Monday, February 13, 2012

Week 04, Voltaire's Candide


What are the basic premises of the European Enlightenment and of philosophes such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet, d'Alembert, Diderot, and Montesquieu?

1.  Universe is intelligible and orderly, governed by natural forces we can comprehend by the use of reason and applied science.  Deism is a religious corollary, and so is an insistence on observing tolerance and following moral standards that we have drawn mainly from within ourselves.

2.  Individuals and indeed human history can be understood on rational terms.  Knowledge implies responsibility for exercising control over ourselves individually and our affairs collectively.

3.  Humanity is improvable, perfectible. Locke's tabula rasa notion of childhood stresses education since environment is critical.  We can make progress in science, government, and society.

4.  Notions of perfectibility, knowability, and control lead to a democratic impulse in Enlightenment thought, even if many intellectuals favored "enlightened autocrats" like Frederick the Great.  If we made our own institutions over time, we can change them when they no longer suit us.

The Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) sums up the European Enlightenment well.  Kant said that the essence of the Enlightenment could be captured in the phrase sapere aude, “Dare to Know.” Humans possess the power of reason, and they are responsible for knowing the sources, operational principles, and limits of that power. That is what the three famous Critiques are for: Critique of Pure Reason (how we can perceive and know); Critique of Practical Reason (Ethics); Critique of Judgment (Aesthetics). We are free rational and moral agents living in a world that we ourselves largely render intelligible by means of our powerful mental faculties.  We are not determined by nature or bound to naturaal necessity; we give laws to Nature, and our standards derive not from an external source (God) but rather from our own capacity to act morally.

Voltaire and the French philosophes were publicizers, popularizers, and practical reformers, not ivory-tower thinkers.

Voltaire was exiled for a while to England for insulting a French nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan.  He favored a dash of English government and British empiricism – healthy alternatives for French Cartesian rationalists and political absolutists.  He opposed Europe's addiction to war, issuing the remarkable comment, "murder is strictly punished unless you do it in great numbers and to the sound of trumpets."  He also favored civil liberty and opposed the Catholic Church in his famous cry, "écrasez l'infâme," by which he meant superstition and bigotry, in particular the Catholic Church with its long history of persecution against free-thinkers and intellectuals.  This sentiment is optimistic because it assumes that removing obstacles systematicaly will open the way to improvement of the human condition.

In Candide Voltaire is considering the problems of personal autonomy, determinism, and the possibility of social and political justice.  It's all well and good to cook up theories and "oughts," but how have people always treated one another?  There's plenty of evidence for a strong search into that question, so let's have a look.  Well, let's have an an outrageously satirical, over-the-top look, anyway.  Yet, how far beyond realism are the events of Candide?  Is human history devoid of brutal sadism and torture, mass rape, horrible pestilence, total war, and so forth?  No!  It's an awful thought, but what you get in Candide – silly stuff about El Dorado and all the ridiculous recognition scenes aside – is concentrated realism.  A modern equivalent might be something like Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, though that film is considerably more pessimistic in its outcome than Voltaire's text.

In a sense, Candide is atypical of Voltaire as a philosophe thinker, or at least it isn't to be taken on its own, in isolation from his larger body of work.  Rather we should probably read it as an antidote to the mistaken assumption that Voltaire might run to extremes in his bold advocacy of humanity's prospects in the face of a long, ridiculously hideous history constituting evidence to the contrary.  Candide deflates the scientific pretentions, the cocksure absurdity of the -ism associated with the late C17 rationalist philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in particular: optimism.  Voltaire doesn't reject optimism in a general, non-philosophical sense. Rather he tries to prevent it from rigidifying into a system of the sort that Dr. Pangloss advocates.  Whenever that happens to a philosophy, it loses much of its insight and value.  He's a philosophe, not a dogmatist.  To be hopeful and positive-spirited is not to be an oblivious fool.  Vigilance is the watchword, and the upshot of Candide, the moral lesson, is simply we must cultivate our own gardens.  In other words, keep it real and do something tangible that benefits you and those around you.  Do not fail to see what's really going on, and don't build intellectual and desire-based sand castles in the air.  But don't give up, either -- that just runs against human nature and it makes life impossible, stagnant, intolerable.

Main Points about Candide: The text confronts you with raw experience, shocking stuff.  This representation dumps a vat of acid on C18 optimist and rationalist pretentions, corroding the frameworks commonly used to control and understand people and things.  The point is to reveal the underlying reality of events and circumstances.  Voltaire is, therefore, a good Baconian empiricist and an honest historian, and optimistic views don't correspond to real life.  We might be able to see that if we just stopped blurting out formulae and precepts and instead opened our eyes.  As they say, "denial isn't just a river in Egypt," and a huge amount of human energy seems to go towards the denial of everything from our own mortality to the atrocities we are capable of committing.  And truth, as Nietzsche will later inform us to our discomfiture, very often looks suspiciously like a species of error that makes us feel good about ourselves.  In the best sense, this philosophe Voltaire is anti-systemic in his insistence on vigilance, his opposition to religious and philosophical dogma.  For the rest, we will run through the text's highlights.

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