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England Essay Letter Voltaire

Introduction to Western Humanities:  Baroque & Enlightenment

Voltaire's essay on Francis Bacon

When Voltaire was sent into exile in 1727, he exploited his enforced absence from France as an opportunity to visit England.  During his stay, he studied the language, read widely, sought out the personal acquaintance of a host of English luminaries in letters and the sciences, and studied English institutions as a sympathetic outsider.  He then published a series of short essays, first in English, under the title Letters concerning the English Nation (1733), and then in French under the title Lettres philosophiques [or Philosophical Letters] (in 1734).  The reaction in France was highly mixed.  In fact, the work was both wildly hailed and formally banned.

Many French political conservatives and devout Catholics were scandalized at his admiration for things English that Voltaire had pointedly characterized as different from the way things were done in France.  There was lots to seize upon.  Voltaire had gone out of his way to praise the English system of government (constitutional government in which Parliament held the upper hand), the English stress on free trade ( its general policy of laissez faire) and the thriving commerce that seemed to be its result (as distinct from the determinedly mercantilist policy of France, inherited from the reign of Louis XIV), the general practice of religious toleration (he offered essays on the Church of England, on Presbyterians, on Quakers), and the willingness of the English upper classes to experiment with new ways when empirical evidence suggested that departure from immemorial tradition might be beneficial (this in an essay on the willingness of the English educated classes to have themselves and their children vaccinated against smallpox, in accordance with the discoveries of William Jenner).  The negative reaction, in other words, was based not merely on national chauvinism ("patriotism") but on an accurate inference that Voltaire was suggesting, subversively, that France was too politically and culturally repressive, and that this was not just different but foolish, and contrary to the prosperity of the nation. 

As part of this collection, Voltaire also provided sketches of the achievements of great Englishmen of the recent past:  modern masters.  Prominent among these were Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.  These essays are worth a look for the light they throw on Voltaire's enthusiasm for the possibilities opened up by bold breaks with Tradition in the name of Natural Reason.  Voltaire's choice of heroes is characteristic of the Enlightenment in general.  The same features of the Philosophical Letters that made the work anathema to the politically and religiously conservative made it a cause of celebration among hundreds of French readers, who eagerly acquired copies on the black market.

In reading Voltaire's essay on Bacon, be alert for what, precisely, Voltaire admires in the author of the Novum Organum.  How does this connect with the presuppositions behind the conclusion of Candide, where we are urged to "tend our own garden"?

Chancellor Bacon

It is not long since the ridiculous and threadbare question was agitated in a celebrated assembly; who was the greatest man, Caesar or Alexander, Tamerlane or Cromwell?  Somebody said that it must undoubtedly be Sir Isaac Newton.  This man was certainly in the right; for if true greatness consists in having received from heaven the advantage of a superior genius, with the talent of applying it for the interest of the possessor and of mankind, a man like Newton - and such a one is hardly to be met with in ten centuries - is surely by much the greatest; and those statesmen and conquerors which no age has ever been without, are commonly but so many illustrious villains.  It is the man who sways our minds by the prevalence of reason and the native force of truth, not they who reduce mankind to a state of slavery by brutish force and downright violence; the man who by the vigor of his mind, is able to penetrate into the hidden secrets of nature, and whose capacious soul can contain the vast frame of the universe, not those who lay nature waste, and desolate the face of the earth, that claims our reverence and admiration.

Therefore, as you are desirous to be informed of the great men that England has produced, I shall begin with the Bacons, the Lockes, and the Newtons.  The generals and ministers will come after them in their turn.

I must begin with the celebrated baron Verulam, known to the rest of Europe by the name of Bacon, who was the son of a certain keeper of the seals, and was for a considerable time chancellor under James I.  Notwithstanding the intrigues and bustle of a court, and the occupations incident to his office, which would have required his whole attention, he found means to become a great philosopher, a good historian, and an elegant writer; and what is yet more wonderful is that he lived in an age where the art of writing was totally unknown, and where sound philosophy was still less so.  This personage, as is the way among mankind, was more valued after his death than while he lived.  His enemies were courtiers residing at London, while his admirers consisted wholly of foreigners.  When Marquis d'Effiat brought Princess Mary, daughter of Henry the Great, over to be married to King Charles, this minister paid Bacon a visit, who being then confined to a sick bed, received him with close curtains.  "You are like the angels," said d'Effiat to him; "we hear much talk of them, and while everybody thinks them superior to men, we are never favored with a sight of them."

You have been told in what manner Bacon was accused of a crime which is very far from being the sin of a philosopher; of being corrupted by pecuniary gifts; and how he was sentenced by the house of peers to pay a fine of about four hundred thousand livres of our money, besides losing his office of chancellor, and being degraded from the rank and dignity of a peer.  At present the English revere his memory to such a degree that only with great difficulty can one imagine him to have been in the least guilty.  Should you ask me what I think of it, I will make use of a saying I heard from Lord Bolingbroke.  They happened to be talking of the avarice with which the duke of Marlborough had been taxed, and quoted several instances of it, for the truth of which they appealed to Lord Bolingbroke, who, as being of a contrary party, might, perhaps, without any trespass against the laws of decorum, freely say what he thought.  "He was," said he, "so great a man that I do not recollect whether he had any faults or not."  I shall, therefore, confine myself to those qualities which have acquired Chancellor Bacon the esteem of all Europe.

The most singular, as well as the most excellent, of all his works, is that which is now the least read, and which is at the same time the most useful; I mean his "Novum Scientiarum Organum."  This is the scaffold by means of which the edifice of the new philosophy has been reared; so that when the building was completed, the scaffold was no longer of any use.  Chancellor Bacon was still unacquainted with nature, but he perfectly knew, and pointed out extraordinarily well, all the paths which lead to her recesses.  He had very early despised what those square-capped fools teach in those dungeons called Colleges, under the name of philosophy, and did everything in his power that those bodies, instituted for the cultivation and perfection of the human understanding, might cease any longer to mar it, by their "quiddities," their "horrors of a vacuum," their "substantial forms," with the rest of that jargon which ignorance and a nonsensical jumble of religion had consecrated.

This great man is the father of experimental philosophy.  It is true, wonderful discoveries had been made even before his time; the mariner's compass, the art of printing, that of engraving, the art of painting in oil, that of making glass, with the remarkably advantageous invention of restoring in some measure sight to the blind; that is, to old men, by means of spectacles; the secret of making gunpowder had, also, been discovered.  They had gone in search of, discovered, and conquered a new world in another hemisphere.  Who would not have thought that these sublime discoveries had been made by the greatest philosophers, and in times much more enlightened than ours?  By no means; for all these astonishing revolutions happened in the ages of scholastic barbarity.  Chance alone has brought forth almost all these inventions; it is even pretended that chance has had a great share in the discovery of America; at least, it has been believed that Christopher Columbus undertook this voyage on the faith of a captain of a ship who had been cast by a storm on one of the Caribbee islands.  Be this as it will, men had learned to penetrate to the utmost limits of the habitable globe, and to destroy the most impregnable cities with an artificial thunder, much more terrible than the real; but they were still ignorant of the circulation of the blood, the weight and pressure of the air, the laws of motion, the doctrine of light and color, the number of the planets in our system, etc.  And a man that was capable to maintain a thesis on the "Categories of Aristotle," the universale a parte rei, such-like nonsense, was considered as a prodigy.

The most wonderful and useful inventions are by no means those which do most honor to the human mind.  And it is to a certain mechanical instinct, which exists in almost every man, that we owe far the greater part of the arts, and in no manner whatever to philosophy.  The discovery of fire, the arts of making bread, of melting and working metals, of building houses, the invention of the shuttle, are infinitely more useful than printing and the compass; notwithstanding, all these were invented by men who were still in a state of barbarity.  What astonishing things have the Greeks and Romans since done in mechanics?  Yet men believed, in their time, that the heavens were of crystal, and the stars were so many small lamps, that sometimes fell into the sea; and one of their greatest philosophers, after many researches, had at length discovered that the stars were so many pebbles, that had flown off like sparks from the earth.

In a word, there was not a man who had any idea of experimental philosophy before Chancellor Bacon; and of an infinity of experiments which have been made since his time, there is hardly a single one which has not been pointed out in his book.  He had even made a good number of them himself.  He constructed several pneumatic machines, by which he discovered the elasticity of the air; he had long brooded over the discovery of its weight, and was even at times very near to catching it, when it was laid hold of by Torricelli.  A short time after, experimental physics began to be cultivated in almost all parts of Europe.  This was a hidden treasure, of which Bacon had some glimmerings, and which all the philosophers whom his promises had encouraged made their utmost efforts to lay open.  We see in his book mention made in express terms of that new attraction of which Newton passes for the inventor.  "We must inquire," said Bacon, "whether there be not a certain magnetic force, which operates reciprocally between the earth and other heavy bodies, between the moon and the ocean, between the planets, etc."  In another place he says:  "Either heavy bodies are impelled toward the centre of the earth, or they are mutually attracted by it; in this latter case it is evident that the nearer falling bodies approach the earth, the more forcibly are they attracted by it.  We must try," continues he, "whether the same pendulum clock goes faster on the top of a mountain, or at the bottom of a mine.  If the force of the weight diminishes on the mountain, and increases in the mine, it is probably the earth has a real attracting quality."

This precursor in philosophy was also an elegant writer, a historian, and a wit.  His moral essays are in high estimation, though they seem rather calculated to instruct than to please; and as they are neither a satire on human nature, like the maxims of Rochefoucauld, nor a school of skepticism, like Montaigne; they are not so much read as these two ingenious books.  His life of Henry VII. passed for a masterpiece; but how is it possible some people should have been idle enough to compare so small a work with the history of our illustrious M. de Thou?  Speaking of that famous impostor Perkin, son of a Jew convert, who assumed so boldly the name of Richard IV., king of England, being encouraged by the duchess of Burgundy, and who disputed the crown with Henry VII., he expresses himself in these terms:  "About this time King Henry was beset with evil spirits, by the witchcraft of the duchess of Burgundy, who conjured up from hell the ghost of Edward IV., in order to torment King Henry.  When the duchess of Burgundy had instructed Perkin, she began to consider with herself in what region of the heavens she should make this comet shine, and resolved immediately that it should make its appearance in the horizon of Ireland."  I think our sage de Thou seldom gives in to this gallimaufry, which used formerly to pass for the sublime, but which at present is known by its proper title, "bombast."

The text is taken from The Works of Voltaire:  A Contemporary Version (New York:  Dingwall-Rock, Ltd., 1927), Vol. XIX, Part II, pp. 27-33.  [As far as I can tell, the translations are by William F. Fleming, though many are revisions of the translation done in the 18th Century by Tobias Smollett.  The notes, including the introduction, are mine.]


Torricelli:  Evangelista Torricelli (1608-47) served Galileo as his secretary during the last year of Galileo's life.  Like Galileo himself (who had begun his career in medicine), Torricelli was both physician and physicist.  Among his inventions is the barometer, which exploits a column of mercury in a glass tube to measure variations in air pressure due to altitude or changes in weather conditions.  (The barometer in fact was for a long time known as the "Torricelli tube.")    Return.

the history of our illustrious M. de Thou:  Jacques Auguste de Thou (1553-1617) was active in the entourage of Henry IV (1553-1610, the religiously tolerant King of France from 1589 until his assassination by Ravaillac, a Catholic fanatic).  De Thou wrote the voluminous History of His Own Times.  (The book's early volumes appeared in 1604-08, in Latin, and a complete edition appeared in Geneva in 1620 - at about the time Bacon was publishing his Novum Organum.  De Thou's treatment of the religious wars of the 16th Century was highly critical of the Catholic League - a feature that endeared it to Voltaire precisely as it raised hackles in French Catholic circles.    Return.

  Go to the Introduction to Bacon's Novum Organum.

  Go to Voltaire's essay on Isaac Newton.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 1997 by Lyman A. Baker. 

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 15 October 1997.

Voltaire 1694-1778

(Born Francois-Marie Arouet) French philosopher, essayist, dramatist, historian, poet, critic, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Voltaire's life and works. See also Candide Criticism.

The eighteenth century is often called the Age of Enlightenment, but it is just as often called the Age of Voltaire—in the minds of many intellectual historians, the two are synonymous. Voltaire wrote in many genres, excelling at several, but in the modern era he is best remembered for his connections with the theater, his philosophical works, and his contes—short adventure stories dramatizing philosophical issues. The most famous of these is Candide (1759), a satire of G. W. Leibniz's philosophy of optimism, which examined the reality and absurdity of human suffering. He attracted many admirers as well as many critics; his open anticlerical stance was particularly controversial and led to many of his works being censored. He was a Deist for much of his life, and was skeptical of most established political and religious institutions, though he strove for objectivity in his writings. Although exiled from Paris more than once, by the end of his life he was generally celebrated as one of France's greatest thinkers. The values for which he fought most vigorously—freedom and progress—have become basic assumptions underlying modern Western civilization.

Biographical Information

Voltaire was born Francois-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, in or around Paris. His parents were Marguerite Daumard and Francois Arouet, a notary in Paris. He was so weak at birth that he was not expected to live, and was ill and hypochondriacal much of his life. Biographers have suggested that the young Francois-Marie made up for a feeble body by developing a lively mind; even as a student he was known for his brilliance, wit, and impulsive nature. His sister and mother, with whom he was quite close, died when he was young, and he and his brother parted ways over the issue of religious tolerance. He was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris where he learned to love literature and to distrust religious institutions. His godfather, the abbé Châteauneuf, also oversaw parts of his education. The abbé introduced him to abbé Chaulieu, who in turn introduced him to Deism and the art of writing poetry. Abbé Châteauneuf also introduced his godchild to his lover, the courtesan Ninon de Lenclos, who further encouraged his studies in philosophy and literature, and took him to the Société du Temple, a group of hedonistic libertines who rejected Christianity and embraced humanism. Thus, even in his adolescence, Francois-Marie developed a strong foundation for the philosophy he would espouse as Voltaire.

After completing school, Francois-Marie planned to pursue a career as a poet, but his father intervened, sending him to Holland to work for the French ambassador. Holland was the home of exiled Huguenots, victims of religious intolerance; Francois-Marie fell in love with a young Huguenot girl known as “Pimpette” and was swiftly called home. He entered law school to please his father and began his literary career in earnest, using the connections developed in school and at the Société du Temple, and his gift for witty conversation, to move in the highest social circles, but fell nearly as quickly as he rose. After writing a poem lampooning the regent Phillipe d'Orleans, he was exiled from Paris, though he later pleaded successfully for his return. In 1717, Francois-Marie again mocked the regent in verse, but instead of being exiled he was sent to the Bastille for a year. While there, he wrote one of his greatest poems: La ligue; ou Henry le Grand (The League, or Henry the Great), an epic poem on the subject of Henry IV and his advancement of religious freedom. The poem was not published until 1723, and was then printed secretly.

After his release from prison in April 1718 he began his long association with the theater. The production of his Oedipe in November of that year was a tremendous critical and financial success. In February 1719, Francois-Marie changed his name, first to Arouet de Voltaire and then to Voltaire. In 1720, he visited Lord Bolingbroke, an influential English writer, beginning a connection with English intellectuals that served him well throughout his lifetime. As his reputation grew, he became a favorite with royalty, accepting substantial gifts from the kings of England and France, but even this did not protect him from attack. When a love triangle formed between Voltaire, the actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, and the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, the chevalier had Voltaire beaten by lackeys while Voltaire was a guest of the duke de Sully. When the duke did nothing to help him, he challenged the chevalier to a duel, but when the chevalier moved to have Voltaire arrested, Voltaire arranged for exile in England instead. He lived there from May 1726 to March 1729, meeting with King George I, Bolingbroke, Jonathan Swift, and other influential members of English society. He learned English and read several works that strongly impacted his thought, including Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding. He also discovered Shakespeare, whose “barbaric” but powerful poetry and insights into character inspired and perplexed Voltaire throughout his time in the theater. During this period Voltaire also tried writing in English, publishing the Essay on Civil Wars (1727) and the Essay on Epic Poetry (1727) and releasing a revision of his poem on Henry IV as The Henriade, a tremendous popular success which he dedicated to the English queen. He also started Histoire de Charles XII, Roi de Suede (History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, 1731) during this time, the first of his major histories. He returned to France secretly, remaining in hiding until he could obtain permission to stay in Paris. He also returned to the theater, with successful performances of Brutus (1730) and Zayre (1736).

In his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733), the fruits of his time in Enland became apparent; his essays on English writers including Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Locke, and Shakespeare—and on religious differences—celebrated the openness of the English monarchy and English society. In France, the book was burned and the publisher jailed. Voltaire soon opted to leave Paris again, moving in with his friend and lover Mme. Emilie Du Châtelet, at her estate at Cirey. Du Châtelet was a scientist with a strong understanding of Newton, whose writings were of great interest to Voltaire, and of Leibniz, whose philosophy of optimism Voltaire would eventually assail in Candide (1759). Together they studied and wrote for nearly fifteen years: while at Cirey, Voltaire wrote all or part of the plays Mahomet (1741), La mérope francaise (Merope, 1744), and Semiramis (1748); the poem La Pucelle (The Maid, 1755); and the prose works Le siecle de Louis XIV (1751) and Essai sur l'histoire generale, et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, depuis Charlemange jusqu'a nos jours (1756). He also began writing his contes during this period, including Zadig (1749; published as Memnon, 1747) and Micromégas (1753).

Their relationship as lovers waned as Voltaire began a new affair, a scandalous relationship with his young niece, Mme. Denis, but Voltaire and Du Châtelet remained close friends until her death in 1749. Seeking a new home, Voltaire went to the court of Frederick II of Prussia. While there, he labored to see Le siecle du Louis XIV into print, but quickly found himself at odds with king and court. Frustrated by poor treatment, he wrote a satire of one of the king's favorites—and one of Du Châtelet's former lovers—and then attempted to flee the country amidst the outrage. After a brief period of detention, Frederick allowed him to leave, and Voltaire moved on to Switzerland with his niece, where he carried on extensive correspondence with such figures as Russia's Catherine the Great in addition to writing his Poems sur le desastre de Lisbonne et sur la loi naturelle (Poems on the disaster in Lisbon and on Natural Law; 1756), his contributions to Denis Diderot's Encyclopedia, his own Philosophical Dictionary (1764), and additional contes. Voltaire took on several legal battles involving religious prejudice, and often secured reversals of imposed sentences. He began writing more strongly against institutional religions and superstitious beliefs and produced his 1764 Traite sur la tolerance (Treatise on Tolerance). After a thirty-year absence he returned to Paris in April 1778, having been invited to a gala performance of his play Irene. Marie Antoinette asked to meet him, and at the gala he also mingled with friends Diderot and d'Alembert and met Benjamin Franklin, who brought his grandson to be blessed by Voltaire. Crowds came to meet his carriage, he was crowned with a laurel wreath, and a bust of Voltaire was placed onstage, crowned, and kissed by the entire cast of his play. Perhaps overwhelmed by his emotional triumph, Voltaire fell ill and died in less than two months. He agreed to sign a statement saying he accepted Catholicism, likely to avoid the ignominious burial of the unsaved. When he refused, in his dying days, to recognize the divinity of Jesus, the church would not accept his statement and attempted to deny his body a Christian burial. His nephew secretly moved Voltaire's body to a monastery in Champagne for burial by setting the body upright in a carriage. In 1791, his remains were exhumed and buried in the Pantheon at Paris. In a document written shortly before his death, Voltaire maintained his Deist position, stating, “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies and detesting superstition.”

Major Works

Voltaire was a master of language, able to write well in several genres, and he produced a massive body of writings. Throughout his life he wrote for the theater, authoring a total of fifty-six plays, the majority of which were tragedies. He was influenced by the neoclassical tradition of Corneille and Racine, but also innovated by bending the classical rules of the “unities” of time, place, and action, and by violating the standards of decorum. As was traditional, he used classical sources for his plots, as with his first tragedy, Oedipe. Voltaire addressed the issue of religious tolerance in Oedipe,Zayra,Alizre; ou Les Americains (1736), and Mahomet. His exposure to Shakespeare and the English stage inspired him to draw from French history as well as classical sources, as he did in Zayra and the earlier Adelaide Du Guesclin (1734). Among his other major tragedies are Brutus,La Mort de César (The Death of Caesar, 1735), Mérope and Irene (1778). Voltaire used his talent for verse offstage as well: his first major achievement was the epic poem The Henriade (1732), and he wrote both philosophic and occasional poetry throughout his career. His Epistle to Urania (1722), Poem on Natural Law (1756), and Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake (1756) are among the poems that showcased Voltaire's humanism and his opposition to intolerance. He also wrote several satirical poems, mocking the follies of political figures and lampooning the national heroine, Joan of Arc. La Pucelle was a highly unflattering but humorous portrait of the Maid of Orleans, reaching a low point in the young martyr's seduction by a donkey.

In the modern era, however, Voltaire's extensive corpus of plays and poetry is largely secondary to his status as a brilliant and progressive thinker. He is better known for the tenets of his humanist philosophy than for a particular text, although Candide,Letters Concerning the English Nation, and the Philosophical Dictionary have been the most widely read. His adopted motto, “Ecrasez l'infame” (“crush the infamous”), still serves as a pithy summation of the values most important to Voltaire: tolerance, justice, progress, and liberty. While striving to be objective, especially in his histories, Voltaire spoke out strongly against the excesses of both church and state, and fanaticism in any form. In several of his works, he struggled with the mystery of human suffering, a theme that suffuses several of his works and is epitomized in Candide.

Critical Reception

Though Voltaire was widely attacked in his own age as one of the most visible—and most voluble—opponents of absolutist religious and political institutions, he was also acknowledged to be a literary and philosophical genius whose skill with a pen could not be matched. His reputation since then has changed little, though his philosophy has generally been more important to readers than his mastery of language. As critics have observed, however, his choice of genre and style was often an important part of the ideas he wished to convey. In particular, several critics have discussed the freedom that the contes allowed Voltaire. Haydn Mason and Robin Howells have suggested that what may seem like chaos in the contes may represent another level of Voltaire's attack on established forms of order. In two separate studies, Howells notes Voltaire's extensive use of nonsensical naming and the “carnivalesque,” both methods of confronting the status quo. Similarly, Roger Pearson, in his study of the contes, argues that this comparatively modern form of the contes mirrors the modernity of Voltaire's thinking. Multiple studies of Voltaire's correspondence appeared in the 1990s, further emphasizing Voltaire's ability to adapt literary forms to his purpose. Studies by Deirdre Dawson and Thomas M. Carr consider Voltaire's letters as literature which illustrate his talent for infusing new life into familiar forms. A study by Karen O'Brien suggestes that this was one of the merits of Voltaire's histories as well, which addressed historiography as an important form of literature. O'Brien and J. H. Brumfitt both discuss Voltaire's aims for revitalizing the genre of history writing; Brumfitt focuses on Voltaire's depiction of royal mistresses, in which the author was compelled to navigate carefully between the need to be complimentary, his desire to write artistically, and his antiestablishment beliefs. Voltaire was nonetheless very concerned about maintaining traditional genres of writing as well. Recent scholarship has considered his work on epic poetry, occasional verse, and dramatic tragedy as evidence of his interest in both classical influence and modern innovation. As John Iverson suggests in his study of Voltaire's poem on the battle of Fontenoy, Voltaire considered his status as a man of letters and the role of poetry in the public sphere to be important, and he labored to uphold both. At the same time, as Bettina Knapp discusses in her work on Voltaire's theater, he could not ignore the non-traditional works of Shakespeare. Knapp argues that Voltaire's appreciation for both old and new marks him as a transitional figure between neoclassicism and Romanticism, though it also echoes his admiration for both the elegance of elite society and the virtue of progress.

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