Saturday, March 3, 2012

Voltaire -- Conservative of the Enlightenment

Voltaire 1694 - 1778

"O che sciagura d'essere senza coglioni!"*
Oh, What a misfortune to be without balls!

Francois-Marie Arouet (1694--1778), who later took the name of Voltaire, was the illegitimate son of a wealthy notary and his mother who died when he was seven years of old.  He was educated at a Jesuit school in Paris.  His father wanted him to study the law, but he was determined on a literary career.  Voltaire was the friend and guest of Friedrich the Great of Prussia.  He wrote many plays, essays and poetry and was a great success.  In 1758, at the age of 64, he wrote his masterpiece--Candide or Optimism (

Candide tells the story of "a young boy (illegitimate like Voltaire)  on whom nature had bestowed the gentlest of dispositions.  His countenance expressed his soul.  He combined solid judgement with complete openness of mind; which is the reason, I believe, that he was called Candide."  The picaresque novel follows the adventures and tribulations of Candide through the world.  
Candide, 1759
In the very fist chapter, he is kicked out of the Westphalian castle of Monsieur the Baron von Thunder-ten-tron for kissing his true love, the 17 year-old daughter of the Baron and Baroness--the beautiful Cunegonde.

Dr. Pangloss, who is Candide's tutor, "could prove to wonderful effect that there was no effect without cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, his Lordship the Baron's castle was the finest of castles and Her ladyship the best of all possible baronesses."  Pangloss is an optimist.  Through the Pangloss character Voltaire satirizes the Leibnizian doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds.  Leibniz argued that an omnipotent and benevolent God could not have created a world that was anything other than the best of all possible worlds.

Moreover, Pangloss is a Utopian socialist who parrots Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1755.  After her jewels and money are stolen, Cunegonde asks, "'What shall we live on?  How will we manage?'...'The good Pangloss often demonstrated to me,' said Candide with a sigh, 'that the things of this world are common to all men, and that everyone has an equal right to them.'"

Feel the...Pangloss!
Dr Pangloss would today be played by Bernie Sanders.  In the "best of all possible worlds" college and health care would certainly be free!

The remainder of the book demonstrates the utter folly of Pangloss' s philosophy.  It ultimately becomes a disquisition on the nature of evil.  How can the reality of evil in the world be reconciled with the existence of a divine and omnipotent creator?

Candide is dragooned to serve in the military in a pointless war between the Bulgars and the Abars.  He is beaten severely.  He witnesses the disastrous Lisbon earthquake which actually took place on Novmber 1st, 1755 and claimed the lives of between 15,000 and 60,000 people.  He leaves for the New World where he encounters slavery...

"They came across a negro stretched out on the ground with no more than half of his clothes left, which is to say a pair of canvas drawers; the poor man had no left leg and no right hand,  'Good God!' said Candide to him in Dutch.  'What are you doing here, my friend, in such a deplorable state?' -- 'I am wiring for my master , Monsieur Vanderdendur, the well-known merchant,' answered the negro.  'And it was Monsieur Vanderendur,' said Candide, 'who treated you like this?'  -- 'Yes, Monsieur,' said the negro, 'it is the custom.  Twice a year we are given a pair of blue canvas drawers, and this is our only clothing.  When we work in the sugar-mills and get a finger caught in the machinery, they cut off the hand; but if we try to run away, they cut off a leg: I have found myself in both situations.  It is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe...Dogs, monkeys and parrots are a thousand times less miserable than we are; the Dutch fetishes who converted me to their religion tell me every Sunday that we are all children of Adam, whites and blacks alike.  I am no genealogist; but if these preachers are telling the truth, then we are all second cousins.  In which case you must admit that no one could treat his relatives much more horribly than this.'

'Oh Pangloss!' cried Candide.  'This is one abomination you could not have anticipated, and I fear it has finally done for me: I am giving up on your Optimism after all.'  -'What is Optimism?' asked Cacambo.  'Alas!' said Candide, 'it it the mania for insisting that all is well when all is by no means well.'  And he wept as he looked down at his negro..."

Voltaire is clearly a champion of Liberty who found the practice of slavery abhorrent.  This is all the more astonishing as slavery in 1758 was regarded as part of the the core of "best business practices" at that time.
Voltaire's Blessing
In 1778, shortly before his death, Voltaire met Benjamin Franklin in Paris.  Voltaire, the great freethinker, gave a blessing to Franklin's 7 year-old grandson, Benny Bache, putting his hands on the boys' head and pronouncing in English the words, "God and Liberty" -- the most condensed expression of pure Conservatism ever uttered.  (Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson, 2003. http:/  The torch of Conservatism was thus passed from the old world to the new.

Voltaire in 1759 also demonstrates no more enthusiasm for French Imperialism than the artist Manet would a century later with his Execution of Maximilian I (see earlier post 2/22/12).  Voltaire writes of the Seven Years' war between England and France, "the two countries are at war over a few acres of snow on the Canadian border and they are spending rather more on their lovely war than the whole of Canada is worth."  The King of the earthly paradise, El Dorado, explains to Candide, "we are surrounded by inaccessible mountains and precipices, we have so far been protected against the rapacity of the European states, with their irrational lust for the pebbles and mud of our land (jewels and gold), for whose sake they would kill every last one of us."

In the new world, Candide makes and then loses a colossal fortune.  He returns to Europe.  At the conclusion of Candide's many ordeals he is reunited with his beloved Cunegonde who has grown ugly.  He marries her nevertheless and lives with his old tutor Pangloss as well.

In the novel's final chapter Candide meets a wise and wealthy Turk who says, "'I have but twenty acres...I cultivate them with my children; our work keeps at bay the three great evils: boredom, vice, and necessity.'"   Finally, Candide sums up all that he has learned from his adventures -- "'All I know', said Candide, 'is that we must cultivate our garden.'  The novelist Gustave Flaubert commented on the conclusion: 'The end of Candide is for me incontrovertible proof of genius of the first order; the stamp of the master is in that laconic conclusion, as stupid as life itself.'

A Garden may of course be many things to many different people.  To the Jew or Christian, it may connote a reference to the garden of Eden.  To the wealthy man, a garden may mean topiaries, fountains, rose bushes and huge water bills.  To a poor family, a vegetable garden can mean the difference between life and death.  To the Japanese a garden could be a well-manicured set of rocks and pebbles.  To a contemporary Californian, a garden could be just a couple of potted plants on the apartment balcony that help to keep one's glaucoma' at bay.

'Cultivate your garden (my italics),' Voltaire famously enjoins us at the conclusion of Candide.  He does NOT say go visit a public park maintained at the taxpayers' expense!  The garden that you choose to cultivate with your life is yours and yours alone.  It is a Private garden!
Voltaire proud member of the 1%!
Voltaire is...the money!
The genius of Voltaire's garden is that it must necessarily be PRIVATE PROPERTY, thereby pre-empting the socialist call to arms of Rousseau and Proudhon. ("All property is theft.")   Voltaire's literary success made him a wealthy man.  He actually extended financial credit to three rulers, the due de Wurtemburg, the Elector Palatine and the duc de Saxe-Gotha.  Yes, Voltaire was a banker who specialized in Sovereign debt and member of the "one percent!"

As a champion of liberty and property rights, Voltaire deserves recognition as a founding Conservative.  Just as Aristotle provides the Conservative counterpoint to Plato in Classical Greece so does Voltaire's philosophy provide the antidote for Rousseau during the Enlightenment (see earlier post...  His devastating satire of liberal thought as exemplified by Dr. Pangloss is the Classic--the standard by which all must be judged.

All of Candide's tribulations find parallels in our own time.  The pointless wars between the Bulgars and the Abars are mirrored by the endless war in Afghanistan.  The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 is recapitulated by Japan's experience in 2011.  Dr. Pangloss, updated for 2012, might become an Oberlin Sociology Professor explaining to us that, "It's all good, man."**

Voltaire did not lack balls!


* This quotation is used twice by Voltaire in the text of Candide.

**  If there is one thing Commander Kelly knows unequivocally it is simply that "It is NOT all good." There is objective evil in this world and, at critical times, it must be resisted with force. Could you imagine Churchill, Ian Fleming or Primo Levi saying, "It's all good"...?

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Voltaire anticipated conservative political thought through his lifelong objections to abuses of power, which is a bedrock conservative tenet. The balancing tenet is not about private property, but observes that history and culture matter. A conservative would not insist on private property for American Indians, for example, because their history and culture recognize no such thing. Add Burke to Voltaire, and you have it all.