Voltaire’s book Letters on England can help readers better understand various aspects of the early Enlightenment. The author’s incisive comments throw light on the distinctive characteristics of England at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Voltaire made his observations during his stay in this country in 1729. In his work, he identifies some of the trends that later shaped the development of European countries. In particular, he shows how religion, economy, politics and other fields of human activity transformed a top-down hierarchical society in a middle-class community that can challenge the power of state or church. These are the main issues that should be discussed more closely.
First of all, the author attaches great importance to the functioning of the English political system. One should note that Voltaire compares England to the Ancient Rome in which the state was supposed to represent the interests of citizens (Voltaire 44). In Voltaire’s view, English people valued their political freedom. For instance, he says that “the English do not feel that they have paid too high a price for good laws” (Voltaire 45). This means that their state was made more accountable to them. This interaction between people and the state was of great interest to Voltaire who looked for ways of reforming monarchical states in which people could hardly be called citizens.
Furthermore, in this work, Voltaire discusses the transformation of religious life in England. In particular, the writer focuses on various religious movements such as Presbyterians, Anglicans, or Quakers. One of the trends that he identifies is that the church in this country could not be used as a means of controlling the life of a person. This issue is of great importance to Voltaire because he speaks about Catholicism in France where the church played a more important role in social life (Voltaire 34). So, one can argue that Voltaire identifies two trends important for the Enlightenment, namely the increasing accountability of government and declining influence of religion on the society.
It should be taken into account Voltaire attaches great importance to economy, especially trade. In his opinion, it helped the citizens of England to achieve greater freedoms, especially in comparison with people living in other European countries (Voltaire 51). The author points out that the accumulation of wealth enabled people to raise their status in the society even though they did not initially belong to the aristocracy. Moreover, many people wanted to create a state that could protect their property and wealth. Overall, this issue is also important for the early Enlightenment thought because the representatives of this philosophical movement attempted to find ways of empowering individuals and groups. Wealth could assist individuals in achieving these goals; this is why Voltaire discussed this question in his work.
There are other important areas that should be discussed, namely one should focus on the growing importance of science and education in England. Voltaire devotes two parts of his book to the works of Isaac Newton and John Locke. The author discusses various scientific achievements of Newton, but he also emphasizes the idea that his works demonstrated the power of reasoning and empiricism. Furthermore, he speaks about the ideas of John Locke who was able to describe the behavior of individuals and groups (Voltaire 64).
For instance, he says “Lock has expounded human understanding to mankind as an excellent anatomist explains the mechanisms of the human body” (Voltaire 64). It should be kept in mind that the ideas of these thinkers profoundly influenced the education in England, especially in prestigious universities such as Oxford or Cambridge. These philosophers introduced several important principles into the work of educational institutions, namely the adherence to logic, reliance on evidence, and skepticism. These principles were critical for various thinkers of the Enlightenment. In the later periods, they shaped the political discourse in England, France and other European states.
Each of the trends that have been discussed before led to the creation of society that differed from many other countries. It was based on the idea that people in their collective capacity could influence the policies and decisions of the government. Additionally, the society described by Voltaire emphasized such values as self-reliance and individuality. The trends identified by Voltaire continue to dominate the Western thought. The author paid close attention to these issues because he believed that they would profoundly influence the political landscape of the world.
On the whole, Letters on England can be regarded as a valuable source on the history of the early Enlightenment. Voltaire was able to identify some of the most important trends that emerged at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In particular, one should focus on such issues as the accountability of government, diversity of religious movements, growing economic development of the country, and the evolution of science and education. These factors greatly contributed to the transformation of England into a middle-class society that can resist the power of the state and make it more oriented to the needs of people.
Voltaire. Letters on England. Trans. Leonard Tancock. London: Penguin Classics, 1980. Print.