Letters on EnglandLetters on England by Voltaire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Time, which alone gives reputation to writers, at last makes their very faults venerable.

Voltaire and Rousseau are usually grouped together as the twin pillars of the 18th century, the first championing reason and reform, the second romanticism and revolution. After reading them back to back, I know who I prefer. Rousseau is arguably a far more original thinker and writer; yet his personality is so irksome and his arguments so irrational that it can be unpleasant to read him. Voltaire, by contrast, is witty, charming, and delightful; and after Rousseau’s lyrical fantasies, Voltaire’s deflating sarcasm is extremely refreshing.

This book is a collection of essays on topics related to England, written after Voltaire’s three-year stay on the island nation. He interviews a Quaker, visits Parliament, goes to the theater, and then expounds the philosophy of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. He skips lightly from topic to topic, a barb here, a jest there, while revealing an impressive range of knowledge—from inoculation to history, from theater to physics. In general his opinion of England is quite positive, arguably idealized, seeing England as a land of toleration and philosophy. Indeed, the only thing that Voltaire shows some reservation towards is Shakespeare, whose dramas struck Voltaire’s Enlightenment taste as lacking refinement.

The book was controversial when published, since many in France saw Voltaire’s praise of England—correctly—as veiled criticism of their own country. Nowadays, this political purpose only adds to the essays’ charms, as we see Voltaire as a champion of an open society, from religion to science to literature, in addition to an omnivorous intellectual. Few books pack so much into so little space.

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