Voltaire: Is God at Work in This World of Suffering?

March 30, 2011 at 6:29 pm 2 comments

BABYLONAWhen I was on a Voltaire kick last month, I also read his story Zadig, or The Book of Fate, published in 1747, and it, too, is related to some of the themes we’ve been discussing lately in this blog.

The basic plot of the tale takes place in ancient Babylon, where a virtuous citizen by the name of Zadig rises in the esteem of the king but is betrayed by envious neighbors. Consequently, he falls out of favor with the king and becomes a wanderer in the Middle East, enduring injustice, ingratitude and all manner of suffering. After a while, a civil war breaks out in Babylon, which gives Zadig the opportunity to return and conquer his enemies. In the end, Zadig is king and rules with justice.

That’s the basic plot. But there are several philosophical questions raised by the experiences of Zadig, some of them implicit in the storyline and others explicitly asked by various characters.

When I wrote about Voltaire’s Micromegas, I quoted Professor Kors. Let me quote him again now to list the questions he sees in the text:

  1. What are the ethics (not the form) of good government? What matters under any form of government are the morals, civic virtues, and compassion of whoever rules and the ruler’s capacity to remain above flattery.
  2. Why does so much human injustice exist in the world?
  3. What might be remedies of human injustice?
  4. What is the role of chance in human justice?
  5. Why does chance seem so opposed to divine providence?
  6. Can one look at the human condition and find divine justice?

As is typical of Voltaire, he raises these questions without giving a definite answer to any of them. Rather, he shows the dilemmas of our human condition and thus creates empathy in the reader. Voltaire is foremost a humanist, not a system builder or even at all a systematic thinker.

Although justice triumphs in the end, much of Zadig is dominated by injustice, and it raises the old question of Plato’s Republic: What is justice? What would justice look like? How can we achieve a just society? Is it possible to achieve justice on earth or is injustice so deeply engrained in us that all we can do is to create a few safeguards against the inevitable abuse of power? Should we have an optimistic or a pessimistic view on human nature? Should we go with Hobbes or with Rousseau? And finally, how are we to reconcile God’s justice and providence with the obvious injustice within human civilization?

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Entry filed under: Critique of Religion, Ethics, Philosophy. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

The Bible and Later Christian Thinkers: A Difference Between Catholics and Protestants Lots of deadlines to meet

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ed Babinski  |  April 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    The age of miracles and divine intervention has passed. When was the last time someone raised their arms and parted the Red Sea in front of over two million people, Israelites and Egyptian soldiers in pursuit? Even by Jesus’ day he avoided the big cities though he could easily have passed through some of them. He went only to smaller towns and villages. His miracles like stilling the storm, walking on water, the transfiguration, and the and bodily ascension into heaven were seen by some apostles, that’s it. The resurrection story in 1 Cor. claims “over 500 brethren” saw the risen Jesus, But they were already believers, and who knows what they saw, or even if any of them could have identified the early Jesus, let alone the “risen” one. Sounds more like an urban myth or rumor than anything else, everyone supporting whatever someone in their group claimed to have seen. At any rate, none of Jesus’ alleged miracles had anywhere near as many alleged witnesses as the parting of the Red Sea, or walls of Jericho falling down, or Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by fire from heaven, or the Flood, or Creation miracles. In fact, doesn’t God owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology since He hasn’t done any more such city-wide destroying since then? Unless of course you happen to view various natural disasters as God judging certain cities, which of course leave open the question of exactly what he is judging them for. Charleston SC experienced a major quake about 100 years ago. Parts of the midwest have earthquakes, and frequent tornadoes. Hurricanes hit the coast in lots of different places, from Texas to Florida all the way to northern seaboard. Droughts struck the U.S. in the 1930s. And about all that can be said about the New Orleans disaster is that the city was already below sea level and people knew the levees needed to be fortified, so people were predicting disasters long beforehand for that city. So where is “God” in human history? God was everywhere in the past because THAT’S HOW PEOPLE INTERPRETED MATTERS. But we don’t go about invoking “God” for everything that happens in history and nature today. Here’s the ancient theological view of the Hebrew spelled out: http://books.google.com/books?id=tO0EsMfyFD0C&lpg=PP1&ots=ALTsEXvsRK&dq=Disturbing%20Divine%20Behavior%3A%20Troubling%20Old%20Testament%20Images%20of%20God&pg=PA145#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • 2. Ed Babinski  |  April 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    forgive typos above, “EARTHLY” Jesus not “early Jesus” etc.

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