Voltaire

Zadig’s Wisdom vs Providence


[….] His principal talent lay in uncovering the truth, which all men endeavour to conceal.

From the very first days of his administration he put this great talent to use. A famous Babylonian merchant had died in the Indies. He had divided his estate equally between his two sons, having made due provision for marrying off their sister, and he had left a further sum of thirty thousand gold pieces to that son who would be judged to love him the more. The elder son built a tomb for him: the younger added part of his legacy to his sister’s dowry. Everyone said: ‘It’s the elder son who loves his father more. The younger prefers his sister. The thirty thousand gold pieces should go to the elder of the two.’

Zadig summoned each of them in turn. He told the elder son:

‘Your father is not dead. He has recovered from his recent illness, and he is on his way back to Babylon.’

‘God be praised,’ the young man replied. ‘But that tomb cost me a tidy sum!’

Zadig then told the younger son the same thing.

‘God be praised,’ he replied. ‘I shall give my father back everything I have. But I would like him to let my sister keep what I have given her.’

‘You will not give anything back,’ said Zadig, ‘and you will have the thirty thousand gold pieces. It is you who loves your father more.’

A very rich young woman had promised her hand in marriage to two magi and, having received pre-marital religious instruction from both of them for a number of months, discovered that she was with child. They each wanted to marry her.

‘I shall take as my husband’, she said, ‘the one who has thus put me in the position of furnishing the Empire with a citizen.’

‘It is I who did this good work,’ said one of them.

'It is I who had this good fortune,' said the other.

‘Well then,’ she replied, ‘I shall recognize as the child’s father the one who can give it the better education.’

She gave birth to a son. Each of the magi wanted to bring him up. The case was brought before Zadig. He summoned the two magi.

‘What will you teach your pupil?’ he asked the first of them.

‘I’, said the learned doctor, ‘will teach him the eight parts of speech, dialectics, astrology, and demonology, and about what is meant by matter and contingency, the abstract and the concrete, monads, and pre-established harmony.’

‘I’, said the second, ‘will try and make of him a just and fair-minded person, someone fit to have friends.’

Zadig pronounced judgement:

‘Whether or not you are his real father, it is you who shall marry his mother.’

(End of chapter 6, The Minister [Zadig as Prime Minister of Babylon], pp. 142-143.)


‘It’s time to leave,’ he [the hermit] said. ‘But while everyone is still asleep, I want to leave this man a token of my esteem and affection.’

So saying, he took hold of a torch and set fire to the house. Zadig, appalled, screamed at him and tried to prevent him from doing this dreadful thing. The hermit, being of superior strength, dragged him away. The house was engulfed in flames. The hermit, who had already gone some distance with his companion, calmly looked back to see it burn.

‘Thank God,’ he said. ‘There goes my dear host’s house, destroyed from top to bottom! O happy man!’

At these words Zadig was tempted simultaneously to laugh at the reverend father and to hurl abuse at him, to hit him and to run away from him. But he did none of these things and, with the hermit still in the ascendant, followed him despite himself to the last of their nightly sojourns.

This was at the house of a charitable and virtuous widow who had a fourteen-year-old nephew, a most accomplished youth and her one hope for the future. She did the honours of the house to the best of her ability. The following day she told her nephew to accompany the travellers as far as a bridge which, being lately damaged, had become dangerous to cross. The young man, all eager, led the way. Once they were on the bridge, the hermit said to the young man:

‘Come, I must show your aunt how grateful I am.’

Whereupon he grabbed him by the hair and threw him into the river. The lad sank to the bottom, surfaced briefly. and was then swept away by the current.

‘You monster!’ screamed Zadig. ‘You wicked, evil man!’

‘You promised you’d be more patient,’ the hermit interjected. ‘It may interest you to know that, beneath the ruins of that house which Providence set on fire, its master has discovered a huge hoard of treasure. It may also interest you to know that that young man, who’s just had his neck wrung by Providence, would have murdered his aunt within a year, and you within two.’

‘Who says so, you barbarian?’ cried Zadig. ‘And even if you did read about it in your Book of Destiny, does that mean you have the right to drown a child who never did you any harm?’

As the Babylonian was talking he noticed that the old man had lost his beard and that his face was assuming a youthful appearance. His hermit's habit vanished: four beautiful wings overlaid a majestic body that was radiant with light.

‘O heavenly envoy! O angel divine!’ exclaimed Zadig, prostrating himself on the ground. ‘Are you then come down to earth from empyreal heaven to teach a feeble mortal to submit to the eternal decrees?’

‘Men,’ said the angel Jesrad, ‘have an opinion on everything and know nothing. You were the one human being who most deserved to be enlightened.’

Zadig asked permission to speak.

‘I hesitate to say this,’ he said, ‘but may I venture to ask if you would clear up one point for me? Wouldn’t it have been better to teach that young man a lesson and make him virtuous rather than drown him?’

Jesrad answered him:

‘Had he been virtuous, and had he lived, it was his destiny to be murdered himself, together with the wife he would have married and the son they would have had.’

‘But that means, doesn’t it,’ said Zadig, ‘that disasters and crimes have to exist, and that disasters will happen to innocent people?’

‘The wicked are always unhappy,’ replied Jesrad. ‘Their function is to be a trial to the small number of the just that are scattered throughout the world. There is no evil from which no good comes.’

‘But,’ said Zadig, ‘what if there were only good, and no evil at all?’

‘Then,’ replied Jesrad, ‘this world would be a different world. The logic of its events would belong to a different order of wisdom; and such an order, which would be a perfect order, can exist only in the eternal abode of the Supreme Being, whom no evil may touch. He has created millions of worlds, not one of which can be like any other. This immense variety is an attribute of His immense power. There are no two leaves on all the trees of the Earth nor any two globes in all the infinite reaches of the heavens which are alike. And everything you see down here, on this little speck of dust where you have been born, necessarily occupies its own appointed place and time in accordance with the immutable laws of Him who embraces all things. Men think that this child who has just perished fell into the water by chance, and that it was likewise by chance that the house burnt down. But there is no such thing as chance. Everything is either a test or a punishment, a reward or a precaution. Remember that fisherman who thought he was the unhappiest man alive. Ormuzd sent you to change the course of his destiny. Feeble mortal, cease to argue against that which rather you should worship and adore.’

‘But . . .’, said Zadig.

As he said ‘But. . .’, the angel was already winging his way towards the tenth heaven. Zadig, kneeling, worshipped and adored Providence; and he bowed down. The angel cried out to him from on high:

‘Go you unto Babylon.’

(End of chapter 18, The Hermit, pp. 189-191.)


SOURCE: “Zadig, or Destiny: A Tale of the Orient” (1747/8), 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. 122-202.


Note: 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. (RD)


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Voltaire’s philosophical tales: commentary by R. Dumain

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The Dialectic of Common Sense: The Master Thinkers by Ivan Sviták

Diderot, Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings

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Pessimism as Philosophy: A Jaundiced Selected Annotated Bibliography

Intellectual Life in Society: Bibliography: The Enlightenment

Doubt & Skepticism: A Directed Minimal Bibliography & Web Guide

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Offsite:

Zadig - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Zadig; Or, The Book of Fate by Voltaire (trans. 1749)


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