Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Did Voltaire Know What He Was Saying?

Yesterday I said that I liked Candide better for not knowing what it meant. But did Voltaire even know what it meant? I took some of the stories as indictments against Enlightenment philosophy. For instance, the character Cacambo says cannibalism is in line with the laws of nature; we refrain only because we have other means of finding food. Enlightenment philosophy usually tells us that reason, accessible to all people of at least normal intelligence, will lead us all to the same conclusions, one of which is that all men are created equal. Well, cannibalism hardly seems compatible with the Equality of Man. Either I read stories like this one incorrectly (always a strong possibility), or Voltaire meant them to dismantle his own views (not very likely, I’d think), or he just didn’t see the latent, ironic meaning (to me, the most interesting of the possibilities).

I’m also not sure if the book means to blame all the world’s evils on God as the Creator. The suffering in Candide often results from human action. Yes, the story has its devastating earthquakes and storms, but human choices cause most of the suffering. An attempt by one character to discuss Free Will is cut off before it begins. If using the doctrine of Free Will as an explanation for evil isn’t even worth a couple of pages of satirical treatment, then I suppose we’re just to assume that a God creating the best of all possible worlds would make people good, and that all the torture and kidnapping and murder in Candide are the Creator’s fault. The character Martin says, based on his observations of the evil in the world, God must have abandoned it to a mischievous power. I wonder if Voltaire knew how biblical Martin’s view is.

In any case, Martin suggests evil isn’t God’s fault or his choice. And I agree. We choose evil. In what is surely history’s most powerful statement of the argument from pain, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov complains to his brother Alyosha about God’s choice to have a world where even one little girl suffers unspeakable torture. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny,” Ivan says, “with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” “No, I wouldn’t consent,” Alyosha replies. How could anyone say he would? And yet we do. People choose to torture children. I certainly don’t know the solution to the world’s greatest philosophical conundrum, but I know the solution can’t involve a facile passing of the buck.

But these same humans who choose to do evil things also choose life, even a life of suffering. With great sympathy for all who think about committing suicide, I have to note that very few people actually do it. And people must have a reason, even an ineffable reason, for choosing to live. While Candide repeatedly shows the difference between what people do and what reason says, Voltaire’s characters always seem on the surface to come down on the side of reason. An old woman who has lived a life of great suffering says, “I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one's very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?" But is it stupid? If we feel this way, then maybe the goodness of even a hard life really weighs more than all the suffering. Perhaps when reason and custom come into conflict, custom sometimes represents a deeper, sounder reasoning.

In the Doctor Who episode called “The Age of Steel,” the cyberman leader, Lumic, argues that his best of all possible worlds must have peace, which demands uniformity, which in turn only comes when emotion and pain have been eradicated.
Lumic: Tell me, Doctor, have you known grief and rage and pain?
The Doctor: Yes, I have.
Lumic: And they hurt?
The Doctor: Oh, yes!
The Doctor answers that last question with such relish, it’s clear that he finds his centuries of suffering an acceptable cost for the joys of his life. No Enlightenment reasoning, whether it leads to “upgrading” as a cyberman or to cannibalism or to the guillotine of revolutionary France, can convince him otherwise.

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