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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 8 September 2012
Voltaire enjoyed his time in England, spending some time here in exile after one of his many disputes with the French court. In his best known work and masterpiece, Candide, or Optimism (Penguin Classics), the only time Voltaire makes a comment about the country is over the firing squad of Admiral Byng, who it is suggested was shot "pour encourager les autres," a phrase from French that has come into the English language.

More often Voltaire was positive about England, even if it was sometimes tempered with his famous sense of irony. These letters demonstrate this. For him, it was a place of tolerance and enlightenment. Not least religious tolerance, about which he observes, contrasting with his native France:

"If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism, if there were two they would cut each other's throats, but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness."

He was not, however, blind to the intolerances he did find, noting for example that only Anglicans could hold certain positions in Government, though he still found the priests less corrupt. He also observed other religious sects at the time including the Presbyterians and above all the Quakers, admiring them for their piety and way of living. Though the admiration was also tinted with some amusement. The real religion in England, he states, is the Stock Exchange where people of all sects trade together.

In this book, Voltaire also looks at secular institutions such as Parliament, the Stock Exchange, theatre and the inoculation of smallpox which he admires. He is also interested in the science of Isaac Newton and the poetry of Alexander Pope as well as turning his thoughts back to French culture with a letter on Pascal. All of these observations are served up in this book with a combination of lightness of touch and perceptiveness. If at times he is satirical, at the same time there is that wonderful sense of sanity for which this writer is justifiably celebrated.

Readers of Voltaire's greatest work, "Candide" will find plenty more to enjoy here. In some ways, though written nearly three hundred years ago, one can also say little has changed. This is one of the most acute observations of the English character ever penned.
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on 29 March 2007
I read this a few years ago, and I was amazed that it was written so long ago. The writing is very clear and easy to read, his thoughts on freedom seem very relevant today. Voltaire was impressed with England, at a time when France was a little more autocratic. His writing is witty and evocative.
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on 23 March 2014
In his brilliant biography (Voltaire A life: Profile Books), Ian Davidson records that in 1735 the French authorities were so disturbed by Voltaire's book 'Letters on England' (Lettres philosophiques) that they would permit him to return to Paris only on condition that "he made a public recantation disowning the [book] and promised to behave better in future".

The book is a delight. Voltaire's pen pictures, from the quaintness of the Quakers to his undisguised admiration and wonder at Newton's discovery of gravity, are wittily and carefully observed. For me there were one or two surprises; not the least being the detailed description, fifteen and more years before Edward Jenner was born, of the practice of inoculating infants with a mild form of small pox to save them from the ravages of the often fatal form of that terrible and disfiguring disease.

The idea that his highly controversial book would in the future be made not only freely available but that people could have it delivered to their homes in an instant at the touch of a button would, I am sure, have intrigued the great man - although the natural accountant in him might have been a little concerned at the `free' bit.

Despite its antiquity (1894) this translation is very well worth a read. My thanks to Amazon for making such a famous book available to us at no cost.
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on 12 March 2014
These are quite varied rhetorical travel reports from a dim and distant London of the seventeenth century. Voltaire is witty urbane and incisively critical in his response to English thought and practice - you can sense both admiration and horror as he discusses the radical thoughts,tastes and freedoms of France's traditional enemy.. The latter letters are harder going, but the first two on his thee-thouing quaker are the real highlight. If only we had such radically innovative freethinking to be proud of today...
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on 3 April 2013
Voltaire wrote his 'Letters on England' (1733) during his three year exile in the country (mainly spent in London). It comprises of 25 letters on a range of subjects, from religious sects to poets, from Isaac Newton to the House of Commons. Voltaire writes with great admiration for the English, especially of England's philosophers (Newton and Locke) and poets (Rochester and Pope) but he also pokes fun at the quirks and failings - the ridiculous hats worn by the isolationist Quakers and the lack of proper historians (Edward Gibbon would be born four years after the publication of this book). What is most impressive is the clear and witty way Voltaire writes. It is proto-journalistic.

My favorite paragraph in the book is about the Philosopher John Locke, the father of English Empiricism:

"Divide mankind into twenty parts : nineteen consist of men who work with their hands and who will never know that there is a Locke in the world, and in the remaining twentieth part how few men will you find who are readers! And of those who read, twenty read novels to one who studies philosophy. The number of those who think is exceedingly small, and they are not interested in upsetting the world."

I think this says so much about the importance of reading and thinking and I also love the fact that for Voltaire the highest achievements were made by men of reason. That said, most can name three plays by Shakespeare but know very little about Locke. Similarly, many hold their religious beliefs dear without ever considering the foundation upon which any thought, religious or otherwise, is built. For those reasons, and many others, I would say this is a great little book for anyone to read, not just fans of Voltaire, but for anyone who wants an amusing tour around Enlightenment England and the men and ideas that shaped the Age of Reason.
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on 24 January 2015
A brilliant read
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on 2 May 2015
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on 1 April 2015
very good
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on 26 April 2014
This man was particularly interested in England and from his experience wrote a revealing history of the country at the time. He was enamoured with much about it and made favourable comparisons with his own country.
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