book-reviews

Letters on England

by Voltaire (tr. unknown)

Rating: ★★★

Voltaire writes about England, and seems quite well taken with it, but of course he is really addressing France, and not so much praising the former as taunting the latter.

There are three major arcs to the letters. The first describes the English religious sects as they stood at the time, all of which Protestant faiths he seemed to find more value in than the Catholic sects of his home country. The Quakers steal the show with their simple but profound convictions, but I did share in his amusement at seeing the Arian heresy resurface with the Socinians (and agreed in his assessment that adoption by a few key thinkers means little for wider success). Interesting to read now that they were eventually succeeded by the Unitarians.

The second arc covers more worldly matters -- politics, briefly, and then what Voltaire terms philosophy. This is one of the most interesting areas of the collection, as you really get a clear lens into Voltaire's position at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Descartes looms over the discussion, being French, and while his audience might have been horrified, he does not come off so terribly from it -- Voltaire acknowledges Descartes as essentially a forerunner, who swept the ground imperfectly in preparation for the coming of the English philosophers, and indeed for the dawn of empiricism. Voltaire defends Locke on the nature of souls (in a discussion that skirts intriguingly the question of whether pure matter can think, and whether souls indeed are required to explain anything), and writes deeply on the major topics of Isaac Newton's work. His explanation of Newton's gravity gives the contribution a great deal of context, and highlights how unintuitive and complex the topic was. Most surreal of all was reading of Newton's chronology of the earth's age (not something he is remembered for, unlike attraction and optics), which relied upon observations reported from no other authority than Chiron. The centaur.

The third and final arc turns to literary matters. I found this the hardest to grapple with, and the least relevant of the three. In part, Voltaire was writing to introduce the French to some of English writing, so it isn't surprising that I got little from it -- my French is not sufficient to judge his translations -- but secondarily it is also that several of the authors are unfamiliar to me, and I am no fan of plays or poetry. It was a pleasant surprise to hear him discuss Swift as a contemporary, and his comparisons between the French and English academies were interesting even if no longer significant, but it was a rather weak end to the collection.

I find myself wishing to credit the translator of the 1894 Cassell & Co. edition (whence the Gutenberg edition) for producing a lively and readable text, but I am frustrated by the lack of bibliographical information.