Review: Three Philosophical Tales (Voltaire)

Review: Three Philosophical Tales (Voltaire)

Micromegas by Voltaire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This, for me, is a perfect little book—part science-fiction, part philosophy, and all wit.

I confess that I have always been somewhat lukewarm towards the more famous Candide, perhaps because that book pokes fun at an idea that I have never believed nor even taken seriously—namely, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But this book explores an idea which I have often contemplated: the smallness of our species in the universe.

In a way, the idea is not very sensible, since size is a relative term, and in any case physical size has nothing to do with importance. Nevertheless, when you look out of a plane window or down a skyscraper, and marvel at the almost comical smallness of buildings, cars, and people, it is an irresistible thought—that all of the things we concern ourselves with are ultimately without consequence.

One can perhaps see this book as a farcical precursor to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, which uses science rather than wit to emphasis our littleness. Both books come to the same point: we do not know far more than we know, we cover our ignorance with myths and theories, and we fight and kill one another for absolute trivialities. As one of the book’s philosopher says, “Did you know, for example, that as I am speaking with you, there are 100,000 madmen of our species wearing hats, killing 100,00 other animals wearing turbans, or being massacred by them, and that we have used almost the whole surface of the Earth for this purpose since time immemorial?”

The final message of the book is rather bleak and even nihilistic, if lightened by Voltaire’s humor: that humanity is vanishingly unimportant. This is not exactly good philosophy, nor is it even necessarily good moralizing, since if nothing means anything we might as well do what we want. However, this “cosmic” perspective can, I think, be used to moderate ourselves: as a timely reminder of our ultimate ignorance and of our ultimate insignificance. It can at least help us to take ourselves a little less seriously. And, as Betrand Russell observed of Spinoza’s cosmic philosophy:

There are even times when it is comforting to reflect that human life, with all that it contains of evil and suffering, is an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe. Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair.


Zadig/L’Ingénu by Voltaire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If we must have fables, for heaven’s sake let them at least be emblems of truth.

Here are two more tales of Voltaire, one written before and one after the famous Candide. All three center on a young man in love with a beautiful girl, whose love is thwarted as he is tossed about by fortune. Yet in content and tone the three are fairly divergent.

Zadig, the earliest of the tales, is set in the orient of the Arabian Nights. The titular hero is excellent in every way; he is wise, he is dexterous, he is honorable, and he even practices the art of deduction as well as Sherlock Holmes. Yet no matter what he does, misfortune follows close at his heals.

So far the tale more or less resembles Candide. However, Voltaire ends the story on an unexpected note. Zadig’s misfortunes eventually lead him to marry the woman he loves and become king; and the moral is that, as Pope said, all partial evil leads to universal good. In other words, one must trust fate and not presume to denounce bad luck. This is striking because it is the exact moral that Voltaire so mercilessly parodies in Candide. It appears the younger Voltaire was more optimistic.

The last tale, L’Ingénu (or “The Child of Nature” as the translator renders it) is about an American native who ends up in Breton and tries to integrate. This tale is more pointedly satirical than Zadig, as Voltaire goes out of his way to mock the hypocrisy of French catholics. In tone this tale is not nearly so lighthearted; indeed, in style it is more novelistic than joyfully silly. The final message is that French society is deeply corrupt and that many misfortunes are simply the result of human wickedness. And as the last sentence of the book tells us: “Misfortune is no use at all!”

Optimistic or pessimistic, these two tales are gems of wit from a humane thinker and a sharp writer. Everything I read of the French imp increases my admiration for him.

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