Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe

After self-exile to England, Voltaire returned to France and introduced advances made by the British in the sciences and in religious tolerance, government and political theory, freethinking, and the elimination of aristocratic privilege. British thought thus became a model for the eighteenth century Enlightenment.

Summary of Event

In February, 1726, at a performance of the Comédie Française, Voltaire encountered the arrogant chevalier Guy Auguste de Rohan-Chabot, Rohan-Chabot, Guy Auguste de an insignificant descendant of an illustrious family. Rohan-Chabot publicly ridiculed Voltaire by addressing him as Monsieur de Voltaire and then asking if his name was not Monsieur Arouet instead, emphasizing Voltaire’s common birth. Voltaire was given the name François-Marie Arouet at birth and was the son of a notary. In 1718, after the success of his play Œdipe (pb. 1719; Oedipus, 1761), he began to use the pseudonym Voltaire. Always quick of wit and capable of bitter sarcasm, Voltaire ignored Rohan-Chabot’s question and replied that rather than dishonoring his family name, he was immortalizing the name he had taken. Rohan-Chabot’s first reaction was to strike Voltaire, but he resisted, for by doing so he would have provoked a duel. (Aristocrats settled disputes with each other by dueling; they did not duel with commoners because they had other ways of dealing with those they believed were their social inferiors.) Instead of dueling, Rohan-Chabot promised Voltaire a sound beating. Voltaire ignored the threat. [kw]Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe (1726-1729)
[kw]Europe, Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in (1726-1729)
[kw]Thought in Europe, Voltaire Advances Enlightenment (1726-1729)
[kw]Enlightenment Thought in Europe, Voltaire Advances (1726-1729)
[kw]Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe, Voltaire (1726-1729)
[g]England;1726-1729: Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe[0690]
[g]France;1726-1729: Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe[0690]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1726-1729: Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe[0690]
[c]Philosophy;1726-1729: Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe[0690]
[c]Government and politics;1726-1729: Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe[0690]
[c]Social issues and reform;1726-1729: Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe[0690]
[c]Religion and theology;1726-1729: Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe[0690]
Bolingbroke, first Viscount
Pope, Alexander
Swift, Jonathan
Berkeley, George
Clarke, Samuel

Three days later, Voltaire was dining at the home of a friend when a valet informed him that someone was asking to see him. At the door, Voltaire was attacked by four ruffians hired by Rohan-Chabot, who was seated in a coach nearby, watching as Voltaire was beaten. Voltaire was incensed and tried to provoke a duel. Prudently eliciting the aid of his influential family, Rohan-Chabot had Voltaire incarcerated at the Bastille. After several days of imprisonment, Voltaire was released with orders to stay fifty leagues from Paris at all times. In May, he set sail for England.

Exile from Paris would have been unbearable for any French intellectual in the eighteenth century. To be in the provinces was to be dead. Thus, Voltaire decided to visit England instead and discover this rival of France. Rivalry and open hostilities had existed between the two nations for centuries: Wars were fought to increase land holdings, and there was competition in commerce and conflict over colonial expansion. Although France remained a Catholic country with the alliance of church and state, England, primarily Protestant, had become a land of religious tolerance. Tradition and rules and government censorship still prohibited new ideas and innovation in France, while scientific investigation and philosophical speculation thrived in England. Enlightenment;England

Voltaire’s contribution to the Enlightenment assumed legendary proportions. In this c. 1778 engraving, the world’s continents—represented by Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and “Prince Oronoco”—attempt to pay homage at Voltaire’s tomb, but they are hindered by the spirit of ignorance.

(Library of Congress)

Voltaire had long been interested in England. He had frequented the English embassy in France, and he had met and conversed with First Viscount Bolingbroke, the Tory Party leader who had been exiled in France. With Bolingbroke’s encouragement, Voltaire already had been learning English. He was studying the works of John Locke, the seventeenth century English philosopher who had proposed that government was based on a contract and that a sovereign should obey established laws. He was corresponding with Alexander Pope, the classical English poet.

Once in England, Voltaire set about investigating all that was English. Eager to perfect his language skills, he immediately arranged for lessons in English. His teacher, a young Quaker, not only taught him English but also introduced him to the beliefs of a religion that differed greatly from the Catholicism that dominated France. Once Voltaire was fluent in English, he was able to attend theater performances, discovering William Shakespeare’s work and a literature very different from the classicism of the French theater.

Voltaire was well received in England. In 1727, he was presented to King George I, frequented George’s court, and participated in discussions there. In April, he attended the funeral of Sir Isaac Newton at Westminster. The respect with which the English honored the scientist made a lasting impression on Voltaire. In addition to members of the court, Voltaire associated with members of both the Whig and Tory parties, thus gaining knowledge of English political theory; he was greatly influenced by the Deism of Bolingbroke. That same year, he was invited to the homes of Lord Peterborough, Lord Hervey, and Lady Marlborough (Sarah Churchill). He met and conversed with merchants and bankers, and published a work in English: An Essay upon the Civil Wars of France . . . and Also upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations from Homer Down to Milton. In 1728, he published La Henriade, his epic poem on King Henry IV and the religious wars in France. It was a publication to which many members of the Whig Party subscribed.

Voltaire also made the acquaintance of Jonathan Swift, the author Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and other social satires of the time. He spent three months in Swift’s company at the home of Lord Peterborough and frequented his longtime correspondent, the poet Alexander Pope. In addition to Bolingbroke, whose theory of history also made a lasting impression on him, Voltaire spent time with Samuel Clarke, a theologian dedicated to refuting atheism, and with philosopher George Berkeley.

Before returning to France in 1729, Voltaire decided to write a book about his discoveries in England. His Letters Concerning the English Nation
Letters Concerning the English Nation (Voltaire) (1733; Lettres philosophiques, 1734; published as Philosophical Letters, 1961) appeared first in English and was published in London. The French version was released by Voltaire’s editor at Rouen. Voltaire had been hesitant about making his text available in France, for he feared the book would bring him trouble. He had already spent time in the Bastille for his writings. In this regard, his intuition was right: The book was denounced as a scandal against religion, society, and the government. It was officially burned and an order was issued for Voltaire’s arrest. He fled and went into hiding.


Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation discussed the major ideas that had occupied the French thinkers of the period, ideas shunned by the French court. The main themes of the book were religious tolerance, freedom of thought, respect for scientific investigation, constitutional government, and society. He discussed Newton’s law of gravity and Locke’s empiricism, and he argued that life could be improved by understanding natural law and by trusting science and the scientific method.

Voltaire also included a letter at the end of the text on the thoughts of Blaise Pascal, Pascal, Blaise a seventeenth century French writer, philosopher, and scientist. In this letter, Voltaire launched his attack on the Catholic Catholic Church;Voltaire Church in France. Pascal had presented humans as victims with little or no possibility of happiness on earth. Voltaire challenged this idea. He stated that humans could find happiness through discovery and reason. With Voltaire’s help, England, and English thought, became the model for social change in continental Europe.

Further Reading

  • Collins, J. Churton. Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau in England. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1980. An account, first published in 1908, of Voltaire’s years in England. Includes discussion of his contemporaries Montesquieu and Rousseau. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Crocker, Lester. An Age of Crisis: Man and World in Eighteenth Century French Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959. Still one of the best presentations of the thinking of the period. A clear and concise work.
  • Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Age of Voltaire. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965. An intelligent, urbane, highly readable, and readily available account of the Enlightenment. A classic.
  • Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966-1969. A lively and brilliant interpretation of the Enlightenment organized by topic. A gold mine of information.
  • _______. The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971. A series of essays on various aspects of the Enlightenment by one of the period’s most renowned historians.
  • Lanson, Gustave. Voltaire. Translated by Robert A. Wagoner. Introduction by Peter Gay. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966. This brief survey of Voltaire’s life and work by a famous French literary historian was originally published in 1906. It is an excellent introductory volume that distinguishes between Voltaire’s deeply held convictions and his more casual and whimsical arguments.
  • Popkin, Richard, ed. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Chapter 6, useful especially to students, gives a concise overview of the Enlightenment, its origins, and its significance in the history of ideas.
  • Voltaire. Letters Concerning the English Nation. Edited by Nicholas Cronk. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A critical edition of Voltaire’s original text, with an introduction, explanatory notes, and accounts of Voltaire by English contemporaries.
  • Vyverherg, Henry. Human Nature, Cultural Diversity, and the French Enlightenment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A collection of Enlightenment thinking, with a good introduction to the period.

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