In the frontispiece to Voltaire's book on Newton's philosophy, Voltaire's lover Émilie du Châtelet appears as Voltaire's muse, reflecting Newton's heavenly insights down to Voltaire. 1738. Wikicommons. Public domain.
One of the consequences of Brexit which is difficult to measure is how it has altered British self-perception and Britain’s image in the rest of the European Union. Despite the slogans about ‘Global Britain’, near-caricature nostalgia for a more glorious and simpler time was omnipresent during the campaign and arguably played a large role in securing a victory for the Leave vote.
The English (and to a lesser degree the other nations of the United Kingdom) were perceived as retreating upon themselves and turning their back on a common European destiny. The referendum and its ensuing political ramifications have left very few in Europe desiring to emulate the example set by Brexit.
How different it was in Voltaire’s time. Following increasingly difficult relations with the French nobility, the Enlightenment philosopher left Paris in 1726 and travelled to London, where he stayed for two years. He left a country which was economically ruined, politically stagnating and torn apart by religious quarrels. He found an island with a constitutional monarchy, religious tolerance and relative freedom of expression.
Voltaire set out to understand this ‘Island of Reason’. First he became fluent in English in order to immerse himself in the theatre and literature of the country. He also befriended the brightest minds in politics, science and philosophy. The letters reporting on his ‘findings’ were later compiled into a book; ‘Lettres philosophiques’ better known internationally as ‘Letters on the English’.
Though written almost 300 years ago, this collection still feels fresh and pertinent due to its succinct style and because many of the subjects discussed are still hotly debated today. What lessons can modern Britain learn about itself through Voltaire’s letters and what can Enlightenment Britain teach Europe?
One of Voltaire’s main concerns throughout his works was religious intolerance. France had a fresh history of religious fanaticism fuelling civil war and massacres. Sporadic acts of religious mob violence continued throughout Voltaire’s life
Voltaire was a deist and famously critical of the three biggest monotheistic religions. In his ‘Treaty on Tolerance’ he writes ‘tolerance has never caused civil wars and intolerance has covered the earth with carnage… the law of intolerance is thus absurd and barbarian; it is the law of the tigers and it is horrible, for tigers rip each other apart to eat and we exterminate ourselves for paragraphs’.
He does not make his plea for tolerance from a moral high ground; in his ‘Treaty on Tolerance’ he argues that tolerance was practised by successful civilizations. The Ancient Greeks saw different religions as nodes which connected societies; ‘A foreigner arrived in a city and started adoring its gods. ‘
Voltaire claims that the Romans were equally tolerant of views running contrary to the official state religion (unless it was dangerous to the political order of the day). Even men in the highest positions felt free to mock the religious dogmas of the time, such as Cicero when he spoke of hell; ‘Not even an old imbecile would believe in it’.
Intolerance is the real danger for civilizations Voltaire argues; ‘it is a non sequitur to reason that ‘the men rebelled when I harmed them and therefore they will rise up when I treat them well.’’ He cites myriad examples from contemporary states to prove that intolerance breeds discord and violence. Tolerance for Voltaire is ‘in the interest of nations… it is a matter of the physical and moral wellbeing of society.’
Diversity and peace
Voltaire was impressed when he arrived in London and saw a multitude of religious groups co-existing peacefully (though not in equality). He sees diversity as a key ingredient for a harmonious and free society; ‘If there was in England but one religion, despotism would have to be feared. If there were two, they’d cut each other’s throat. But there are thirty and they live together peacefully.’
For Voltaire, free trade between nations is equally beneficial to tolerance: ‘Enter the Stock Exchange in London’ he writes. ‘Here the Jew, the Mohammedan and the Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion and they only call infidels those who go bankrupt.’
Despite being a very harsh critic of organized religion, the great Enlightenment philosopher was also very skilled at arguing in a theological framework against intolerance.
Though he wrote in a private letter that ‘our religion [Christianity] is without a doubt the most ridiculous and the most absurd’ he was able to publicly present convincing arguments for tolerance by carefully quoting the Gospels.
‘Almost all words and acts of Jesus Christ preach tenderness, love and indulgence. It is the father who welcomes the prodigious child, he forgives the sinner, he is content recommending fidelity to the adulteress…. if you want to resemble Jesus, be martyrs, not executioners’
When in Europe acts of religious violence are committed in the name of Islam, politicians are often split in two diametrically opposed camps. There are those who condemn Islam in its entirety and those who proclaim that violence has nothing to do with the religion. One approach alienates the religious community and the other refuses to address (at least a part of) the issue.
Theology, however misguided, is part of the issue and it is unlikely solutions will be found entirely outside of theology. Voltaire made an invaluable contribution to European Enlightenment referring to Bible verses and his approach can still bring the light where religious dogmatism reigns in darkness.
One should not mistake Voltaire’s idea of tolerance to be of the ‘anything goes’ brand. His tolerance is far reaching but also knows limits, to which he devotes an entire chapter in his ‘Treaty on Religious Tolerance’.
‘For a government not to have the right to punish men, it is necessary that these errors are not crimes. They are only crimes when they trouble society; they trouble society from the moment they inspire fanaticism.’ he writes. ‘Men ought not to be fanatic if they want to be deserving of tolerance.’
Not only violent acts committed in the name of religion fall outside the limits of tolerance but also the words which inspire them: ‘For if they (Jesuits) voiced criminal thoughts, if their institution is in opposition to the laws of the (French) Kingdom, we have no choice but to dissolve their association and abolish the Jesuits to make them citizens’.
Cult of the mind
Obviously Voltaire did not see the Church as the totem around which a nation should be united and instead looked for other strong and virtuous symbols.
Voltaire writes in glowing terms about the respect the English had for their intellectuals. He was particularly fascinated by Isaac Newton (whose funeral he attended) and the consideration he received from his fellow countrymen.
‘Mr Newton was honoured during his lifetime and has been, like he ought to, since he passed.’ he marvels. ‘Enter Westminster, it is not the tombs of royals which are admired but monuments which the nation has erected to the greatest men which have contributed to its glory; you see their statues like in Athens you could see those of Sophocles and Plato… and I am sure that the mere sight of these glorious monuments has awakened more than one spirit and has formed more than one great man’.
Voltaire greatly appreciated that in England great minds were rewarded justly and given high public responsibilities. He also admired how lettered the English were as opposed to the French court where the letters were ‘falling out of fashion’. For Voltaire this was a natural consequence of the political system and freedom of press.
‘In London approximately 800 people have the right to speak in public and to argue the interest of the nation and approximately 5000 seek the same honour. The rest judges them and everybody can print what they want on public affairs. Thus, the whole nation is under the obligation to instruct themselves.’
This ‘cult of the mind’ was already a prevalent theme amongst philosophers long before Voltaire. Plato was critical of societies which admired the ‘rich and famous’ as their false virtues would reflect negatively on society. Instead he argued for philosophers and other wise men to lead society. This rings particularly true in the age of Trump where the boundary between politics and show business is increasingly fading.
Societies have since time immemorial sought out models in the past for inspiration to build their own futures, frequently looking beyond their own borders. The American and French revolutionaries looked to the Roman Republic for inspiration, the Russian revolution to the Paris Commune.
‘The members of the English Parliament like to compare themselves to the Romans as much as they can’ wrote Voltaire. He saw many differences between Rome and the England key amongst which. ‘The fruit of the Roman civil wars has been slavery and those of the English troubles liberty.’
Nostalgia in politics is often treated dismissively as a misguided desire of a segment of the population to turn its back on modernity, return to an (illusory) ‘Golden Age’ which has been taken away from them by some external force. Nevertheless nostalgia can also project an ideal which can encourage a society in tumultuous times to reorient and outdo itself.
In the case of England, Voltaire’s letters can offer a potent counter-narrative to the nostalgia which fuelled Brexit, not by ignoring national history but by instead looking at an equally glorious period of history. Longing for a glorious past is not necessarily wrong; it is just a matter of which past one longs for. The age of Enlightenment may contain more useful lessons for today and its glory remains undiminished.
The European Union has, for a variety of reasons, not chosen to engage much with European history. As it has been rapidly expanding it is has also been increasingly difficult to find common symbols which would be as meaningful to the new members as the old.
Apart from a few token nods to mythology, symbols and a hymn the European Union presents itself more as a break in European history then a direct continuation of it. Where national parliaments are often filled with busts and art representing a glorious past, the corridors of the European intuitions in Brussels retain a stale and technocratic feeling.
The risk exists that by wanting to incarnate universal values, the European Union will be the incarnation of nothing. It is very difficult to identify oneself with nothing.
Despite allocating considerable resources to promoting its image, very few have a sense of a European civil identity or patriotism. The European Union would do well to embrace and embody European history in all its diversity if it wants to strengthen European sentiments, which no marketing agency will ever be able to do.
The age of enlightenment was undoubtedly one of the most glorious periods of European history.
It was truly European as it drew together individuals from all corners of the continent in their intellectual quest. Enlightened rulers such as Frederic the Great or Catherine the Great hosted and gave their ears to the great minds of their times such as Voltaire and Diderot. The great intellectuals travelled throughout Europe, sometimes to evade censorship, sometimes to absorb ideas and spread theirs.
These exchanges for both idealistic and pragmatic reasons are what made Europe great and can make it ‘great again’. Voltaire through his life and works is at the same time a true French and European intellectual giant; he engaged with all the great figures of his age, from London to Saint Petersburg and left behind a name and work still revered all across the old continent. To be European one has to think European.
‘The English have made good use of the works in our language’ wrote Voltaire. ‘Now it is our turn to borrow from them. The English and us (the French) have come after the Italians, who have been our masters in everything and whom we have surpassed in some way. I don’t know which of the three nations is to be preferred but happy is the one who can feel their different merits!’.