Voltaire’s philosophical tales: commentary

by Ralph Dumain


“And you, my friend,” he [sage from the Sirius star system:] said to a Leibnizian who was present, “what is your soul?”

“It is the hand of a clock,” came the Leibnizian’s reply, “and it points to the time while my body chimes. Or, if you prefer, it is my soul which chimes while my body points to the time. Or else my soul is the mirror of the universe, and my body is the mirror-frame. That much is clear.”

— Voltaire, Micromegas (1752) *


Zadig, or Destiny: A Tale of the Orient (1747/8)

As elsewhere, Voltaire struggles with Leibniz’s optimism (best of all possible worlds) and the notion of Providence. Voltaire wished to use the word ‘Providence’ in the title, but this was too risky. The themes here are also taken up in Micromegas (1752) and Candide (1759), but there is deliberate vacillation in Zadig which preserves Voltaire’s skepticism but leaves the question open-ended. . . a little.

The tale implicitly posits the Enlightenment question: is reason ultimately advantageous? Providence (God’s will), or Destiny (roll of the dice), is fickle. Zadig is at the mercy of whichever governs the universe. Good fortune and bad alternate in this sequence of adventures. Zadig is brave and wise and he has a few true friends and the woman he loves, Queen Astarte. His good fortunes are incredible and his bad fortunes horrible. It appears at last that he achieves the pinnacle of good fortune, but there is one disastrous twist at the end of the Appendix and then Voltaire tells us that the manuscript breaks off, so we do not know what eventualities will follow. Zadig’s Enlightenment wisdom allows him to resolve other people’s serious problems and some of his own, but ultimately he is at the mercy of the fickleness, pettiness, selfishness, and irrationality of others. (Voltaire seems to inject an implicit Deism into Zadig’s adjudication of religious disputes.) So which wins out in the end?—the question is left open. The two extracts here highlight the key philosophical questions in play. (15, 17, 25 September 2018)

Micromegas  (1752)

Voltaire’s Micromegas is not exactly a masterpiece, but it presents perspective by incongruity, as Kenneth Burke would say. This philosophical tale (conte philosophique) satirizes man’s inflated sense of self-importance. A giant from Sirius and a relatively puny giant from Saturn are pleased to discover intelligent life on Earth—which for them is microscopic—as they stumble upon a ship of philosophers returning from the Arctic (in real life, Maupertuis’ expedition, most likely). All the philosophers agree on measurable external phenomena, though they still do not know what matter is, but they all differ, with their pet philosophical ideas, on the inner life, which comes up for ridicule. Voltaire’s Lockean sympathies are evident, though. (5 July 2018)

The quote displayed is a dig at Leibniz’s notion of pre-established harmony. This specimen of proto-science fiction is not well known like Voltaire’s celebrated Candide (1759), which satirizes Leibniz’s position that this is the best of all possible worlds, but “Micromegas” is one of Voltaire’s most distinctive tales.

* Micromegas (1752), in Candide and Other Stories, by Voltaire, translated with an introduction and notes by Roger Pearson (Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 101-121.

The Ingenu (1767)

I read The Ingenu [a.k.a. The Huron] after having read Micromegas, Zadig, and The White Bull, in that order. The Ingenu satisfies me the least of these tales. It is supposedly targeted as a rejoinder to Rousseau’s notion of the noble savage. Actually, it is an amalgam of satire and melodrama. It is most effective in its anticlericalism, in poking its tongue out at the hypocrisy and violence of Church and State. Both central characters—the Ingenu (a Huron who has been to England and is now in France) and his love Saint-Yves—are vehicles in this regard. Attention shifts to the latter for several chapters as the Ingenu is falsely imprisoned in the Bastille, with a Jansenist, Gordon, who becomes a sort of mentor, educating him and being impressed and influenced by him as well.

The Ingenu’s natural instincts are put to best use when he scoffs at the preposterous institutions and hypocrisies of ‘civilization’, but apparently Voltaire is not satisfied with him in his natural state, as he has not learned the social conventions and purported refined living of complex societies. This, I surmise, is where Voltaire parts with Rousseau. The Jesuits are unequivocally condemned. The Jansenist Gordon is treated more sympathetically, especially when he has tempered his dogmatism thanks to the influence of The Ingenu.

I do not see clearly how ‘civilization’ has improved the Ingenu. Satire is embodied in his blunt critique of European civilization. His love interest, his serious commitments, and Saint-Yves’ tragic trajectory all belong to melodrama. Of course, naïveté is never equal to the demands of navigating the treacherous pathways of alien social institutions, but the specific manner of the Ingenu’s integration into European society fails to impress me. Perhaps this is an indicator of why Voltaire would be classified with the Moderate and not the Radical Enlightenment. (9 & 11 November 2018)

The White Bull (1773/4)

The Serpent and the Princess are both figures of the Enlightenment, and the work is a satire on the Old Testament and other fanciful stories.

The reversal of the accepted religious ideologies of sacred texts is notable later on, in British Romanticism—Blake, Shelley, Byron—but already in Voltaire we see here that mythical structures (of ancient Greece and Rome or the Bible) can be understood and used in radically different and contrary ways. (5 & 11 November 2018)

SOURCE:

Candide and Other Stories, by Voltaire, translated with an introduction and notes by Roger Pearson (Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

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Uploaded 12 November 2018

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