Excerpts from Voltaire for Lecture on Jan. 20: The Enlightenment
These may also be found in My History Lab
Letters On England
Franois-Marie Arouet wrote under the pen name Voltaire (1694-1778). He was the son of a
middle-class French notary, who became one of the most famous and celebrated authors of the
Enlightenment. Voltaire, like many of the French philosophes, used scientific methods-
empiricism, skepticism and experimentation - to critique politics, society, culture, and the
economy and call for reforms in these areas. In the 1720s, Voltaire lived for several years in
England, and his comparison between English and French politics, society, and culture resulted
in this collection of short essays, which he published in 1733. In this work, Voltaire indirectly
criticized French politics, religious institutions, culture, and society by praising the English
system of constitutional monarchy, the English economy, their relative religious tolerance, and
the wider acceptance of "new" scientific ideas. In this passage, Voltaire explains the theories
and methods of the natural philosopher, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), one of the main figures of
the Scientific Revolution, comparing them to the theories and methods of RenÂŽ Descartes
Source: Denis Diderot, Prospectus à l'Encyclopédie, in Oeuvres complètes, ed. by Jules Assézat
and Maurice Tourneaux, vol. 13 (Paris: Garnier frères, 1875-1877), 129-131; reprinted in
Major Crises in Western Civilization, eds. Richard W. Lyman and Lewis W. Spitz, trans. Nina B.
Guzenhauser, vol. II (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965), 11-12; reprinted in World
Civilizations: Sources, Images, and Interpretations eds. Dennis Sherman, et al., vol. 2 (Boston:
McGraw Hill, 1998), 76-77.
Letter 15: On the System of Gravitation
The discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, which have earned him such a universal reputation, concern
the system of the world, light, infinity in mathematics and finally chronology, with which he
toyed for relaxation.
I am going to tell you (if I can without verbiage) the little I have been able to gather about all
these sublime ideas.
Concerning the system of our world, arguments had been going on for a long time on the basic
cause which makes all the planets turn and keeps them in their orbits, and on that which in our
own world makes all bodies fall on to the surface of the earth.
The system of Descartes, interpreted and very much modified since his time, seemed to offer a
plausible reason for these phenomena, and this reason seemed all the truer for being simple and
intelligible to all. But in natural philosophy one should mistrust what one feels and understands
too easily, just as much as the things one does not understand.
Weight, the acceleration of bodies falling to the ground, the revolution of the planets in their