Conversation with Voltaire c.2016

Voltaire

T: You ask what is tolerance? Tolerance is an objective.

V: It is the natural attribute of humanity. We are all formed of weakness and error: let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly.[1]

T: Easy for you to say. Things are tense here. You’re dead. I have a daughter now. The world is more confusing each month. I pace indoors, my mind a temple of intensity. Sleep is a luxury I cannot afford. I’d rather study and write—do my part to help solve our problems. Thus I look to sages like you for guidance.

V: It is said the present gives birth to the future. Events are linked to each other by an invisible fate.[2]

T: If this is a renaissance, it’s a morbid portent. It is as if the world is sick. America itself is ill with pervasive discontent.

V: There is no other remedy for this epidemic illness than the spirit of free thought, which, spreading little by little, finally softens men’s customs, and prevents the renewal of the disease.[3]

T: I agree, and in light of current events, in which communities of peace officers roam American neighborhoods like armies, in which whites can’t even agree that or are afraid to exalt that BLACK LIVES MATTER, another remedy beyond free thought is respect for our fellow men and women and the infinite potential inside them, for as you once wrote, “We should say to every individual: Remember thy dignity as a man!”[4] For I wake each morning and read the newspaper and often I cannot sit. I am physically pained at what I read.

V: This feeling of pain is indispensible to stimulate us to self-preservation. If we never experienced pain, we should be every moment injuring ourselves without perceiving it.[5]

T: Fanaticism has kidnapped the minds of men and women. Since we invented religion we have murdered in the name of it, and we continue to do so. Such fanaticism has spread into the political realm. Anger and fear dominate. People are afraid that if they don’t assert their convictions, they will be victimized. Moderation has evaporated in the overabundant breath of rhetoric. The people’s politics are exclusive rather than inclusive, derisive rather than unifying. History has shown us that such moments are regrettable.

V: Show these fanatics a little geometry, and they learn it quite easily. But strangely enough their minds are not thereby rectified. They perceive the truths of geometry, but it does not teach them to weigh probabilities. Their minds have set hard. They will reason in a topsy-turvy way all their lives and I am sorry for it.[6]

T: I’m not sorry for them. They get what they deserve. In America they only have two choices, candidates who appear at first glance to be siblings: A woman who, according to federal investigators, has been “extremely careless with information” at her privileged disposal, and a man who has been openly and dangerously intolerant of people that do not look or think like him. They pander and feed the public narcotic doses of false promise. These are perhaps the most tepid of charges against them.

V: So tell me, you who have travelled, who have read and observed, in which state, under what kind of government would you have liked to be born?[7]

T: I wave no flag and never will. I would have liked to be born WITH a government rather than UNDER one. The older I become, the more oppressive the weight of that government, the more necessary to shrug it from atop me.

V: Laws have proceeded in almost every state, from the interest of the legislator, from the urgency of the moment, from ignorance, from superstition, and have been made at random, irregularly, just as cities have been built.[8] In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one part of the citizens to give to the other.[9]

T: I’m afraid the stakes are much higher than money. Western culture’s priorities are grossly misaligned. Emphasis is erroneously placed on sports and entertainment and the people are utterly disengaged until a horror seizes their attention.

V: But where are they to be found who will dare speak out?[10]

T: They’re everywhere, unfortunately. What they have to say is often more harmful than helpful. I dare speak, but who will listen? For “it is far better to be silent than to increase the quantity of bad books.”[11]

V: It is impossible for society to subsist unless each member pays something toward the expenses of it, and everyone ought to pay.[12]

T: Yes, but “try to arouse activity in an indolent mass, to inspire a taste for music and poetry in one who lacks taste and an ear, and you will no more succeed than if you undertook to give sight to the blind.”[13] In people’s certainties of their beliefs, they stop searching and their ideas stagnate, become a cesspool. They are certain of their beliefs and that is enough; little else matters.

V: If you’d asked the entire world before Copernicus if the sun rose and set that day, everyone would have answered: We are absolutely certain of it. They were certain, and they were mistaken.[14]

T: All the more important that “[we] boldly and honestly say: How little it is that I truly know!”[15] Rather than shout their beliefs over another’s, why do they not close their mouths and listen? Why do they accuse rather than acknowledge?

V: This is the character of truth: it is of all time, for all men, it only has to show itself to be recognized, and one cannot argue against it: A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.[16]

T: So “who shall decide between these fanatics? The reasonable, impartial man who is learned in a knowledge not of words, the man free from prejudice and the lover of truth and justice—in short, a man who is not a foolish animal, and who does not think he is the angel.”[17] As I said, I look to you, but you were no angel. Harsh words against Muslims and Jews populate your texts.

V: It takes 20 years for a man to rise from the vegetative state in which he is in his mother’s womb to the state when the maturity of reason begins to appear. It has required 30 centuries to learn about his structure. It would need an eternity to learn something about his soul.[18] In the land of where the monster reigns, almost everyone is blind.[19]

T: I wonder what I do not see. Monsters abound in plain sight. Each week strikes a new terror worst than the last.

V: If there were only two men on Earth, how would they live together? They would assist each other, annoy each other, court each other, speak ill of each other, fight each other, be reconciled to each other, and neither be able to live with nor without each other.[20]

T: Some fighting is understandable, but why so freely kill each other? Across the world innocents are murdered as a means to an end, to espouse a statement or idea. Why not verbalize those statements and ideas? Why the fear of black men on behalf of the American police? And why the murderous retaliation upon the police when such actions force us retreating backward?

V: It is forbidden to kill.[21] To murder our brethren, can there be anything more horrible throughout nature?[22] We are told that human nature is perverse, that man is born a child of the devil, and wicked. Nothing could be more foolish. You are all born good. Witness how dreadful it is to corrupt the purity of your being. All mankind should be dealt with as all men individually.[23]

T: Still, there is too much. At times I am beaten down with it.

V: There is infinitely less wickedness on Earth than we are told or believe there is. There is still too much, no doubt. A melancholy mind which has suffered injustice sees the Earth covered with damned people.[24]

T: I don’t see them as damned. But “more than half the habitable world is still peopled with humans who live in a horrible state approaching pure nature, existing and clothing themselves with difficulty, scarcely enjoying the gift of speech, scarcely perceiving that they are unfortunate, and living and dying almost without knowing it.”[25] I’d like to help them find their voices. I’d like to level the playing field.

V: As men have received the gift of perfecting all that nature has granted them, they have perfected love.[26]

T: They have not perfected love. They have not perfected anything. Perfection does not exist. Perhaps it is all we can do to continue down this path of inquiry and reflection. Rest not, my dead friend. Your ideas are wide awake and eager for an audience. The fire burns inside me so it must burn elsewhere.

July 2016

 

Works

Besterman, Theodore, editor. Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, Penguin Books, 1972.

DuMont, E.R, editor. Philosophical Dictionary, from The Complete Works of Voltaire in 43 Volumes, St. Hubert Guild, 1901.

Redman, Ben Ray, editor. The Portable Voltaire, Viking Penguin, 1949.

 

[1] Redman, 212.

[2] Besterman, 109.

[3] Besterman, 203.

[4] Redman, 228.

[5] DuMont, vol. IX, page 265.

[6] Besterman, 189.

[7] Besterman, 192.

[8] Redman, 224.

[9] Redman, 225.

[10] Redman, 224.

[11] Redman, 223.

[12] DuMont, vol. X, page 174.

[13] Besterman, 76.

[14] Besterman, 106.

[15] Redman, 225.

[16] Redman, 198.

[17] Redman, 198.

[18] Redman, 160.

[19] Redman, 162.

[20] DuMont, vol. XIII, page 104.

[21] DuMont, vol. XIII page 106.

[22] DuMont, vol. XIV page 198.

[23] DuMont, vol. XIV page 215.

[24] Dumont, vol. XIV page 219.

[25] Redman, 225.

[26] Besterman, 30.

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