Bags of Bran


Often banned, never duplicated
May 17, 2014, 4:13 pm
Filed under: Bibliophilia, Biography

I would obviously never advise you to embrace the beliefs and values of Voltaire, but if you want to feel a stinging critique of some of your own dumb ideas about reality, Voltaire would be happy to hand you such a critique. He wrote Candide for just that purpose: originally, it was just a short work that he intended to amuse his snooty philosopher friends, but then it gained wider distribution when those snooty philosopher friends discovered that Candide is a very un-subtle and very effective critique of philosophical optimism as embodied in Leibniz. The same philosophical optimism exists a little bit in me, cynical as I can be, it turns out.

I have to say this simply because some young person might come along and decide to read this book: CAVEAT LECTORCandide is not funny, nor is it a pleasant read, and it is full of descriptions of human atrocities, honestly portrayed as atrocities. There is nothing titillating about human evil in Voltaire. Perhaps it would have been humorous among the French snooty class, but to me it was a museum of horrors where every illumined display is designed to dispel illusions about reality. Men are beasts driven by appetites; women are corrupt after their own fell passions; established religion is a racket; men die multiple deaths (!); and even well-meaning Candide cannot avoid the twistedness of his own nature, despite all the optimism he has absorbed from his mentor, the doughty Dr. Pangloss. If anything, Candide lurches hard toward the other ditch: pessimism, perhaps unto despair.

I suppose at this point, it would be appropriate for me to say, “but God works all things together for the good!” and thereby prove that Voltaire’s critique had landed on rocky soil where it could find no purchase. I think I’ll go ahead and be inappropriate and actually feel the tension of the problem of evil, actually acknowledge that there is a problem, and actually have to trust that “will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” With Voltaire, I cannot say that this is the best of all possible worlds: I repudiate it. The horrors he described, though fictional, are true horrors that man visits on his fellow man, and that cannot but flourish in a fallen world. But what I can say, as a Christian, is even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus, full well knowing that the dark must grow darker before the light drives all darkness away.

In the end, all Voltaire does is prove that philosophical idealism fails to “save the appearances,” to despoil Owen Barfield. Put plainly, optimism cannot account for the evils of human nature, a problem to which Voltaire offers no solution. Candide himself, as the protagonist of the book, rejects his optimistic outlook, preferring, Hobbit-like, to finish out his days working in his own garden rather than searching out a new guru. Perhaps this model of modesty in the face of chastening is worth commending to people who are in over their heads.

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