Friday, December 15, 2006

Voltaire Rocks La Maison

I don't think much about Voltaire usually. After an unhappy encounter with Candide in a high school French class for which I was inadequately prepared, I've been content to consign him to the same category one consigns any other elder: well-meaning, no doubt, and perhaps brilliant in his own outdated way, but not relevant. Voltaire, of course, wouldn't have seen himself this way, judging by a book review by Adam Gopnik in the March 7th, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. To explain why Voltaire would have begun his campaigns for human rights at all, Gopnik writes of him that, "there is the kind of egotism so vast and so pleased with itself that it includes other people as an extension of itself. Voltaire felt so much for other people because he felt so much for himself; everything happened to him because he was the only reasonable subject of everything that happened. By inflating his ego to immense proportions, he made it a shelter for the helpless."

And Gopnik makes a convincing case that Voltaire was indeed important, not just because he was one of the first campaigners for human rights, but because he refused to countenance religious violence, and with it, he also refused faith itself.

If you've read Candide, you know that Voltaire pokes merciless fun at Leibniz' idea that "the world is optimally designed," and that suffering is part of "some universal balance." Gopnik writes, "Voltaire's target throughout Candide is not optimism in the sense of fatuous cheerfulness but optimism in the sense of optimal thinking: the kind of bland reassurance that explains pain with reference to a larger plan or history." Generally speaking, Gopnik asserts that we no longer believe that natural disasters are part of a benevolent universe, as people did in Voltaire's time. (As an aside, I think Gopnik is wrong in this: after Hurricane Katrina, I was startled to hear more than one educated colleague refer to it in a way that made it clear they thought of Katrina as divine retribution for the sins of New Orleans. I wondered what would happen if they'd said that to anyone in Mississippi whose homes and livelihoods were also destroyed.)

"But almost all of us still do believe, stubbornly, in some kind of optimal thinking. We believe, vaguely or explicitly, that liberal democracy, with all its faults, is the best of all possible political systems, that globalization, with all its injustices, is the best of all possible futures, and even that the American way is the best of all possible ways ... We are all optimalists of this kind, perhaps reinforced by the doctrines of evolutionary psychology ... or by faith in an inevitable evolving 'future of freedom.' Attacks on these beliefs -- September 11th was the most acute -- shake us up the way eighteenth-century people were shaken by the Lisbon earthquake. The realization that all may not be tending toward the best, that religious fanaticism and tribal intolerance could prevail over liberal meiliorism, is the earthquake of our time.

"Voltaire's radicalism, then and now, lies not in his refutation of optimism but in his refusal of belief. Candide is not really, or entirely, a satire on optimism. It is an attack on organized religion."
I think Gopnik is correct that most Americans share a vague, benign belief that everything is getting better in small ways, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it isn't - famine persists, genocide proliferates, we are doing rapid damage to the environment, and the poor in this country are getting poorer. And many people believe that "things happen for a reason," and will say so regularly. Or they'll say that "God doesn't send you anything you can't handle." To both of which I say, Horse-hockey! Yes, I know that it can feel that the course of one's life seems, in retrospect, to make more sense than it did at the time one was living it; and yes, human beings are capable of great endurance and change to meet enormous personal, physical, and psychological challenges. But try telling someone who survived the Rwandan genocide that "things happen for a reason." Try telling that to the next homeless people you meet and see if they agree. Or consider telling someone who was brutally raped and maimed as a child that "God doesn't send you anything you can't handle." Assuming there is a God, it's clear He's got no qualms about sending people trouble they can't handle. People break all the time.

I have no quarrel with spirituality or people of faith. But lately it's become clear to me that this meliorist view is based on very sloppy thinking. The flip side of what we usually mean when we say that "things happen for a reason" is this: if you're suffering, you better suck it up because it's what's on the menu. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't: if you're suffering at the hands of other people or if your suffering is due to our collective short-sightedness and stupidity, then the platitudes don't cut it. No one should have to suffer, or suffer evil, and be told to simmer down because the Big Guy Upstairs has got it all under control.

But to get back to Voltaire, is it possible that his denial of faith brought the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the like upon us? No, says Gopnik:
"Of course, in the light of later horrors, the horror that Voltaire wanted to crush doesn't seem a horror at all ... His enemies were local lynch mobs, not centralized terror. A Nazi or Soviet regime would have crushed him, horribly, and everyone else with him. The argument has even been made that Voltaire's rejection of moral order and God helped lead to the later horrors. But unless one believes, against all the evidence, that faith in God keeps one from cruelty, this is a bum rap. There are absolutist and totalitarian elements in the Enlightenment, of the kind that Burke and Berlin alike opposed: the desire to rip up the calendar of the past and start over implies murdering whoever isn't with the program. This wasn't Voltaire's spirit by a mile."
And finally:

"It is still bracing, at a time when the extreme deference we pay to faith has made any attack on religious beliefs unacceptable, to hear Voltaire on Jesuits and Muslims alike -- to hear him howl with indignation at the madness and malignance of religion -- and to be reminded that that free-thinking, which inspired Twain and Mencken, has almost vanished from our world."

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