Voltaire (1694-1778) and Candide (1759): Enlightenment Values and Principles

Drake 258

Painting of Voltaire by William Blake c. 1800

Francoise-Marie Arouet wrote Candide at the ripe old age of 63, long after he'd established himself as -- at the time -- one of France's greatest poets, most important philosophers, and most influential shapers of public consciousness and policy.  He was in many ways a sort of a French Thomas Jefferson, if Jefferson had also written poetry and fiction in his free time, and many have argued that "The Age of Enlightenment" or "Age of Reason" should really be called "The Age Of Voltaire".

Enlightenment Values and Revolution, Democracy:

From an Neo-Classical, Enlightenment, ratioanal perspectives, humanity's problems are not theological and God's will is a mystery beyond human understanding. Thus, mankind must use Reason and apply Enlightenment principles and values to create solutions to human problems. Mankind has the ability and need to solve its own problems, and the solutions are to be found thru Reason: the application of Analytical, Empirical, "Scientific" thinking.

Just as Newton proved "Natural Laws" govern all natural phenomena, and all natural phenomena can thus be explained thru rational, scientific enquiry, so too can man discover the natural laws governing right behavior and create rational, just systems of governance. This idea is Voltaire's gift to mankind, and it pretty well summarizes what we mean by "The Enlightenment".

Voltaire, however, does not advocate or believe in what we'd consider universal suffrage or democracy. He distrusts "the rabble" and advocates "enlightening" the aristocracy and church to create governance thru "enlightened despots". Note the similarities to Plato's argument for "philosopher kings" in The Republic.

But just as Martin Luther didn't intend for the Protestantism and the Reformation to lead toward further democratic revolutions, Voltaire's philosophy inadvertently becomes the cornerstone of the American and French Revolutions: both Martin Luther and Voltaire set out to REFORM THE CHURCH AND EXISTING STATE AUTHORITIES, but their philosophies led to the spread of revolution AGAINST the authority of both the church and state and, most importantly, universal suffrage.

This philosophy becomes codified in The Declaration of Independence (1776), The Constitution, Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791)

Is this really "The Best of All Possible Worlds" or Theodicy Revisited: What Causes Human Suffering?

Pangloss and his philosophy satirizes Leibniz's and Alexander Pope's Philosophical Optimism.

Lisbon Earthquake and The Problem of Evil

Lisbon earthquake (All Saints Day, 1755): 60,000 to 100,000  innocent die. 

How can an inherently good God create such immense human suffering among the innocent? 

Jerry Falwell on 9/11 Causes

Pat Robertson on Haiti earthquake and their "pact with the devil"

Haiti: "Between God and A Hard Place"

Voltaire's reaction to the immense human suffering caused by this earthquake signals his break with Philosophical Optimism.  Voltaire is infuriated by how Christians blame the earthquake on providence, as if God were punishing the Portuguese  for their sins -- why then would God kill tens of thousands of children? --  and disgusted with the way his fellow French "Optimistic" philosophers and much of Europe write the earthquake off as "for the best".

This radical turning away from Leibniz's Philosophical Optimism is captured in Voltaire's poem Voltaire’s poem “The Lisbon Earthquake” .

Under Church-State control, the Portuguese response was, as Voltaire reports, an auto da fe ("act of faith"): the ritual trying and burning of "sinners", whose sins are blamed for the natural act.

(Note: Rousseau, who figures largely in later parts of this class, and Voltaire have their final falling out over this poem, as Rousseau publically attacks Voltaire for questioning God's goodness and for simply making us all feel more hopeless.  Also, the event influences Rousseau's belief that urban life is inherently bad: the earthquake destroyed the city, but peasant life was largely unaffected, for obvious reasons.)

James the Anabaptist (Ch 5) pg. 318 CONTRAST WITH PANGLOSS/LEIBNIZ; truth thru actions/experience (Locke) vs. Optimism/logic; good=common-sense and action vs. religious-philosophical hypocrisy.

Enlightenment: A better society through reason, knowledge. 

THUS: The Enlightened response to tragedies like the Lisbon earthquake is:
a) react to what is readily observable: that people are suffering
b) use science to mitigate human suffering
c) use science to understand how these things occur and engineer solutions to avoid subsequent destruction
d) admit that human suffering is awful, terrible: respect suffering and react with love; do not write it off as "for the best"

Compare to Tartuffe: note similar, if not identical, considerations of good and evil, reason as common-sense, skepticism and experience (Empiricism and Radical Doubt/Method aka Inductive Logic) vs. Authority (religious or aristocratic) and deductive logic and a priori and unchallenged assumptions concerning the nature of truth and the universe.


Thinking about Voltaire's position on inoculating against smallpox is perhaps the easiest way to "get" Voltaire, and in so doing "get" what the Enlightenment was all about.

When you think about Voltaire's response to the Lisbon earthquake or organized religion (see below), simply consider that Enlightenment philosophy attempts to understand and alleviate human suffering by thinking about phenomena as having natural or man-made causes -- and thus man-made solutions.  Science argues that the cause of smallpox is nature (a virus, not sin, as previously believed), and understanding nature will help us cure the disease (that's why no one in this classroom has ever had it); similarly, nature (not God) causes earthquakes, and understanding their cause and function will allow us to build safer cities.

During the 18th century, small pox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year.  Those who survived were often left blind and certainly gruesomely scarred and 1/3 of all victims were rendered blind.

And of course Columbus and subsequent European explorers introduced the pox and other infectious diseases to the Americas, wiping out an estimated 25-50% of the native population.

Even in the 1700s, "medicine" consisted almost entirely of bleeding and prayer. For the most part, most people believed disease was caused by an imbalance in the four "humors" (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood. yum!) or sin and demonic possession.  Or both.

But primitive inoculation against the disease was practiced throughout the world, perhaps first in Africa, for thousands of years, while Christian Europe associated the practice as pagan or a form of witchcraft, or negatively for its use by Muslims.  The British, however, began experimenting with the practice in the early 1700, and Voltaire is credited with having brought and spread the method to the European continent, as argued in his then widely read Letter On Inoculation.

Meanwhile, in Voltaire's lifetime inoculation was widely attacked the church, much the way certain medical procedures have been in your own lifetime, and although some European Americans experimented with smallpox inoculation as early as 1721 (at the urging of Cotton Mather, who, really ironically, would later gain notoriety for his role in the Salem Witch Trials), by 1800, perhaps 100,000 Europeans and North Americans had been vaccinated worldwide.


Voltaire the Anti-Semite, Anti-Cleric, Champion of Toleration

“More than any other figure in Western history, Voltaire will transform “intolerance” into a vice and “toleration” into a virtue.” --  Alan Kors

Voltaire is a cynic (someone who believes people are selfish) and a misanthrope (someone who dislikes humanity) but is he a bigot (a person who does not tolerate those unlike oneself)? 

He loathes Judaism for its emphasis on a god that would chose one people over all others -- a quality clearly at odds with egalitarian democracy. He loathes priests (he was educated by Jesuits) for their emphasis on superstition, ritual and the supernatural -- qualities clearly at odds with science and reason.  He loathes reformation Protestants for their return to puritanical authoritarianism -- at odds with the inherent freedom of the individual.

But in the 1760s-1770s Voltaire becomes the loudest public voice in defense of these same groups, risking his reputation on protecting their civil liberties and repeatedly intervening to protect the legal rights of religious minorities, especially of minority Protestants ("Huguenots") in his native France:

1. In the Calas affair, a Protestant family was accused of having hanged their son, who was depressed and suicidal, because the son was going to convert to Catholicism. The father was tortured and killed [on the wheel], by the state, and the daughters were sent to nunneries. Voltaire saw that this was a case of judicial murder and undertook to rehabilitate the family and to have the verdict successfully overturned. (note: his "Treatise On Tolerance" was written for this case.)

In a similar case, the Protestant Sirvan family was accused of murdering a daughter, who had in fact actually committed suicide. Voltaire succeeded in having the case reexamined and used the matter to bring about revisions in the judicial process, while isolating religious intolerance as the cause of such abuse.

3. Finally, in the La Barre affair, Voltaire was appalled by the case of a nineteen-year-old, poor aristocrat with no family, who was tortured and burned for having allegedly mutilated a crucifix. Among the evidence against him was a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, which had been found on the young man’s shelf.
(Source: Alan Kors)

So, despite the apparent cynicism and even bigotry satirically expressed in Candide, Voltaire universalizes and popularizes the toleration that his hero, John Locke, had used to end the English Civil War.  Recall that Locke wanted religious toleration for all faiths in England, except for Catholicism, since Catholics held allegiance to the Pope.  But in his "Treatise On Tolerance" Voltaire goes further than Locke and explicitly includes Catholics as well (but not atheists, btw).


Voltaire and Deism:

Despite his fervent attacks on organized religion -- both here in Candide and elsewhere -- Voltaire in not an atheist -- and he consistently and frequently attacked atheism as both more absurd and dangerous than religious belief.

Voltaire is a Deist, like many other notable Enlightenment thinkers -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and even Leibniz  and Alexander Pope. A Deist is "One who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason" (Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary). 

It's important to understand that there was no formal "Deist" church, and that most of these men continued to attend the churches into which they were born and raised.  The closest thing to a "Deist church" is likely Freemasonry.

One easy way to understand Deism is by looking at the Jefferson Bible, in which
Thomas Jefferson omitted everything but the actual, specific teachings of Christ and carefully eliminated all references to miracles and Christ as divine. 

Basically Deists Believe:

    God created an ordered universe (so, yes, Voltaire and traditional Deists would have been "Creationists" in this sense, although note we said "universe" not "world").

    The universe operates according to natural laws.

    Scientific enquiry can explain these natural laws.  That is, reason/science can explain the natural, observable world.

    God's will is not revealed, either through magical/supernatural processes, or through the natural world. 

Thus: science explains the natural world; nothing explains God's will.  Therefore philosophers and scientists should stop trying to understand God's will; if it exists, it exists beyond the realm of human understanding.

Note: The Dervish's parable concerning the mice on the ship is a representation of Deism.  Odds are high you'll need to explain why on the test.

Famous Deists