Voltaire and the Value of His Parables

Voltaire contes

Voltaire: Romans et contes. ISBN 978-2-070-10961-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Having explored the life of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, I was a curious about the man’s works, and since I am busy reading two other French poets, I decided to start with Voltaire’s novels. After all one should not judge people by their appearance or life style, but by their works. The present collection features among many others the three major parables “Micromégas”, “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme”. Faint memories from my time at school made the title “Candide” seem familiar – so much for the value of my French literature classes.

The best I can say about Voltaire’s novels is that the intention of the author is clear: to transport a message about tolerance, freedom of speech, a fair society and rational judgment. A message against idolatry, superstition, religious dogmatism and tyranny. Unfortunately, Voltaire’s narrative style has not stood the test of the time in my opinion. As with Rabelais, that I have covered in an earlier post, the pompous language and the repetitive pattern of the novels did not speak to me. I found them tiresome and boring.

I understand that Voltaire was under several constraints: the fashion of the day, his century’s ideas of aesthetics and censure. And for the readers of the 18th century, his language and his narrative style were just perfect. His books sold well, his theatre pieces were performed a lot, at least in those places were Voltaire had not made himself too many influential enemies. But what is the value of his novels today? And has Voltaire’s narrative style not become an obstacle to the transmission of his message?

For experts on French literature, Voltaire’s novels “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme” are memorials of the French Enlightenment, of a glorious cultural past. They will revel in it and condemn in a very un-Voltairian way those who dare have another opinion. For the common reader of today, I suppose Voltaire’s parables are a less thrilling experience, with the exception perhaps of those parts that show Voltaire’s cruel sense of humour and his hate for zealots. In “Candide” – please note the reference to optimism in the full title – the hero kills two Catholic priests and a “choleric Jew” over the span of a few pages.

From a philosophical point of view, Voltaire’s subjects of fate, the opposition of free will and necessity is interesting. The German philosopher Leibniz had put forward the idea that God being a perfect being could only have created a perfect world. Leibniz also thought that every effect has a necessary cause, ruling out randomness or the idea that life as such could be absurd, meaning that Man would need to give his life a meaning.

Voltaire violently attacked the idea of the best possible world as he saw a world full of misery, intrigue and fighting. How could such a world be perfect? Where does it leave Man’s freedom? In “Zadig”, Voltaire shows how human disasters can reveal a positive effect, hidden to the common mortal, but visible to those who believe. The way Voltaire narrates the adventures of his (anti-)hero Zadig makes it however clear that he mocks any such argument.

Candide, the hero who lend the novel his name, is an eager debater and thinker. He survives countless adventures that demonstrate how cruel life on earth is, showing that there is plenty of meaningless suffering (i.e. slavery), episodes that make him openly question Leibniz’ postulates. His way out: “Allons cultiver notre jardin!” Let’s go gardening! Candide’s concluding words can be interpreted in two ways. In a literal way, Candide actually wants to work in his newly acquired garden and achieve personal happiness through manual labour – working heard without reasoning or debating. In a more figurative way Voltaire extolls us to deal with present-day problems, making this planet a better place on the basis of rationality.

Whatever one may think about the form of Voltaire’s novels, he puts forward a key question that may occupy our minds today just as it occupied Voltaire’s mind: To what degree is Man truly free? He may no longer suffer under the tyrannical policy of a king or the oppression of religion, but is he free? The many down-sides of a globalized economy, the manipulative power of social media, the fast degrading of our environment put Man’s freedom to control his destiny to a severe test. No, we are not living in a perfect world, and we should not ignore the many challenges humanity faces or try to explain them away. And Voltaire’s answer is still valid: to fight for a better world on the basis of sound and fair judgment.

François Couperin, French grandmaster of the harpsichord and composer of the French Royal Court under Louis XIV, was a contemporary of Voltaire. And you may judge yourself whether Couperin’s piece “Le Parnasse, ou l’Apothéose de Corelli” has stood the test of the time better than Voltaire’s language:

Italian Infiltrators at the Court of Versailles