Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Lesson's from Voltaire's Candide

Enlightenment satirist and thinker Voltaire is best known for his classic 1759 book, Candide. A strict skeptic of organized religion, Voltaire displayed contempt towards nearly every faith group, except, of course, for one. The Anabaptists, who are a common ancestor of Friends, are the sole group to escape the author's scrutiny and disapproving contempt.

The Anabaptists were a Protestant sect that rejected infant baptism, public office, and worldly amusements. The Amish and the Mennonites, for example, follow Anabaptist doctrine. We as members of the Religious Society of Friends share their same focus upon Simplicity and Pacifism. Voltaire was unusually sympathetic to Anabaptist beliefs, though he considered himself a Deist, as were many learned men of his age.

Jacques the Anabaptist is one of the most generous and human characters in the novel, but he is also realistic about human faults. He acknowledges the greed, violence, and cruelty of mankind, yet still offers kind and meaningful charity to those in need. Unlike the long-winded and self-aggrandizing character Pangloss, a philosopher who hesitates when the world requires him to take action, Jacques both studies human nature and acts to influence it. This is a combination that Voltaire apparently saw as ideal but extremely rare.

To this day, in the modern era, we continually struggle with two philosophies which competed in their time. Today, we borrow a little from column A and a little from column B.

Where do you fall? How do you construct your own sense of belief, morality, and observance?

1) Believe in the possibility of a perfect society
2) Believe education perfects man, leading to rational consensus ("right thinking")
3) Believe people naturally seek consensus
4) Believe people are naturally both rational and good
5) Believe thoughts are better than feelings; the head is more reliable than the heart
6) Think the best form of government is a representative democracy led by the most educated members of society
7) Don't believe in God or believe in the idea of One God that is worshipped equally well in all religions; reject dogma, miracle, and mystery


1) Believe society is the enemy of the individual

2) Believe education corrupts man

3) Believe people are willful, impulsive, and emotional

4) Believe people are emotional and perverse

5) Believe the heart is more reliable than the head; human feelings are the seat of human identity

6) Think the best form of government depends on the inspired leadership of a great man

7) Believe that religions with strong traditions and clear dogma best meet human needs

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