Happy Birthday, Voltaire!

Voltaire’s statue and tomb in his crypt in the Pantheon, Paris, France

Voltaire was born on November 21, 1694, in Paris, France, where he died 83 1/2 years later. He’s buried in that great city of his birth and death, in a crypt below the beautiful Pantheon. He was a philosopher, playwright, poet, and much, much more; a generally prolific, wide-ranging, and creative writer. In his long life, Voltaire used his wealth of learning, urgent sense of justice, and merciless and ready wit to make the case for religious and intellectual tolerance, forbearance, science, and social reform. He is still considered one of the most influential and memorable thinkers the world has ever seen.

Learn more about the great Voltaire at:

Voltaire – an animated video by Alain de Botton and Nicholas Cronk for The School of Life

Voltaire ~ by J.B. Shank for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Voltaire ~ by René Henry Pomeau for the Encyclopædia Britannica

Voltaire and the One-Liner ~ by Nicholas Cronk for OUPBlog

Voltaire’s Candide ~ Melvin Bragg talks with David Wootton, Nicholas Cronk, and Caroline Warman for In Our Time

Voltaire’s Garden: The Philosopher as a Campaigner for Human Rights ~ by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker (book review for Ian Davidson’s Voltaire in Exile

The Voltaire Foundation: a world leader for eighteenth-century scholarship

Broken on the Wheel: A Gruesome Legal Case turned Voltaire into a Crusader for the Innocent ~ by Ken Armstrong for the Paris Review

The Philosopher and the Prodigy: How Voltaire Fell in Love with a Remarkable Woman Mathematician ~ by Michelle Legro for Brain Pickings

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Bad Things Happen for a Reason, and Other Idiocies of Theodicy, by Jason Blum

Ancient of Days by William Blake

Ancient of Days by William Blake

The problem of evil is a classic dilemma in the philosophy of religion. The relative ease with which the problem can be stated belies the depth of the challenge that it presents to traditional monotheism. Roughly, it can be summarised as follows:

If God is omnipotent, then He has the power to create a world without evil.

If God is omniscient, then no moment of evil goes divinely unnoticed.

If God is omnibenevolent, then He has the desire to rid the world of evil.

Therefore, the world should be perfect, or at least free of undeserved suffering. Yet, a cursory glance reveals a world that clearly is not inherently just or free from undeserved suffering.

Hence, the problem of evil: how can a perfect deity allow such injustice and rampant evil in the world that He created?

Many solutions to the problem of evil – called ‘theodicies’ – have been proposed. There is the argument of free will, attributing evil not to God but to humanity’s misuse of its own freedom. Others have argued that certain kinds of moral goodness – compassion, for instance – are not possible in a world without evil, and the value of these types of goodness outweighs the evils on which their existence depends. There is also what I call ‘the big-picture defence’, claiming that evil only appears as such from our limited perspectives. Were we able to see things from the perspective of God, we would see that, in the grand scheme of things, every apparent evil plays a necessary role in making the world more perfect.

The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s simple solution was to argue in 1710 that this world is necessarily the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz depicts God assessing in His infinite mind all the various possible worlds that He could create. Because He is a loving God, the one He chooses to create is surely the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Leibniz’s argument suggests that it is ultimately meaningless to complain about this evil or that injustice; because this is the best of all possible worlds. We should take comfort in the fact that everything is, in the final analysis, as good as it can possibly be.

Voltaire derided Leibniz’s solution, writing a book to satirise it. In Candide (1759), the eponymous hero and his companions stumble through the world, constantly beset by bad luck and predations. They witness even greater tragedies in the world around them. Their troubles arise from the uncaring forces of the natural world, but also from the naiveté of Candide, who is constantly assured by his mentor, Professor Pangloss, that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds. In juxtaposing vivid depictions of myriad cruelties and Professor Pangloss’s blind insistence on the ultimate goodness of the universe, Voltaire demonstrates that there is a poignant reality to the experience of suffering that cannot be rationalised away. The claim that justice naturally inheres in the order of things does not bear scrutiny.

There is also a profound moral danger to certain types of theodicy.

The essential difficulty of the problem of evil is how to reconcile its apparent existence with a loving, all-powerful deity. One popular method has been to reassert the inherent justice of the world, implying, if not explicitly claiming, the righteousness of the suffering that we witness throughout it. The result is, essentially, a theological form of victim-blaming.

For example, the American evangelical preacher Pat Robertson explained the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – which killed between 220,000-316,000 people, and injured another 300,000 – as the fault of the Haitian people. The people of Haiti had apparently sworn a pact with Satan in exchange for delivering them from French rule, and the earthquake was divine retribution for that bargain (delivered approximately two centuries later). Robertson similarly suggested that both Hurricane Katrina and terrorism were divine punishment for the fact that abortion is still legal in the United States. Robertson, of course, is not alone. An Iranian mullah has blamed earthquakes on women dressing immodestly; a New York rabbi blamed the advancement of gay rights in the US for another earthquake in 2011; many Burmese Buddhists blamed a 2008 cyclone that killed approximately 130,000 people on bad karma.

The desire that motivates these interpretations is understandable. Natural disasters and terrorist attacks are either random events in a chaotic world, or they are explicable events within a discernible pattern. In the former case, we inhabit an essentially amoral universe: bad things happen to good people, children die premature deaths, and tragedy strikes without remorse, all without rhyme or reason. In the latter case, we inhabit a much more hospitable universe where there is some sort of inherent order: a place where morality is inscribed into the very fabric of things, assuring us that, if only we play by the rules, evil will be punished, goodness will be rewarded, and justice will reign supreme.

It is easy to understand the attraction of that vision. But it has a substantial dark side. Like any theodicy, it cannot simply unmake suffering, and so it instead tries to justify it. The claim that the universe is inherently just then implies that those who suffer deserve it. The existence of a just God and a moral universe is gained at the cost of condemning victims of misfortune as blameworthy. And so, hundreds of thousands of Haitians died because their ancestors made a pact with the devil. Women and homosexuals agitating for equal rights are blamed for deadly natural disasters.

Such a worldview conveniently scapegoats someone, usually whatever population someone wishes to demonise: women, homosexuals, the poor, etc. It also normalises social ills that could otherwise be addressed and meliorated. In a dark irony, holding that the universe is ultimately a just place ends up condoning the suffering and injustice that happens within it, often on the backs of those most in need.

Visions of a just universe need not function this way. Theodicy authorises only the suffering of the less fortunate when it indulges in willful blindness and insists on justice as a foregone conclusion, denying reality in favour of comforting ignorance. Alternatively, when justice is construed as hope – as a vision of what the world could possibly be – it functions as a lodestar. This acknowledges the disturbing realities with which we are surrounded, and refuses to be disillusioned by them. By regarding justice as an ideal rather than a present reality, one’s vision of the inequalities and brutalities of the present moment remains unobstructed, allowing them to be faced. The just universe in which we should believe is the one that can be created only through dedicated effort and real action on our part. But that can happen only if we refuse to take shelter in soothing fantasies. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Jason Blum is a visiting assistant professor on the college writing programme at Davidson College in North Carolina. His first book is Zen and the Unspeakable God (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Photobook: Tomb of Beaumarchais, Père Lachaise, Paris, France

Tomb of Beaumarchais at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France, 2015 by Amy Cools

Tomb of Beaumarchais at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Jan. 24, 1732 -May 18, 1799, Paris, was a fascinating and brilliant man. He’s best remembered today as the author of the irreverent comedies Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, which were rendered into operas by Rossini and Mozart, respectively. He also published the first complete collection of works by Voltaire, the great Enlightenment writer and philosopher.

To learn more about Beaumarchais and his revolutionary life and ideas, see his entry in Encyclopædia Britannica, in TheatreHistory.com, and in Wikipedia.

I took this photograph while in Paris in August 2015 following the life and ideas of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine at the time of the French Revolution; to read more about these great thinkers, click here.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

First Day in Paris Following Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

My first rented room in Paris, France, following Paine, Wollstonecraft, and Jefferson

Sunday, August 9th, 2015

I arrive at Charles De Gaulle airport on Sunday afternoon, fairly well rested for once. Usually, I don’t sleep well on planes, and stumble off the walkway groggy and stupified. This time I slept about two thirds of the way through the 10 1/2 hour flight …not well, mind you, but much better than nothing. I attribute it to the ibuprofen tablets I took shortly before boarding, making the cramped quarters less painful to sleep in: my travel tip of the day! It was great to arrive and feel competent to navigate the trains, find my destination, and go out and start enjoying myself without delay.

At about 6pm, I meet my host Aurelia at 46 Rue Voltaire, a couple blocks down from Oberkampf station, in the 11th Arrondissement. She is sweet and helpful, and a practiced Airbnb-er: she has a series of photos on her iPhone at the ready so she can show me how to navigate the passageways, six flights of stairs, and unmarked doors to reach my mini apartment. The place is tiny, with the loft bed over the desk, the toilet tucked into a cubbyhole beside the shower, and the whole place the size of a small bedroom. On the whole, it suits me just fine, since it’s clean, private, and in a great neighborhood at a cheap price, but being somewhat tall and not used to these close quarters, I whack my head often.

Triomphe de la République, the sculpture at the Place de la Nation

I decide not to dive right in my historical adventures, but to take an aimless walk around instead, to get my bearings, wake up a little more, and re-immerse myself in this city which I last visited seven years ago on honeymoon. Right away, I find myself feeling a little wistful, feels odd to be here without Bryan. He’ll be joining me in a couple of days, so I console myself and head out.

I walk down Boulevard Voltaire in search of something better to eat than airplane food, which takes me awhile: most places are closed (usual in late July to mid-August, as my host informs me), until I get closer to Place de la Nation, which is is getting busier as the night crowd are starting to emerge. I find a boulangerie, where I pick up a butter croissant and another sweet one for tomorrow’s breakfast. I admire the sculpture, then turn up Boulevard Diderot, sit down for an Edelweiss (lightly tart beer), a couple of smokes (an old habit I like to indulge myself in on special occasions) and a little people-watching. It’s a lovely warm evening.

Latin dancers at the Quai St-Bernard along the Seine, Paris, France

I continue on towards the Seine, cross the Pont d’Austerlitz, and walk east along the river. In the park and sculpture garden on Quai St-Bernard, I happen upon masses of people dancing on three dance floors: the first was dedicated to the foxtrot, the other two to Latin dancing. One was huge, must have been well over a hundred people dancing until the sweat was dripping, ringed by crowds of spectators. I dare not join in the dancing: I can’t seem to learn steps to save my life, last time I took a dance class I caught the teacher apologizing to my assigned dance partner, probably for the bruises I pounded into his feet with my own.

The sunset is pink, orange, and gold against the blue sky and above the silver Seine as I pass by Notre Dame.

Gazing at the Île de la Cité from the Left Bank of Paris, France

On the bridge to the Île de la Cité, there was another crowd clapping and cheering for three performers, two on roller skates and one on rollerblades. In turn, they speed-skate up a ramp and over a crossbar set very high in the air, perhaps 15 feet or so.

As I’m reminded constantly on my evening stroll, Paris, like our Washington D.C., has not forgotten its nation’s Revolution. Its heroes and events are memorialized in the names of street after boulevard after avenue, in monument after statue after city square: Rue La Fayette, Place de la Bastille, Place de la Republique. So are its philosophes: along with Voltaire and Diderot, there’s Jean Jacque Rousseau, Montesquieu… even our own Thomas Jefferson is an honorary member of this elite company: his larger-than-life bronze sculpture adorns the Left Bank of the Seine.

Hôtel de Ville, Paris, France, on the right bank of the Seine

Other than some of the street names and monuments, my evening stroll took me by only one site
associated with a subject of my trip: the Hôtel de Ville, which has several connections with the life of Thomas Paine. It’s a very grand building, and looks both lovely and impressive all lit up at night, but it’s not the original building of Paine’s time. That one was burned down in another French revolution in 1871, in the same round of anti-monarchical arsonists that claimed the Tuileries palace and nearly claimed the Louvre.

I walk around the building to see if one of the statues in its many niches was Paine, but I can’t find one. It’s pretty dark out, though; the statues I see whose caption I can see in the half-light are all Frenchmen. However, Paine was a celebrity in France following his publication of Common Sense, which offered a comprehensive philosophical defense for the rightness of the cause for American Revolution, and again when he wrote The Rights of Man. His arguments resonated with many of the French people, who felt themselves chafing under a rigid hierarchical structure and high taxation maintained and imposed by an unchallengeable monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy. So it was at the Hotel de Ville on August 26, 1790 that the Paris Commune voted to make Paine an honorary citizen. When he returned to Paris in September of 1792, he was elected to the French National Convention; no matter that he couldn’t really speak French, one who so eloquently speaks for human freedom and dignity speak to all. So though he might be properly honored by a sculptural portrait here, so far as I can find out, he has none among the niches.

More to come soon: my next day in Paris is entirely dedicated to following in the footsteps of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson. Stay tuned!  > Second Day, Part 1
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1997.

Bell, David. ‘5 Myths About the French Revolution‘, New York Post, Jul 9th, 2015.

French Revolution.’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication:  A Life of Mary WollstonecraftNew York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974.

Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.