Rob Hardy on books


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The Great Voltaire Entertains and Enlightens



Rob Hardy


One of the funniest and easiest to read of the great books is Candide (1759) by Voltaire. Voltaire's sharp wit within a fantastical plot was aimed squarely at the fashionable philosophy of Leibniz who maintained that no matter how bad things might seem, "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." It not only took down that philosophy but aimed barbs at government, armies, religion, and more, and because of its supposed blasphemy it was banned, although the world has laughed at it ever since. (It was even deemed obscene and prohibited from import into America as late as 1929.) Voltaire was pushing seventy as he composed his Pocket Philosophical Dictionary, but he wasn't letting up as he got older. He realized his time was limited, and he also realized that the time for governments and religions to wring his neck was limited, too. It will be the 250th anniversary of the Dictionary in a couple of years, and Oxford University Press has brought out a new translation by John Fletcher. This work is still dangerous. It instantaneously entered the Vatican's list of banned books, and it was there until the list went defunct in 1966. Voltaire's anger against religious folly and the extremes to which faith takes people, transformed into irony and laughter, burns brightly still, and students of the current works of Dawkins and Hitchens will do well to have this one, too. It is not just outrageous; it is enormous fun. 




In the useful introduction to this current volume, Professor Nicholas Cronk reminds us that Voltaire knew exactly what he was doing when he brought out the Dictionary anonymously. He wrote to a confidential friend upon the work's publication, "God preserve me, my dear brother, from having anything to do with the Pocket Philosophical Dictionary! I have read some of it: it reeks horribly of heresy." But then he added, "But since you are curious about these irreligious works and keen to refute them, I'll look out a few copies, and send them to you at the first opportunity." He was right to be coy about his authorship, although it was an open secret. In 1776, the chevalier de La Barre was brought to trial for impiety and blasphemy. His possession of the Dictionary was given as evidence of his sacrilege. His tongue was torn out, and he was burned at the stake, along with the outrageous book he owned.  




The Dictionary, released here in a translation of the first edition (to which Voltaire was to add as the years went on, making it not so much a pocket volume), consists of seventy essays, some less than a page, alphabetized by chapter headings, headings which do not always indicate the main subject of the chapter. Voltaire often included criticisms of Islam or Judaism, or imagined such things as a Chinese Catechism, but even when laughing at the folly of a chapter's particular subject, he is ironically pointing his humor at the Christian, and in particular the dogmatic Catholic, church. He loves to cite superstition and inconsistencies within scripture, or give examples of religious intolerance, and his performance is brilliant. Voltaire not only knows his Bible (he is especially withering on the Old Testament), but he draws upon his enormous knowledge of classical authors; this is surely among the funniest of erudite writings. 




Voltaire would still anger the creationists who hold sway in American religious thinking. In his chapter "Flood," he lists the impossibility of Noah's flood "defying the laws of gravitation and fluid mechanics and betraying ignorance of the fact that there wouldn't be enough water to do it." But then he slyly says that no such facts can cast doubt on the veracity of the Bible's story, but quite the opposite. "That was a miracle, so must be believed; and, being a miracle, it's not subject to the laws of physics." He further lists the miracles of all those animals fitting into an ark, and Noah feeding them for the time they were aboard, and then their finding plenty of food after they disembarked, and so on. "But, since the deluge is the most miraculous story ever told, it would be mad to explain it; such mysteries are articles of faith; faith consists in believing what reason does not believe: that, too, is a miracle." In the specific chapter "Miracles," Voltaire quotes the thinking of St. Augustine on why the sorts of big-time miracles reported in the Bible don't happen anymore (Augustine admits this is true), and laughs at the miracles such as the one which saved the Bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp. His persecutors threw him into a fire that miraculously did not burn him. Since this didn't work, they cut off his head (which worked). Voltaire writes, "'What was the point of this miracle?' ask the incredulous; 'Why did the flames lose their potency whereas the executioner's axe did not? How come that so many martyrs have emerged unscathed from a tub of boiling oil but could not resist the edge of a sword?' The answer they're given is: 'It's God's will.' But the philosophers would like to have seen all that with their own eyes before believing it." 




Voltaire says that "... all Christians are agreed that the miracles of Jesus Christ and his apostles are incontestably true, but that some miracles of questionable authenticity in recent times must seriously be open to doubt." He says of St. Francis Xavier, "Some say that he raised nine people from the dead, but in Flowers of the Saints the Reverend Father Ribadeneira contents himself with the claim that he raised four, which is still pretty good." There is, however, a remedy for this sort of credulity, and Voltaire's notions would be very much in accord with those of James Randi: "It's dearly to be wished, for example, that for a miracle to be properly certified, it should be done in the presence of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, or the Royal Society in London, or the Faculty of Medicine, assisted by a Guards detachment to keep in order the crowds who might, by their unseemly behaviour, prevent the miracle taking place." 




Voltaire will distress the Left Behind believers and other millennialists. He points out that the ancient Egyptians believed in a thousand-year-reign, and Virgil wrote about it, too. He says that the source of the Christian version, the Book of Revelation, has been considered mad or inauthoritative from time to time, but "The matter has now been cleared up: the Church has decided that Revelation is incontestably the work of St. John, so there is no appeal." He would not at all find it surprising that many people nowadays feel that the End Times are upon us: "Every community in Christendom has applied the book's prophecies to itself: the English have found in it the revolutions that have plagued their country, the Lutherans the upheavals in Germany, the French Protestants the reign of Charles IX and the regency of Catherine de' Medici. They are all equally right." 




Voltaire is withering over the least appealing of Christian concepts, that of a hell of eternal torment. "As soon as human beings began forming social groups, they couldn't help but notice that lots of guilty people managed to evade the long arm of the law. Public offences could be dealt with, but secret crimes had to be curbed too, and only religion could do that." As usual, he shows how posthumous punishments were an ancient, pre-Biblical idea, and then writes, "Not long ago a good, decent Huguenot minister preached and wrote that the damned would one day be pardoned, that the penalty had to be proportionate to the sin, and that the lapse of a moment did not deserve eternal punishment. His brother pastors unseated this indulgent judge; one of them said to him, 'My friend, I don't believe in eternal damnation any more than you do, but it's better if your maidservant, your tailor and even your procurator do believe in it.'" 




But he reminds us that there are innocent superstitions that are even good for us. You can, for instance, dance on the feast days of Pomona or Vertumnus: "... no problem with that. Dancing is very pleasurable; it's good for the body and delights the soul; it does nobody any harm; but don't get the idea that Pomona or Vertumnus are very grateful to you for hopping around in their honor or that they will punish you if you don't."  




Though the critique of religious beliefs is spirited and even biting, Voltaire was not all criticism and had sensible opinions about morality. He strongly believed that international trade was the best way for all faiths and nations to cooperate. He knew virtue as doing good to one's neighbor, and that it had nothing to do with sanctity. "What concern is it of mine whether you're temperate? You're just following medical advice; you'll feel the better for it, and I congratulate you. You have faith and hope, and I'm even happier for you: they will grant you eternal life. Your theological virtues are heavenly gifts; your cardinal virtues are excellent qualities that will guide you through life: but they're not virtues as far as your neighbors are concerned. Wise individuals do themselves good; virtuous people do good to all of human kind." And if doing good to human kind includes making them laugh, and making them think, and trying to make them a little more tolerant, then Voltaire in this cheerful, sparkling, biting volume shows himself virtue personified. His brilliant ideas on show here about many subjects, from circumcision to cannibalism to Moses and more, still have punch, and the world is sadly still in need of this sort of punching. 




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