Montesquieu’s violent arraignment of the old order passed only because he seasoned it more than generously with a sauce piquante that titillated the depraved taste of the Regent to a nicety. Voltaire’s book was in even worse case; it was immediately condemned, and an order was issued to arrest the author and imprison him in the Bastille. Voltaire had to fly for safety. And yet, to a modern reader, the “Letters on the English” doubtless seems a perfectly mild affair.

It is only by bearing in mind the conditions of political despotism that then existed in France that one can realize the boldness of the book. In it Voltaire gives his impressions of England in his supremely lucid style, but after the fashion of the man who throws a ball at some object from which he tries to catch it on the rebound. He is writing of England, but he is thinking of France; and in the customs and institutions of the former he seeks the examples from which he can measure those of his own country.

Voltaire is, on the whole, inclined to think well of the strange people whom he visited across the Channel, though he cannot avoid the conclusion that their philosophy, liberty, and climate lead straight to melancholia. England appears to him the land of contentment, prosperity, order, and good government. Monarchy is restrained by a well-balanced parliamentary system, and above all there is toleration in matters of faith and in matters of opinion. He frankly admires, and calls on his countrymen to copy, what seems to him the most admirable of models. It may be noted, however, that he is clearly nervous of strictly political questions, and he always prefers getting around to his plea for tolerance by the circuitous road of religion.

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