syllable and ague two; he wished that plague would take one-half the language, and ague the other half. But soon he could read English well; and within a year he was master of the best English literature of the age. He was introduced to the literati by Lord Bolingbroke, and dined with one after another of them, even with the elusive and corrosive Dean Swift. He pretended to no pedigree, and asked none of others: when Congreve spoke of his own plays as trifles, and desired to be considered rather a gentleman of leisure than an author, Voltaire said to him sharply, “If you had had the misfortune to be only a gentleman like any other, I should never have come to see you.” 

Voltaire was quick to master the English language. He was introduced to the literati and dined with one after another of them.

What surprised him was the freedom with which Bolingbroke, Pope, Addison, and Swift wrote whatever they pleased: here was a people that had opinions of its own; a people that had remade its religion, hanged its king, imported another, and built a parliament stronger than any ruler in Europe. There was no Bastille here, and no lettres de cachet by which titled pensioners or royal idlers could send their untitled foes to jail without cause and without trial. Here were thirty religions, and not one priest. Here was the boldest sect of all, the Quakers, who astonished all Christendom by behaving like Christians. Voltaire never to the end of his life ceased to wonder at them: in the Dictionnaire Philosophique he makes one of them say: “Our God, who has bidden us love our enemies and suffer evil without complaint, assuredly has no mind that we should cross the sea to go and cut the throats of our brothers because murderers in red clothes and hats two feet high enlist citizens by making a noise with two sticks on an ass’s skin.”

Voltaire was surprised that, compared to France, there was amazing tolerance for ideas in the English society. England had a parliament stronger than any ruler in Europe.

It was an England, too, that throbbed with a virile intellectual activity. Bacon’s name was still in the air, and the inductive mode of approach was triumphing in every field. Hobbes (1588-1679) had carried out the skeptical spirit of the Renaissance, and the practical spirit of his master, into so complete and outspoken a materialism as would have won him in France the honor of martyrdom for a fallacy. Locke (1632~1704) has written a masterpiece of psychological analysis (the Essay on the Human. Understanding, 1689), without any supernatural assumptions. Collins, Tyndal and other deists were re-affirming their faith in God while calling into question every other doctrine of the established church. Newton had just died: Voltaire attended the funeral, and often recalled the impression made upon him by the national honors awarded to this modest Englishman. “Not long ago,” he writes, “a distinguished company were discussing the trite and frivolous question, who was the greatest man,—Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, or’ Cromwell? Some one answered that without doubt it was Isaac Newton. And rightly: for it is to him who masters our minds by the force of truth, and not to those who enslave them by violence, that we owe our reverence.” Voltaire became a patient and thorough student of Newton’s works, and was later the chief protagonist of Newton’s views in France. 

It was an England, too, that throbbed with a virile intellectual activity. Newton had just died: Voltaire attended the funeral, and often recalled the impression made upon him by the national honors awarded to this modest Englishman.

One must marvel at the quickness with which Voltaire absorbed almost all that England had to teach him—its literature, its science, and its philosophy; he took all these varied elements, passed them through the fire of French culture and the French spirit, and transmuted them into the gold of Gallic wit and eloquence. He recorded his impressions in Letters on the English, which he circulated in manuscript among his friends; he did not dare to print them, for they praised “perfidious Albion” too highly to suit the taste of the royal censor. They contrasted English political liberty and intellectual independence with French tyranny and bondage; they condemned the idle aristocracy and the tithe-absorbing clergy of France, with their perpetual recourse to the Bastille as the answer to every question and every doubt; they urged the middle classes to rise to their proper place in the state, as these classes had in England. Without quite knowing or intending it, these letters were the first cock’s crow of the Revolution. 

Voltaire absorbed almost all that England had to teach him with amazing quickness. He recorded his impressions in Letters on the English. They contrasted English political liberty and intellectual independence with French tyranny and bondage. These letters were the first cock’s crow of the Revolution. 

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