Voltaire’s England

Alan Charles Fors

Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania

This article was published in The American Interest on 1 July 2007.

Americans derive a certain pride, however mixed, from the ways in which Alexis de Tocqueville observed and analyzed them in his justly famous two-volume Democracy in America (1835–40), the French liberal’s effort to introduce his countrymen to the promise and problems of the new American Republic. A century before, another young Frenchman visited the Anglo-Saxon political, social, religious, scientific, and cultural world — François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. In temporary exile in England from France, Voltaire wrote an even more fundamental work than Tocqueville’s on an English-speaking nation’s meaning for the modern world.

It used to be said that Voltaire left France a poet and returned a philosopher, but although he was known in the 1720s as a poet and playwright above all, Voltaire long had been immersed in the heterodox thought of his age. In the salons and private societies of early 18th-century France, Voltaire was exposed to the great philosophical debates of the previous century, to a new religious philosophy called deism, and to the claims of free thought and various heterodoxies. He stood on the verge of important literary and social successes when an encounter with a blue-blooded aristocrat, the Duc de Rohan, showed him the limits of his seeming status. This encounter earned him a stay in the Bastille and, as a condition of his release, exile in England from 1726 to 1729.

Voltaire left with deep questions about France and great openness toward what he would experience in England. His exposure to English political, religious, and intellectual life provided him with a powerful foil with which to criticize his own nation and to praise, by contrast, a new set of values and institutions he believed had emerged in England. Voltaire saw his France, in contrast with England, as irrationally deferential to the presumptive authority of the past. He also viewed it as religiously intolerant and cruel, detached from experience in its natural philosophy, despotic in its government, and egregiously unfair in its social and fiscal structures. He further viewed France as beset by a reverence for aristocracy and a corresponding denigration of merchants and traders that misallocated both resources and moral praise or blame. In essential ways, the agenda of much of the French Enlightenment, and of its Anglophilia, was set by Voltaire’s work almost 15 years before the 1748 publication of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws.

Voltaire’s foremost concern was religious intolerance. In 1685, with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the French monarchy formally abolished what remained of the civil religious toleration of its significant Protestant minority, establishing, to the kingdom’s immense pride, “La France toute Catholique” — a France that was, legally and demographically, virtually entirely Catholic. Across a broad spectrum, the French believed that religious uniformity was essential not only to rightful service to God, but also to the peace, harmony, and security of the realm. Voltaire discovered in England a remarkably different set of operational beliefs about religious toleration (the extent of which he surely idealized), and he challenged France’s assumptions to their core.

Voltaire opened his Lettres with a survey of English religion, beginning with the Quakers, which, for his French audience, would have been the rough equivalent today of beginning a survey of the United States with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church or the Hare Krishna movement. He lavished praise upon the Quakers’ commitment to religious tolerance, both in England and, more dramatically, in Pennsylvania, where they had political power. Foremost among the “wise laws” promulgated by William Penn had been “to harm no one for his religion.” Voltaire concluded his discussion of English religion with an account of the tolerant Unitarians, equally mysterious and heretical for his French readers.

Between the letters on the Quakers and Unitarians, Voltaire described the Anglican and Presbyterian establishments. For Voltaire, the Church of England itself, though an established church beset by corruptions that looked large in England (but very small indeed in France), had abandoned its efforts to coerce religious belief. In Voltaire’s view, “An Englishman, as a free man, goes to heaven by whatever path he chooses.” True, the Presbyterian Church, heir to the Calvinism that, Voltaire believed, had prevailed in the darkest times of the 17th century, possessed a clergy that detested all dissent. It was true, also, that the Episcopalian and Presbyterian clergies loathed each other, but in England the people themselves were weary of religious hatreds and persecutions, which mattered more.

For Voltaire, trade and exchange, valued highly in England, depended upon religious tolerance and encouraged it. Religious tolerance was the precondition of a civil peace essential to the creation and enjoyment of wealth. Crucially, religious tolerance in turn produced religious pluralism, which further dampened intolerance and violence. To a France that both gloried in official religious intolerance and, at least in theory, denied noble status to anyone engaged in trade and commerce, Voltaire shockingly presented voluntary exchange and voluntary religious association as mutually reinforcing goods that were bringing prosperity and peace to Britain. He described the Exchange in London as “more venerable than many a court” and offered a portrait both extremely subversive of contemporaneous French values and glowing, even if tinged with his unique irony, in its celebration of freedom and business:

You will see representatives of all the peoples gathered there for the benefit of humanity. There, the Jew, the Muslim, and the Christian deal with each other as if they shared the same religion and give the name ‘infidel’ only to those who go bankrupt. There, the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican accepts the promise of the Quaker.

The Exchange was a scene of “peaceful and free assemblies,” after which individuals made voluntary choices about their private religious lives. “Some go to the synagogue; others in search of a drink; some to baptisms; others to circumcisions; and yet others to await divine inspiration in their Church.” In the end, Voltaire said, “all are content.” Voltaire drew the following conclusion, which ought to be of interest to every European then and every American now:

If there were only one religion in England, there would be great danger of despotism. If there were two religions, they would cut each other’s throats. But there are thirty religions, and they live together in peace and happiness.

What was “English,” then, for Voltaire, was the adaptation of religion, by means of toleration, to the needs of a commercial Britain emerging from generations of civil war and instability. The separation of a public political sphere from a private religious one, and the recognition that peace and order were superior to the credal fratricide of prior centuries, were the hallmarks of this adaptation. He praised the clear legal preeminence of the state and linked that to a more irenic religious life. In England, civil society had become more tolerant and peaceable than even its clerics, and Voltaire’s astonishing conclusion in Letter Six, with its observations on the Exchange and on religious pluralism, marked nothing less than a rethinking of the foundation of civil society itself. The toleration engendered and shown by a commercial, increasingly secular, and religiously diversified state offered a new way of living together and a new set of moral criteria. Religious differences did not have to be resolved publicly because free citizens entered their rightful areas of voluntary association, privacy, and conscience in matters of creed. In Voltaire’s pages, one could hear the values of a civilization itself beginning to change. Religious toleration had evolved in England, but it was Voltaire who captured its essence and offered its lessons to the world.

When Voltaire turned to English government and society, he again used England as a foil to criticize the absolutism and unenlightened government of France. This marked a great change from earlier criticisms of the ancien régime. He abandoned the appeal to an idealized medieval or feudal past (such as dominated criticisms of the monarchy at the end of the 17th century), with the king as father of his people and first among the lords. Instead, Voltaire’s Lettres argued for what might be brought into being if one learned from the experience of the world. These letters offered a modern vision of a society in which laws rule rather than the will of men; a society in which civil liberties are every citizen’s right, regardless of birth or rank; in which religious tolerance puts an end to the civil strife and fanaticism of persecuting churches and sects; in which commercial prosperity allows the individual to serve his own interest in a way that enriches society at large; and in which the arts and sciences flourish.

Again, Voltaire idealized English life, but he did so knowingly, in order to make his criticism of France more effective. He stressed the constitutional nature of the English monarchy and the liberty that flows from a government of law, not whim. The implicit comparison was to a France where laws carried the king’s formula, “For such is my pleasure.” He praised English equality of taxation, compared with a France in which Church, nobility, many professions and whole cities were exempt from taxation, which fell so massively upon the peasantry. He recounted the honorable status of commerce in England, compared with a France where commerce led to derogation from the aristocracy. In passages startling for French readers, he emphasized the comfortable lot of the English yeoman, compared with that of the overburdened French peasant, who must bury his savings secretly, rather than invest them in improvements, to avoid their being seized. In short, Voltaire sang of the greatness, prosperity, and peacefulness of a tolerant secular England, under liberty and law, engaged in productive commerce. It was a glorification of an open and religiously pluralistic bourgeois England, as opposed to an intolerant, anti-commercial, despotic, and aristocratic France.

For Voltaire, one must judge phenomena by their usefulness and consequences, not by their origins. In Letter Eleven, which inaugurated a forty-year struggle to legalize inoculation against smallpox in France, Voltaire wrote of the English adoption of the practice, after it was brought from the Ottoman Empire to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the English Ambassador. The origins of inoculation in Circassia, however, were less than humanitarian: Smallpox diminished the number and value of daughters sold to seraglios, and exposure to a benign case conferred immunity, saving lives, avoiding disfigurement, and raising the monetary worth of young women. Whatever its origin, we know now that inoculation works, argued Voltaire. Reason and experience determine us to employ a method that saves lives and reduces suffering, and “a commercial nation” always seeks to move from better understanding to increased well-being.

Similarly, Voltaire argued, we must not judge English political settlements and the history of liberty there by original motive. Invariably, efforts to restrain royal power and prerogative, including the Magna Carta, were merely struggles among predators for a larger share of what could be taken from common people, about whom neither crown nor barons cared. For Voltaire, the nobles given credit for English liberty had been “birds of prey fighting against an eagle to see who could suck the blood of doves.” The people now had “a hundred tyrants” instead of “one master.” As he explained, what emerged from such struggle initially were parliaments of “ecclesiastical despots and plunderers called barons,” not “guardians of liberty and public happiness,” to say the least. Indeed, such masters looked down upon common people “as animals existing on a plane beneath the human.”

The constant battle between lords and crown, however, ultimately forced each to appeal to and offer concessions to the commoners and to the commercial classes, thus creating a political and civic space in which the people could assert rights, prerogatives and protections. This process was reinforced by the English custom of primogeniture, which blurred the distinctions among estates and created, paradoxically, a greater social mobility. In short, for Voltaire, “Freedom emerged in England from the struggle between tyrants.” The fortuitous outcome of English political quarrels had been limitations upon power, and we should judge England by those institutions and the liberties they protect, not by the genesis of such changes.

In the 17th century, Voltaire explained, England enjoyed a freedom of philosophy that changed the tools available to the human species in its efforts to coexist more happily with nature. For most contemporaries, Voltaire noted, the “great men” are all conquerors or emperors. In England they are the Bacons, Lockes, and Newtons, who gain their hold on men’s minds not by force but by reason, evidence, and persuasion grounded in human experience.

For Voltaire, the greatness and superiority of English philosophy, and above all of Bacon, Locke, and Newton, lay in their commitment to empiricism over rationalism or fancy, to their preference for studying the world, the mind, and mankind rather than vainly theorizing about them. The glory of that philosophy also lay in its sense of reason’s limitations, of our knowledge being bounded by our experience, and in its willingness to admit ignorance when ordered experience was lacking. The recognition of the limits of human knowledge was not irreligious arrogance but an appropriate humility. The French ordered the world as they dreamed it might be; the English learned patiently and humbly from experience. For Voltaire, the English had issued an invitation to study what can be known, to avoid irresolvable metaphysical questions and, instead, to study ourselves and the world through the limited natural faculties that we possess.

From the 1730s until his death in 1778, Voltaire carried with him this model of an England from which France and the rest of the Continent desperately needed to learn—in matters of religious tolerance, restraints upon power, freedom of voluntary exchange, meritocracy over birth, and the encouragement of commercial and intellectual life. His was the most important celebration of what the French would come to call, in our time, “Anglo-Saxon” models and values. Voltaire would undergo many personal and intellectual transformations over the years, but these themes remained close to constant in all his work.

Voltaire was the most influential author of the 18th century, an epochal period that changed the thinking and culture of Western Europe and, through it, the world. He lived for 84 fruitful years, writing many hundreds of published works and more than 20,000 letters. His life both reflected and profoundly altered the movement we have come to call “the Enlightenment.” He wrote in almost every literary genre—from light verse to epic poem, drama, narrative fiction, essay, dictionary, philosophical treatise, and scientific popularization—and virtually created a genre, the “philosophical tale,” the most famous of which was Candide, in which he has remained most alive for posterity.

The French Enlightenment, in its radical Jacobin phase, embraced Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideal state had been Sparta. It rejected Voltaire and, to say the least, his Anglophilia. The Terror was not a good time for Voltaireans. As Voltaire had written in the Lettres Philosophiques, however, when the French struggled for liberty, they got only civil war, bloodshed, and a newer version of tyranny and fanaticism. When the English struggled for liberty, their eyes were fixed always on the limitation, not the expansion, of sovereign power, and so they got liberty in return. Voltaire made that model, and its link to a religious tolerance based upon a distinction between public and private spheres, ever more central to Western debate. These are themes, to say the very least, that rightly occupy our minds and hopes for humanity today.

As was the case with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America a century later, Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques framed the ongoing debate about and discussion of the institutions, culture, institutions, and mores of the “Anglo-Saxon” world. The British and Americans tend to see the French intellectual world as parochial and chauvinistic, and there is no lack of evidence to support such a judgment. How extraordinary, then, that these most celebrated, insightful, and influential analyses of English-speaking societies were penned precisely by two authors so beloved by the French themselves.