September 4: Voltaire hails our new bourgeois overlords



Those who wish to change their own country often fall in love with another country, to try to make their country jealous. While I think the make-the-other-person-jealous strategy is low-percentage -- although it does work in that song "Judy's Turn To Cry" -- it is a time honored strategy on the geopolitical level. The classic example is liberals and France, but you could also use Dick Cheney and the Soviet Union, or social conservatives and the America of 1940s movies. Voltaire and England is still another example.

The great thing about England is that it isn't France:

There is no such thing here as haute, moyenne, and basse justice—that is, a power to judge in all matters civil and criminal; nor a right or privilege of hunting in the grounds of a citizen, who at the same time is not permitted to fire a gun in his own field.

No one is exempted in this country from paying certain taxes because he is a nobleman or a priest...The feet of the peasants are not bruised by wooden shoes; they eat white bread, are well clothed, and are not afraid of increasing their stock of cattle, nor of tiling their houses from any apprehension that their taxes will be raised the year following.
As you see Voltaire is so in love with the bourgeois that he champions the small-business owner's hatred of taxes; although, as he notes, it's a lot easier to swallow when the people at the top are paying too. Voltaire is also a fan of class mobility -- in this case, downward:
...indeed, a peer’s brother does not think traffic beneath him. When the Lord Townshend was Minister of State, a brother of his was content to be a City merchant; and at the time that the Earl of Oxford governed Great Britain, his younger brother was no more than a factor in Aleppo, where he chose to live, and where he died. This custom, which begins, however, to be laid aside, appears monstrous to Germans, vainly puffed up with their extraction... I need not say which is most useful to a nation; a lord, powdered in the tip of the mode, who knows exactly at what o’clock the king rises and goes to bed, and who gives himself airs of grandeur and state, at the same time that he is acting the slave in the ante-chamber of a prime minister; or a merchant, who enriches his country, despatches orders from his counting-house to Surat and Grand Cairo, and contributes to the felicity of the world.
Having inherited a certain anti-bourgeois prejudice from the academy, this is bracing. And, while I am no historian of ideas, it's probably a pretty radical stance to take, for 1728.

And, like many who have Seen The Future, Voltaire makes wrong predictions:
The Government of England will never rise to so exalted a pitch of glory [as Rome], nor will its end be so fatal. The English are not fired with the splendid folly of making conquests, but would only prevent their neighbours from conquering.
The sun never sets on wrong predictions. On the other hand present-day London is more delightful than barbarian Rome must have been.

Finally, apropos of our own moment:
The Romans never knew the dreadful folly of religious wars, an abomination reserved for devout preachers of patience and humility. Marious and Sylla, C├Žsar and Pompey, Anthony and Augustus, did not draw their swords and set the world in a blaze merely to determine whether the flamen should wear his shirt over his robe, or his robe over his shirt, or whether the sacred chickens should eat and drink, or eat only, in order to take the augury. The English have hanged one another by law, and cut one another to pieces in pitched battles, for quarrels of as trifling nature.
Fun fact: Lesley Gore, who sang "Judy's Turn To Cry," went to Sarah Lawrence.

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