There are two things the Philosophical Letters can do for twentieth-century people besides amuse them. One is to introduce them (and for this purpose it is as good as any book I know) to the eighteenth century and to those two complementary strains of what, in our deadly provincialism, we call the Western Mind: the French and the English genius. The other is to remind them that there is hope for men because they have it in their power to be reasonable.
Professional philosophy the book is not; it is, however, a collection of critical reports by a philosophe of the Age of Reason--that is, a rational observer and free-thinking moralist --interested in the human meaning of all thought and action. The separate letters or chapters are written more or less as if to a friend in France (Nicolas Claude Thieriot), and the book first appeared, in an English translation by John Lockman, as Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733). Voltaire himself referred to it often enough as the "English Letters," but it was as Lettres Philosophiques, with an additional letter on Pascal, that the book, on June 10, 1734, was condemned by the Parlement of Paris to be lacerated and burnt by the hangman, as "likely to inspire a license of thought most dangerous to religion and civil order." The true work of Voltaire had begun, and our lives are different because of it.
We think of Voltaire as having been, even in his cradle, a wit, a poet, a freely discursive mind. In the story of Ninon de Lenclos' leaving him 2,000 écus to buy books with, nothing is more interesting than that when she died, in 1705, he was no more than eleven years old. He was young enough when introduced into the urbane and hedonistic society of the Temple; at twenty-five he was famous as a tragic poet, the author of another Oedipus. Ambitious, inquisitive, always busy, he was . . .