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The Inquisition and Reformation, as important as they are to the history of religion, are rivaled by the genius of a single 18th Century Frenchman. Effectively in exile, Voltaire published in English from London. His "letters" were all about explaining England to a French friend. They appeared in 1733. He described England's religion and politics, with commentaries on Quakers, the Church of England, Presbyterians, Anti-Trinitarians, Parliament, the government, and commerce. He wrote essays on Locke, Descartes, and Newton. Voltaire was much influenced by English tolerance, and his observations on the subject sounded a revolutionary note among European readers that resonated for decades. His work was published in France as "Philosophical Letters" and was immediately condemned by the French government as "likely to inspire a license of thought most dangerous to religion and civil order." It remains a landmark of the Age of Reason.

Voltaire provided basic insights that fueled the Enlightenment in Europe. Forcing a single religion on a nation in the interest of peace simply did not work as well as letting self-interest in the market govern. His work surely provided thrust for the French Revolution that finally broke France from the yoke of Catholicism and a feudalistic governance.

From, Walter Russell Mead, "God and Gold"

"Voltaire first noted, where there is one religion, there is despotism; where there are two, civil war. Let there be thirty religions and they all live together in peace."

From, The Free Dictionary:

"...the bourgeois and landowning classes emerged as the dominant power. Feudalism was dead; social order and contractual relations were consolidated by the Code Napoleon. The Revolution unified France and enhanced the power of the national state. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars tore down the ancient structure of Europe, hastened the advent of nationalism, and inaugurated the era of modern, total warfare."

From, Wendy McElroy:

"Letter Five, On the Church of England, began with the observation, 'This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a freeman, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases.' The statement had profound implications for any citizen of France -- a nation that had almost destroyed itself in order to establish Catholicism as the only practiced religion."

"In Letter Six, On The Presbyterians, Voltaire ascribed the 'peace' in which 'they lived happily together' to a mechanism that was a pure expression of the free market -- the London stock exchange. In the most famous passage from Philosophical Letters, Voltaire observed, 'Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.'"

"Legally and historically, England was not a bastion of religious toleration: laws against nonconformists and atheists were still in force. Yet in England, and not in France, there was an air of toleration on the street level which existed quite apart from what the law said. Moreover, even though both countries had aristocracies, England was not burdened with the unyielding class structure that crippled social and economic mobility in France. As Voltaire wrote in Letter Nine, On the Government, "You hear no talk in this country [England] of high, middle, and low justice, nor of the right of hunting over the property of a citizen who himself has not the liberty of firing a shot in his own field."

"A key to the difference between England and France lay in the English system of commerce and in the comparatively high regard in which the English held their merchants. In France, aristocrats and the other elites of society regarded those in commerce, or in trade, with unalloyed contempt. In Letter Ten, On Commerce, Voltaire pointedly commented upon the French attitude, 'The merchant himself so often hears his profession spoken of disdainfully that he is fool enough to blush.' Yet, in England, the "merchant justly proud" compares himself "not without some reason, to a Roman citizen." Indeed, the younger sons of nobility often entered commerce or took up a profession. This difference in attitude was a large factor in explaining the extraordinary rise of the English middle class, their wealth deriving from trading endeavors. Indeed, the French often derided England as a nation of shopkeepers. Voltaire thought this was a compliment, observing that if the English were able to sell themselves, it proved that they were worth something."

"Ironically, Voltaire singled out for praise precisely the same aspect of commerce -- the London stock exchange -- that the later theorist Karl Marx condemned. Both viewed the marketplace as impersonal or, in more negative Marxist terms, a dehumanizing factor. To Voltaire, the impersonal nature of trade was a good thing. It allowed people to disregard the divisive human factors that had historically disrupted society, such as differences of religion and class. The very fact that a Christian who wished to profit from a Jew, and vice versa, had to disregard the personal characteristics of the other party and deal with him on a basis of some civility was what recommended the London stock exchange to Voltaire."

"In this, Voltaire's voice is reminiscent of the political philosopher Adam Smith in his most popular work Wealth of Nations. Smith outlined how everyone in a civilized market society was dependent upon the cooperation of multitudes even though the people he chose as friends might not number more than a dozen or so. A marketplace required the participation of throngs of people, most of whom are never directly encountered. Under such anonymous circumstances, it would be folly for any man to expect multitudes of strangers to benefit him out of sheer benevolence or because they personally liked him. The cooperation of the butcher or the brewer was ensured by their simple self-interest. Thus, those who entered the marketplace did not need the approval or favor of those with whom they dealt. They needed only to pay their bills."

"The toleration created by the London Stock Exchange extended far beyond the doors of that institution. After conducting business with each other, the Christian and the Jew went their separate ways. As Voltaire phrased it, 'On leaving these peaceable and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others in search of a drink...' In the end, 'all are satisfied.'"

"The Philosophical Letters -- Voltaire's tribute to the English middle class, their commerce and their society -- created an enormous impact on the European intellectual scene. Calling the Letters 'a declaration of war and a map of campaign', the contemporary philosopher Will Durant commented:"

"Rousseau said of these letters that they played a large part in the awakening of his mind; there must have been thousands of young Frenchmen who owed the book a similar debt. Lafayette said it made him a republican at the age of nine. Heine thought 'it was not necessary for the censor to condemn this book; it would have been read without that.'"

This history was current events for our founding fathers. No wonder they strenuously separated Church from State in our Constitution. The history of theocracy in the New World merely affirmed the European experience.

Unhappily, monotheism is not integrative; "My God is Better Than Your God" is a rallying cry heard to this day, especially from the Southern States of the US--and Islam. See Monotheism and Violence for more on that.


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