Voltaire: Is God at Work in This World of Suffering?
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:
- 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.
- Why does so much human injustice exist in the world?
- What might be remedies of human injustice?
- What is the role of chance in human justice?
- Why does chance seem so opposed to divine providence?
- 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?