In 1733 and 1734, after much tribulation, he published his first contribution to the Enlightenment. It took the form of twenty-four letters addressed from England to Thieriot. These, translated into English, were issued in London (1733) as Letters concerning the English Nation. But to print the originals in France was to risk the liberty of both author and printer. Voltaire eliminated some passages, and tried to get governmental permission to publish the rest. Refused, he again resorted to clandestine publication in Rouen. He warned Jore, the printer, not to let any of this impression circulate for the present, but early in 1734 several copies, entitled Lettres philosophiques, reached Paris. A pirate publisher secured a copy, and printed a large edition without Voltaire’s knowledge. Meanwhilehe and Madame du Châtelet had gone to the Château of Montjeu, near Autun, 190 miles from Paris, to attend the wedding of Richelieu.
The book began with four letters on the English Quakers. These, Voltaire pointed out, had no ecclesiastical organization, no priests, and no sacraments; yet they practiced the precepts of Christ more faithfully than any other Christians he had ever known. He described or imagined a visit to one of them:
“My dear sir,” I said, “have you been baptized?”
“No,” replied the Quaker, “nor have my brethren.”
“How now, morbleu!” I cried, “then you are not Christians?”
“My son,” he answered, in a mild and quiet voice, “do not swear. We are Christians, and try to be good Christians; but we do not think that Christianity consists in throwing cold water, with a little salt, upon the head.”
“Eh, ventrebleu!” I protested, “not to speak of this impiety, have you forgotten that Jesus Christ was baptized by John?”
“My friend, no more oaths.… Christ received baptism from John, but he himself never baptized anyone. We are the disciples not of John but of Christ.”
“Alas, my poor man,” I said, “how you would be burned in the land of the Inquisition! . . .”
“Are you circumcised?” he asked.
I replied that I had not that honor.
“Very well, then,” he said; “you are a Christian without being circumcised, and I am a Christian without being baptized.”
Baptism, like circumcision, said the Quaker, was a pre-Christian custom, superseded by the new Gospel of Christ. And he (or Voltaire) added a word on war:
“We shall never go to war; not because we fear death, … but because we are not wolves or tigers or bulldogs but men, Christians. Our God, who bade us love our enemies, … surely does not want us to cross the sea to cut the throats of our brothers merely because murderers dressed in red, with hats two feet high, recruit citizens while making a noise with two sticks on the stretched skin of an ass. And when, after victory, all London is brilliant with illuminations, and the sky is aflame with fireworks, and the air resounds with thanksgivings, with church bells, organs, and cannon, we mourn in silence over the slaughter that caused such public joy.13
France had almost destroyed itself to compel all Frenchmen to one faith; Voltaire dilated on the comparative toleration of religious differences in England. “This is a land of sects. An Englishman, like a free man, goes to heaven by whatever route he chooses.”14Voltaire contrasted the morals of the English clergy with those of their French compeers, and congratulated the English on having no abbés. “When they learn that in France young men, known for their debauches and raised to the prelacy by intrigues, compose tender songs, give long and exquisite dinners almost every day, … and call themselves the successors of the Apostles, they thank God that they are Protestants.”15
Letter VII turned the Voltairean stiletto upon French government.
Only the English nation has managed to regulate the power of kings by resisting them, … and has finally established this wise government in which the prince, all powerful to do good, has his hands tied against doing evil. [Here Voltaire echoes a famous sentence from Fénelon’s Télémaque.]. . . To establish liberty in England has been costly, no doubt; the idol of despotism has been drowned in seas of blood; but the English do not think they have purchased good laws too dearly. Other nations have had no less troublous times, but the blood they have shed for the cause of their liberty has only cemented their servitude.16
In England the right of habeas corpus forbids imprisonment without stated cause, and requires an open trial by jury; in France you have lettres de cachet. Voltaire noted, praised, and exaggerated, fourteen years before Montesquieu, a certain “separation of powers” in the English government, and the working harmony between king, lords, and commons. He pointed out that in England no tax could be levied without consent of Parliament, and that “no man is exempt from paying certain taxes … because he is a noble or a priest.”17 In England the younger sons of the nobility enter into commerce and the professions; in France
the merchant so often hears his profession spoken of with disdain that he is foolish enough to blush for it. I do not know, however, which is more useful to a state—a well-powdered nobleman who knows exactly the time when the King gets up or goes to bed, and gives himself an air of grandeur while playing the role of a slave, … or a businessman who [like Voltaire’s London host Falkener] enriches his country, dispatches from his office orders to Surat and Cairo, and contributes to the happiness of the world.18
Finally, in a passage that laid down a program for France, Voltaire claimed that
the English constitution has, in fact, arrived at the point of excellence, in consequence of which all men are restored to those natural rights which in nearly all monarchies they are deprived of. These rights are entire liberty of person and property; freedom of the press; the right of being tried in all criminal cases by a jury of independent men; the right of being tried only according to the strict letter of the law; the right of every man to profess, unmolested, what religion he chooses.19
Voltaire must have known that only a part of the population enjoyed these “natural rights”; that liberty of person was not secure from the press gang; that there were limits to freedom of speech in religion and politics; that Dissenters and Catholics were excluded from public office; that judges could be bribed to override the law. He was writing no dispassionate description of English realities; he was using England as a whip to stir up revolt in France against oppression by state or Church. The fact that nearly all these rights are now taken for granted in civilized countries illuminates the achievement of the eighteenth century.
Just as important in its effect on modern thought was Voltaire’s praise of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. He applied to the impeached Bacon Boling-broke’s judgment on Marlborough: “He was so great a man that I do not recollect whether he had any faults or not.”20 “This great man,” he added, “is the father of experimental philosophy”—not by the experiments that Bacon made, but by his powerful appeals for the advancement of scientific research. Here was the thought that would lead Diderot and d’Alembert to name Bacon as the chief inspiration of their Encyelopédie.
To Locke Voltaire devoted nearly all of Letter XIII. He found in him not only a science of the mind instead of a mythology of the soul, but an implicit philosophy that, by tracing all knowledge to sensation, turned European thought from divine revelation to human experience as the exclusive source and basis of truth. And he welcomed Locke’s suggestion that conceivably matter might be enabled to think. This sentence especially stuck in the throat of the French censors, and had much to do with their condemnation of the book; they seemed to foresee in it the materialism of La Mettrie and Diderot. Voltaire refused to commit himself to materialism, but he revised Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” into “I am a body and I think; I know no more.”
Letter XIV advised the French to free themselves from Descartes and study Newton. “Public opinion in England on these two thinkers is that the first was a dreamer and the other a sage.” Voltaire honored Descartes’ contribution to geometry, but he could not assimilate the whirlpools of the Cartesian cosmology. He admitted that there was something dreamy, or at least soporific, in Newton’s essays on ancient chronology and the Apocalypse; Newton wrote these, Voltaire amiably suggested, “to console mankind for his otherwise too great superiority over them.”21 He himself as yet found Newton very difficult, but the assemblage of men prominent in government as well as in science at Newton’s funeral had left upon him an impression that determined him to study thePrincipiaand make himself an apostle of Newton to France. Here too he sowed the seed of the Encyclopédie and the Enlightenment.
Finally, he shocked religious thought in France by subjecting the Pensées of Pascal to a hostile critique. He had not intended to include this in the Lettres; it had nothing to do with England, but he had sent it from England to Thieriot in 1728; the piratical publisher appended it as Letter xxv; and the result was that the Jansenists—who worshiped Pascal and controlled the Parlement of Paris—now exceeded the Jesuits (who had no love for Pascal) in denouncing Voltaire. Voltaire was constitutionally incapable of agreeing with Pascal: he was at this stage (except in his plays) a militant rationalist who had not yet found a place for feeling in his philosophy. Still young, exuberant, enjoying life amid his heroic tribulations, he reacted against Pascal’s despondent pessimism: “I shall dare to take the part of the human race against this sublime misanthrope.”22 He rejected Pascal’s “wager” (that it is wiser to bet on God’s existence than against it) as “indecent and childish; … the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists.”23 (Pascal had not offered the wager as a proof.) He admitted that we cannot explain the universe or know the destiny of man, but he doubted if we can deduce from this ignorance the truth of the Apostles’ Creed. Nor had he at this bouncing age any sympathy with Pascal’s longing for repose; man, he proclaimed, “is born for action.… Not to be employed, and not to exist, are one and the same thing with regard to man.”24
These Remarques sur les Pensées de Pascal are not Voltaire at his best. He had not prepared them for publication, he had no chance to revise them; and later events—like the Lisbon earthquake—removed the youthful bloom from his optimism. Despite this unconsidered appendage the Lettres philosophiques were a milestone in French literature and thought. Here for the first time appeared the short, sharp sentences, the unmistakable clarity, the gay wit and deflating irony, that were henceforth to be a literary signature overriding all cautious denials of authorship; this book and the Lettres persanes set the tone of French prose from the Regency to the Revolution. Moreover, it constituted one of the strongest links in that junction of the French and British intellects which Buckle rated “by far the most important fact in the history of the eighteenth century.”25 It was a declaration of war and a map of campaign. Rousseau said of these letters that they played a large part in the awakening of his mind; there must have been thousands of youngFrenchmen who owed the book a similar debt. Lafayette said it made him a republican at the age of nine. Heine thought “it was not necessary for the censor to condemn this book; it would have been read without that.”26
Church and state, King and Parlement, felt that they could not bear in silence so many wounds. The printer was sent to the Bastille, and a lettre de cachet was issued for the arrest of Voltaire wherever found. On May 11, 1734, an agent of police appeared at Montjeu with a warrant, but Voltaire, warned probably by Maupertuis and d’Argental, had left five days before, and was already beyond the frontier of France. On June 10, by an order of the Parlement, all discoverable copies of the book were burned by the public hangman in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice as “scandalous, contrary to religion, good morals, and the respect Duc to authority.”
Before learning of Voltaire’s safe arrival in Lorraine, the Marquise du Châtelet wrote to a friend: “To know that he, with such health and imagination as he has, is in a prison … I do not find in myself constancy enough to support the idea.” She and the Duchesse de Richelieu enlisted the aid of titled women to obtain a pardon. The Keeper of the Seals agreed to have the order of arrest rescinded if Voltaire would disavow authorship of the book; he knew quite well that Voltaire was the author, but lent himself to the ruse; he was one of a succession of governmental officials who tempered censorship now and then by looking the other way. Voltaire readily agreed to disclaim authorship; this would be a white lie eminently forgivable; besides, the book that he was to disavow had been distributed without his consent. To the Duchesse d’Aiguillon he wrote:
They say I must retract. Very willingly. I will declare that Pascal is always right; … that all priests are gentle and disinterested; … that monks are neither proud nor given to intrigue nor stinking; that the Holy Inquisition is the triumph of humanity and tolerance.27
The order of arrest was withdrawn, with the proviso that Voltaire should remain at a respectful distance from Paris. He passed from château to château near the border, and was welcomed by the nobles, who were not very pious and not at all fond of a centralized and absolute monarchy. He received an invitation to reside at the court of Holstein, with a pension of ten thousand francs a year; he refused it.28 In July he retired to the château of Mme. du Châtelet at Cirey in Champagne. There, as the paying guest of his mistress and her husband, he entered upon the happiest years of his life.