(Note: I'm cramming for one of my written exams on about 70-80 texts, which I'll be taking in a week. I've read all of the texts, but I'm now reviewing them together. So, I thought that I might enjoy blogging my notes. These should not be used as Spark Notes by any students on earth!)
Voltaire's text takes the form of letters from a Frenchman visiting England. Instead of being straight travel writing however, Voltaire attempts to survey all of English politics and culture. In a sense, he does this to make serious criticisms of French culture. Enlgand becomes the counter-example to French norms. However, he also uses irony to question Enlgish norms throughout the work. So, for example, the famous passage:
"If one religion only were allowed in Enlgand, the government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another's throats, but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace." This can be taken in three ways:
1. As a straightforward statement in support of religious tolerance.
2. As an implied criticism of the dominance of Catholicism in France.
3. As an ironic comment on the lack of complete religious tolerance in England at this time.
Voltaire, I think, intends for the passage to be read in all three ways at once. Voltaire's style is playful and allusive. However, I think there are key themes throughout the work that tie it to the Enlightenment more generally.
1. Again, religious tolerance is a key theme. Voltaire notes that "A man should never... attempt to win over a fanatic by strength of reasoning." (11) He argues that religious persecution "seldom has any other effect than to increase the number of proselytes." (18) While Voltaire is often seen, incorrectly I think, as an aethiest, here he comes not to bury theism, but to argue against the public dominance of any specific religion, or the public conflict between religions. "The Romans never knew the dreadful folly of religious Wars, an abomination reserved for devout Preachers of patience and humility." (33)
2. Political moderation is another key theme. Voltaire's account of Enlgish political liberty is relatively Whiggish. He notes that the English "are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them; and who by a series of struggles have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrained from committing evil; where the Nobles are great without insolence, though there are no Vassals, and where the People share in the government without confusion." (34) The implication is that France has a long way to go in regards to rational and restrained government. But, when he writes that the "house of Lords and that of the Commons divide the legislative power under the King," Voltaire is making a statement about the ideal form of English constitutionalism at a time when it was under debate in England.
3. Another key theme is the power of experiential philosophy. Voltaire attributes all inventions before the use of the experimental method to luck. "In a word, no one before the Lord Bacon, was acquainted with Experimental Philosophy..." (52) Voltaire's narrative sets up a chain of heroes, including Locke, Bacon, and Newton who radically reconfigured how human beings encountered the world, making possible scientific knowledge of the universe, but circumscribing metaphysical knowledge of it. This should limit the ability of religions to speak with certainty about metaphysics, and therefore to clash over religious issues. It is not much of a stretch to call Voltaire a materlialist. When he criticizes Descartes, he does so based on the fact that Descartes speculated far beyond the abilities of his senses. Voltaire prefers Locke's version of the soul to that of Descartes, and prefers Isaac Newton's ideas on matter.
Ultimately, Voltaire believes in a sort of intellectual self-determination based on direct sensory experience, and makes Bacon, Locke, and Newton spokesmen for this point of view.
4. Ultimately, this is a cultural history. Not only is Voltaire attempting to catalogue the intellectual and cultural heroes of England (Locke, Newton, Bacon, Shakespeare, etc.); he is also arguing that it is the intellectual geniuses who push a civilization forward, as opposed to Kings or military leaders. "If true Greatness consists in having recieved from Heaven a mighty Genius, and in having employed it to enlighten our own Minds and that of others, a Man like Sir Isaac Newton, whose equal is hardly to found in a thousand Years, is the trule great Man. And those Politicians and Conquerors, were generally so many illustrious wicked Men." (49) He wants us to see the English nation as having been shaped by its geniuses. This is why men must use their own senses, and not be beholden to imposed structures of belief ('fanatics' as Voltaire phrases it); freedom of thought will allow the few geniuses who exist to change society. "You see that opinions are subject to revolutions as well as Empires." (32)