Friday, August 24, 2012

Voltaire's Remarks on Pascal's Thoughts

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  June 27, 2007 ]
In 1901 there was published, in 42 volumes, and in various printings, some more costly and limited than others, an edition of The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version with Notes by Tobias Smollett, etc.  Various printings of this edition are still to be found in the larger libraries, both academic and public.  (Scanning the OCLC holdings for this title, it is interesting to note the number of seminaries and private denominational colleges, even Bible colleges, which own a set.)  Voltaire is a magnificent stylist, one who writes for the general reader, and has found able translators in this edition.  In volume 21, I found "Remarks on Pascal's Thoughts," which immediately follows a pungent essay entitled simply "The Jews."  Excerpts from the "Remarks" follow, with identifications of the contributions of the two authors added:    

    Pascal:  "Though the universe should fall on man and crush him to death, yet would man be still more noble than that which destroyed him; because he is conscious of the advantage the universe has over him, and that he is about to die, whereas the universe knows nothing of this."

    Voltaire:  What is here meant by the word noble?  It is true indeed, that "Thought" is a different kind of thing from the sun; but can it be proved, that an animal, because he is endowed with a few thoughts, is more noble than the sun which animates all that we behold in nature?  Is it for man to decide who is judge and culprit?  We say that one performance is superior to another, when it cost the workman more pains, and is more evidently useful; but did it cost the Creator less pains to make the sun than to mould a little animal about five feet high, who reasons sometimes well and sometimes ill?  Which of the two is more useful in the universe, this animal, or the planet that bestows light and heat, and so many surrounding worlds?  Or again, how comes it that a few ideas received into the brain should be preferable to the material universe?    

    Pascal:   "The Jews imagine that God will not forever leave other nations involved in this darkness; that a deliverer for all mankind will come; that they are sent into the world to proclaim him; that they were created purposely to be the herald of that mighty event, and to call upon all nations to unite with them in expecting such a deliverer."

    Voltaire:   The Jews have always been in expectation of a deliverer, but then he is a deliverer with regard to them, and not for us; they expected Messiah, who is to bring the Christians in subjection to the Jews; whereas, we expect a Messiah, who is one day to unite the Jews with the Christians.   Their notions on this head are directly opposite to those entertained by us.

Voltaire's "Remarks" run to fifty pages in this edition, but they may be read quickly.  Voltaire knows how to write for the general reader and does so.  He dismisses Pascal's wager as a trivialization of faith and argues that it could be employed in defense of any particular religion.  First of all, though, he credits Pascal with bringing about the greatest advance in French prose style and lauds his genius.  He believes, nonetheless, that Pascal has gone to extremes in depicting humans as hopelessly wretched and lost in sin.  Voltaire is an optimist (though not so extreme in his optimism as Leibnitz).  He looks to a future in which all will be better than it is today.
It is interesting to note that Voltaire elsewhere asserts that the miracles performed by Jehovah for the benefit of the Jews are more massive in scope than those executed by Jesus.  In the Old Testament occur stunning miracles such as the ten plagues of Egypt, death passing over the males of the Israelites even while the Egyptians are victims, the opening of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire, the stopping of the stars over Gibeon and Ajalon, and the opening of the earth to swallow up the rebellious Korah and his followers.  The miracles of the New Testament (healing the sick, the tales of the Gadarene swine, of the fig tree, the resurrection of Lazarus, walking on water, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the transformation of water into wine) seem less majestic.

Yet, it can be argued, against Voltaire, do not these miracles of the New Testament represent a qualitative advance over the quantitatively more impressive miracles of the Old Testament?  Also, it can be argued that the miracles of the Old Testament all have a power-political focus, only serving the Realpolitik of the Chosen People, while the miracles of Jesus find their focus in the humble of this earth.  The miracles of Jesus are intensely personal, mostly miracles of healing, while the miracles of Moses are designed to advance political objectives.       
It is unfortunate that Voltaire, when he is assigned reading in the colleges at all, is usually made known to students only as the author of Candide.  Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, a multi-volume set of essays arranged in alphabetical order, is much more readable, and deserves to be better known and more widely read.  It is a work into which the reader may immerse himself at any point, always to emerge better than he was before he took that plunge.  One hopes that some reader of these lines will find that majestic set of The Works of Voltaire in the local library and begin to enjoy it.

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