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- LETTERS ON ENGLAND - 1/20 -


LETTERS ON ENGLAND

by Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet)

INTRODUCTION

Francois Marie Arouet, who called himself Voltaire, was the son of Francois Arouet of Poitou, who lived in Paris, had given up his office of notary two years before the birth of this his third son, and obtained some years afterwards a treasurer's office in the Chambre des Comptes. Voltaire was born in the year 1694. He lived until within ten or eleven years of the outbreak of the Great French Revolution, and was a chief leader in the movement of thought that preceded the Revolution. Though he lived to his eighty-fourth year, Voltaire was born with a weak body. His brother Armand, eight years his senior, became a Jansenist. Voltaire when ten years old was placed with the Jesuits in the College Louis-le-Grand. There he was taught during seven years, and his genius was encouraged in its bent for literature; skill in speaking and in writing being especially fostered in the system of education which the Jesuits had planned to produce capable men who by voice and pen could give a reason for the faith they held. Verses written for an invalid soldier at the age of eleven won for young Voltaire the friendship of Ninon l'Enclos, who encouraged him to go on writing verses. She died soon afterwards, and remembered him with a legacy of two thousand livres for purchase of books. He wrote in his lively school-days a tragedy that afterwards he burnt. At the age of seventeen he left the College Louis-le-Grand, where he said afterwards that he had been taught nothing but Latin and the Stupidities. He was then sent to the law schools, and saw life in Paris as a gay young poet who, with all his brilliant liveliness, had an aptitude for looking on the tragic side of things, and one of whose first poems was an "Ode on the Misfortunes of Life." His mother died when he was twenty. Voltaire's father thought him a fool for his versifying, and attached him as secretary to the Marquis of Chateauneuf; when he went as ambassador to the Hague. In December, 1713, he was dismissed for his irregularities. In Paris his unsteadiness and his addiction to literature caused his father to rejoice in getting him housed in a country chateau with M. de Caumartin. M. de Caumartin's father talked with such enthusiasm of Henri IV. and Sully that Voltaire planned the writing of what became his Henriade, and his "History of the Age of Louis XIV.," who died on the 1st of September, 1715.

Under the regency that followed, Voltaire got into trouble again and again through the sharpness of his pen, and at last, accused of verse that satirised the Regent, he was locked up--on the 17th of May, 1717--in the Bastille. There he wrote the first two books of his Henriade, and finished a play on OEdipus, which he had begun at the age of eighteen. He did not obtain full liberty until the 12th of April, 1718, and it was at this time--with a clearly formed design to associate the name he took with work of high attempt in literature--that Francois Marie Arouet, aged twenty-four, first called himself Voltaire.

Voltaire's OEdipe was played with success in November, 1718. A few months later he was again banished from Paris, and finished the Henriade in his retirement, as well as another play, Artemise, that was acted in February, 1720. Other plays followed. In December, 1721, Voltaire visited Lord Bolingbroke, who was then an exile from England, at the Chateau of La Source. There was now constant literary activity. From July to October, 1722, Voltaire visited Holland with Madame de Rupelmonde. After a serious attack of small- pox in November, 1723, Voltaire was active as a poet about the Court. He was then in receipt of a pension of two thousand livres from the king, and had inherited more than twice as much by the death of his father in January, 1722. But in December, 1725, a quarrel, fastened upon him by the Chevalier de Rohan, who had him waylaid and beaten, caused him to send a challenge. For this he was arrested and lodged once more, in April, 1726, in the Bastille. There he was detained a month; and his first act when he was released was to ask for a passport to England.

Voltaire left France, reached London in August, 1726, went as guest to the house of a rich merchant at Wandsworth, and remained three years in this country, from the age of thirty-two to the age of thirty-five. He was here when George I. died, and George II. became king. He published here his Henriade. He wrote here his "History of Charles XII." He read "Gulliver's Travels" as a new book, and might have been present at the first night of The Beggar's Opera. He was here whet Sir Isaac Newton died.

In 1731 he published at Rouen the Lettres sur les Anglais, which appeared in England in 1733 in the volume from which they are here reprinted.

H.M.

LETTERS ON ENGLAND

LETTER I.--ON THE QUAKERS

I was of opinion that the doctrine and history of so extraordinary a people were worthy the attention of the curious. To acquaint myself with them I made a visit to one of the most eminent Quakers in England, who, after having traded thirty years, had the wisdom to prescribe limits to his fortune and to his desires, and was settled in a little solitude not far from London. Being come into it, I perceived a small but regularly built house, vastly neat, but without the least pomp of furniture. The Quaker who owned it was a hale, ruddy-complexioned old man, who had never been afflicted with sickness because he had always been insensible to passions, and a perfect stranger to intemperance. I never in my life saw a more noble or a more engaging aspect than his. He was dressed like those of his persuasion, in a plain coat without pleats in the sides, or buttons on the pockets and sleeves; and had on a beaver, the brims of which were horizontal like those of our clergy. He did not uncover himself when I appeared, and advanced towards me without once stooping his body; but there appeared more politeness in the open, humane air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head which is made to cover it. "Friend," says he to me, "I perceive thou art a stranger, but if I can do anything for thee, only tell me." "Sir," said I to him, bending forwards and advancing, as is usual with us, one leg towards him, "I flatter myself that my just curiosity will not give you the least offence, and that you'll do me the honour to inform me of the particulars of your religion." "The people of thy country," replied the Quaker, "are too full of their bows and compliments, but I never yet met with one of them who had so much curiosity as thyself. Come in, and let us first dine together." I still continued to make some very unseasonable ceremonies, it not being easy to disengage one's self at once from habits we have been long used to; and after taking part in a frugal meal, which began and ended with a prayer to God, I began to question my courteous host. I opened with that which good Catholics have more than once made to Huguenots. "My dear sir," said I, "were you ever baptised?" "I never was," replied the Quaker, "nor any of my brethren." "Zounds!" say I to him, "you are not Christians, then." "Friend," replies the old man in a soft tone of voice, "swear not; we are Christians, and endeavour to be good Christians, but we are not of opinion that the sprinkling water on a child's head makes him a Christian." "Heavens!" say I, shocked at his impiety, "you have then forgot that Christ was baptised by St. John." "Friend," replies the mild Quaker once again, "swear not; Christ indeed was baptised by John, but He himself never baptised anyone. We are the disciples of Christ, not of John." I pitied very much the sincerity of my worthy Quaker, and was absolutely for forcing him to get himself christened. "Were that all," replied he very gravely, "we would submit cheerfully to baptism, purely in compliance with thy weakness, for we don't condemn any person who uses it; but then we think that those who profess a religion of so holy, so spiritual a nature as that of Christ, ought to abstain to the utmost of their power from the Jewish ceremonies." "O unaccountable!" say I: "what! baptism a Jewish ceremony?" "Yes, my friend," says he, "so truly Jewish, that a great many Jews use the baptism of John to this day. Look into ancient authors, and thou wilt find that John only revived this practice; and that it had been used by the Hebrews, long before his time, in like manner as the Mahometans imitated the Ishmaelites in their pilgrimages to Mecca. Jesus indeed submitted to the baptism of John, as He had suffered Himself to be circumcised; but circumcision and the washing with water ought to be abolished by the baptism of Christ, that baptism of the Spirit, that ablution of the soul, which is the salvation of mankind. Thus the forerunner said, 'I indeed baptise you with water unto repentance; but He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.' Likewise Paul, the great apostle of the Gentiles, writes as follows to the Corinthians, 'Christ sent me not to baptise, but to preach the Gospel;' and indeed Paul never baptised but two persons with water, and that very much against his inclinations. He circumcised his disciple Timothy, and the other disciples likewise circumcised all who were willing to submit to that carnal ordinance. But art thou circumcised?" added he. "I have not the honour to be so," say I. "Well, friend," continues the Quaker, "thou art a Christian without being circumcised, and I am one without being baptised." Thus did this pious man make a wrong but very specious application of four or five texts of Scripture which seemed to favour the tenets of his sect; but at the same time forgot very sincerely an hundred texts which made directly against them. I had more sense than to contest with him, since there is no possibility of convincing an enthusiast. A man should never pretend to inform a lover of his mistress's faults, no more than one who is at law, of the badness of his cause; nor attempt to win over a fanatic by strength of reasoning. Accordingly I waived the subject.

"Well," said I to him, "what sort of a communion have you?" "We have none like that thou hintest at among us," replied he. "How! no communion?" said I. "Only that spiritual one," replied he, "of hearts." He then began again to throw out his texts of Scripture; and preached a most eloquent sermon against that ordinance. He harangued in a tone as though he had been inspired, to prove that the sacraments were merely of human invention, and that the word "sacrament" was not once mentioned in the Gospel. "Excuse," said he, "my ignorance, for I have not employed a hundredth part of the arguments which might be brought to prove the truth of our religion,


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