Voltaire Champions English Values in Philosophical letters 1734

In 1733/34 , Voltaire published a pivotal work entitled Letters Concerning the English Nation. Originally written in French, the twenty-four letters first issued and published from London in an English translation. This was because the content was too radical for publication in his native France.  It was just too politically dangerous and was a major influence on the period of enlightenment.

He had previously experienced the wrath of the aritocartic right wing in France, having been beaten by the hired-henchmen of a noble he had offended, he had already been thrown in the Bastille twice. So it was far from a safe route to publish his beliefs. His release required hi to keep away from Paris, he went to England and lived here for nearly 2.5 years.

During his stay he write Letters on English religion and politics, which finally appeared in France in 1734 as Lettres philosophiques, or Philosophical Letters. He wrote them as if a report back to a friend in France explaining English society through a series of observations but he was really expressing views openly discussed in England that could cause imprisonment in France.

Letter Five, “On the Church of England”, began with the observation,

“This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a freeman, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases.”

  • The statement had profound implications for any citizen of France
  • a nation that had almost destroyed itself in order to establish Catholicism as the only practiced religion,
  • with the persecution of the Heugonauts and the St Bartholomew Massacre that was to follow he was not wrong to fear for his safety.
  • He examined the intellectual and institutional foundation of England’s religious tolerance.
  • He wrote, “No one can hold office in England or in Ireland unless he is a faithful Anglican.”
  • Such political exclusion hardly promoted religious good will. Nor did the religious preaching of the dominant church lead the nation toward toleration. According to Voltaire, the Anglican clergy worked “up in their flocks as much holy zeal against nonconformists as possible.” Yet, in recent decades, the “fury of the sects” “went no further than sometimes breaking the windows of heretical chapels.”
  • He strongly advocates the more tolerant approach of the English.

Philosophical letters and the liberalism that allowed its original publication is widely credited as ushering in the period of enlightenment in 1734, early in the eighteenth century.

The Enlightenment had a massive knock-on effect on all our family and community histories for more information see our theme collection on the Enlightenment or our Themes index 

There is a blue plaque on the building….

The book itself is in print and available to buy, we have not found an ebook version as yet try this link to the Book Repository’s catalogue for further information we are not making anything from the referral just for your convenience.


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