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I Groan In Silence

By (April 1, 2013) 7 Comments

Voltaire: the Interview

VoltaireVoltaire looks up from his quill pen but does not rise as I enter his study for our interview. He is working alone, his bald head covered by a skull cap. A shoulder-length wig is draped on a wooden stand nearby. The first thing that strikes me is what a shrunken little guy he is, at odds with the large, lasting impression he made as a rapscallion in his heyday. Second, he didn’t dress up for this fantasy visit. He is wearing a housecoat, probably naked underneath. Voltaire’s view of our modern world turns out to be strangely similar to his commentaries on the 18th century. The world turns, it would seem, but does not evolve. Much of his writing fits the human predicament of today – needless war, abuse of power, fraudulent democracies, religious fanaticism. As he looks me over, his eyes twinkle. He is more comfortable than I am. With some exuberance, he extends a bony hand. I don’t know whether to shake it or kiss it. I shake it.

Herewith, a transcript of our interview.

INTERVIEWER: Monsieur Voltaire, I presume?

VOLTAIRE: Yes indeed, and a very good day to you, mon ami. It’s wonderful to meet the press and sound off again. I never thought I’d have another chance.

I: May we start with a scene-setter? Where have you been? We have missed you. We have needed you. Did the devil take you?

V: No, I have not been in hell, as my enemies hoped. I have been in heaven and I am happier than ever. I didn’t quite believe heaven existed, but it turns out to be the perfect place for the likes of me. For one thing, we have no royal policemen checking on us every five minutes. Where did they end up, I wonder … ?

I: Let’s talk ‘big picture’ for a moment. How about life on our planet – surely you agree that it has changed for the better since you passed to the other side in 1778 after eighty years of troublemaking? You like what you see?

V: Oh no, I am disgusted! (He bangs his tiny fist on the writing table.) My lifetime of campaigning for the right to say what you think has proven to be a waste of time. Speaking out is still viewed as an inconvenience in too many of your countries, east, west and middle east. Entire peoples are afraid to speak their minds. The level of political discourse is juvenile. Superstition reigns. I have come back to sound the alarm – to try once more to wake up the world to the most sinister dangers. Political correctness. Fanaticism. Injustice.

I: Are you finished?

V: No, there is more — control of the populace by governments. Authoritarian rule is on the rise. Whatever happened to democracy? I always thought it would work at least in small countries. Your presidents want to hoard their power, just as our leaders did in my day. The people are scarcely consulted. Liberty is more fragile than ever. I warned about such things 200 years ago. Was no one listening?

I: Your cautionary writings about warfare seem to have zero impact. Are we guilty of repeating history?

V: Yes, you are. War is a plague that never stops. We had ghastly wars in my day, and the rules have not changed. Murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. How is it that we cross the sea to slaughter our brothers just because they dress in red smocks and wear turbans? How is it that we recruit citizen soldiers by making a noise with two little sticks on a cowhide membrane? And after battles have been won, come the celebrations! The sky is alight with rockets and the air is rent with the sound of bells, cannon and Te Deum on the cathedral organ. I groan in silence over murders that caused this public rejoicing.

To want your country to be great is to wish your neighbors ill.

 

I: Please, give the armies credit for their honest patriotism if nothing else.

V: I don’t think so. To be a good patriot is very often to be the enemy of the rest of mankind. A patriot wants his country to prosper through trade and be powerful through armament. Clearly, one country cannot win without another losing, and it cannot conquer without making some people unhappy. (Wagging his finger.) So that is the human condition: to want your country to be great is to wish your neighbors ill.

I: Perhaps we have been too slow to learn our lessons?

V: Indeed. What can we say to a man who tells you that he would rather obey his God than man, and that therefore he is sure to go to heaven for butchering you? Fanatics are sometimes guided by rascals who put the dagger into their hands. These rascals are like the old man of lore who made imbeciles taste the joys of paradise and then promised them an eternity of pleasure on the condition that they assassinate all those he would name.

I: Yes, but that was then.

V: Not quite. Look around you. The identical situation prevails today. I once wrote a fable about a giant from another planet visiting earth and observing humans at war. The traveler, shuddering at what he saw, begged to know the cause of the horrible quarrels among such a puny race. The subject of the dispute was a pitiful mole-hill called Palestine, no larger than his heel. Need I provide specifics of your more modern struggles?

I: Don’t bother. I get your point. The human race is violent by nature.

V: Indeed. It requires twenty years for man to rise from the vegetative state in his mother’s womb, through childhood and adolescence until maturity of reason begins to appear. It has taken us centuries to learn a little about his blood, bone and sinew. (Shaking his head, eyes closed.) It takes an instant to kill him.

I: Would you agree that what we need is a sense of generosity toward each other to replace our urge to kill?

V: Yes, and this brings me to my most important theme – tolerance. What is tolerance? I once wrote an entire treatise on it. We are mere human beings — formed of weakness, inconsistencies, fickleness and error: let us pardon each others’ follies. That was and still is the first law of enlightened nature. It is clear that only a monster persecutes another because he is not of the same opinion.

I: Yet intolerance springs eternal in our species.

V: I invite the political powers of the world to say that they truly believe that kindness toward peoples would produce the same revolts that cruelty does. Of course the contrary is true. If men revolt when mistreated, it follows that they will not revolt if treated well.

Voltaire 2
 

An earthquake can swallow us all alike; that will be the ultimate justice

 

I: At least justice will be served. Those who transgressed will eventually pay. Or will they?

V: Those reverend fathers of the Inquisition and its derivatives will be crushed just like other people. As we saw in Lisbon in 1755, an earthquake can swallow us all alike. That, my friend, will be the ultimate justice.

I. Most people only remember you for your harmless little tale Candide.

V. Candide was nothing great – I didn’t even like it — but it was far from harmless. It was full of malice, in fact. And you will excuse me if I say I am proud of my legacy. I left behind a mountain of poetry, prose, polemics, history, drama and private correspondence. I was the most popular playwright in Europe for many decades after my death. And some industrious souls at Oxford are still pulling my entire oeuvre together in a set of two hundred volumes. I wrote compulsively, day and night, about everything that mattered to me — and this was before email, Twitter and Facebook. Think of the ink I spilled!

I. We also remember you for saying you might disagree with us but would defend to the death our right to say it.

V. Wrong again. That was not I. It was a line – and a brilliant line it was – in a book published in London more than a hundred years ago called The Friends of Voltaire. I wish I had said it!

I: So you specialized in provocations. Monarchies trembled. What is your sweetest memory of impaling your targets?

V: Oh I had much pleasure in needling the grandees of my day – and I was glad to see that England, our big rival at that time, allowed and even encouraged this practice all those years ago. One of my most powerful little books was something I called Letters from the English Nation — a virtual hymn to England, singing the praises of the British and knowing how my words would be resented back across the Channel in France. They hated it when I wrote that “in England, people think, and literature is more honored than in France.”

I: Surely you don’t claim that England was a well-ordered society in the 18th century!

V: No, and being well-ordered is not the point. English genius has been like an unruly tree planted by nature, throwing a thousand branches in all directions and growing irregularly but vigorously. Genius dies if you seek to force its nature and trim it.

I: So did your little ruse work out?

V: Oh yes. They loved that book in old England. Not so much in France. (He lets out a high-pitched giggle.) They burned it in Paris.

I: And you went to your grave hating France?

V: No, no. I loved France – I still do — but I could not resist poking fun at the pompous people. One of my Candide characters says that when traveling in France he noted that half the inhabitants were insane, some were too cunning for their own good, others were rather good-natured but plain stupid. In all the provinces the principal occupation was fucking; the second, speaking ill of each other; and the third, just babbling nonsense. I wonder how much of this still applies today. Quite a bit, I would say. Plus ça change, as a French writer once said, well after my time.

I: Weren’t you always in trouble with your enemies, especially the critics?

V: Yes but I got even. I let rip against those who didn’t like me. I created a typical example of the genre, a Frenchman, naturally. He probably recognized himself. I called my character a fat swine, a wretched fellow who earned his living by trying to destroy all plays and all books; a reptile, a hack, a newspaper scribbler. You still have critics like that hanging around.

Voltaire 3

Journalists working among men of letters are like bats among the birds

 

I: Do you mean to say that newspapers writers serve no useful purpose?

V: The journalist produces the lowest kind of literature and is scorned even by the people. Yet these scribblers call themselves authors! The only authors are those who have succeeded in a genuine art, be it epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, history or philosophy, and who teach or delight mankind. The others, the journalists working among men of letters, are like bats among the birds.

I: Didn’t you sum up your thinking from A to Z in your Philosophical Dictionary?

V: Yes, that format gave me the opportunity to write about everything under the sun, and it’s in that book that I find I can make connections with your modern times. We thought our period was the beginning of an enlightened era, free of superstition. We were full of ourselves, and rightly so.

I: But that was mere hubris. You were still probing in the dark. You had no access to our scientific knowledge.

V: Oh yes we did. In my day, science was just becoming established, and it had been a long road. The Greeks and Romans thought the skies were made of crystal and the stars were little lamps that sometimes fell into the sea. In my time we had gathered enough data to scrap the old ways of understanding the physical world. Finally we had proofs. And yet most people preferred to cling to their superstitious, mystical beliefs. Many of you still do!

I: So life was not perfect in your day either?

V: Far from it. If you divided mankind of my era into twenty parts, nineteen would consist of people who work with their hands and are passive about learning. And in the one final part, how few are actually readers! And the number among those who actually think is exceedingly small.

And the faithful responded ‘Hee-haw hee-haw!’

 

I: You paint a dreary picture, Voltaire.

V: Oh, not always. If I looked hard enough I managed to find a bizarre humor in other people’s mysticism. For example, travelers through Italy told me the story of the Ass of Verona. The original donkey carried the Virgin Mary and Jesus into Jerusalem. The Veronese faithful organized gaudy processions behind a wooden donkey symbolizing the original. At the end of the celebratory Mass, the Verona priest, instead of saying “Ite missa est”, brayed three times with all his might, (Voltaire rises, takes a deep breath and bellows) ‘Hee-haw, hee-haw!’ And the faithful answered in chorus, ‘Hee-haw, hee-haw!’

I: Voltaire, you jest.

V: No, it’s true. Google it! They did it in France, too. Now we have entire books on the Feast of the Ass, and the Feast of Fools; they furnish wonderful material for a history of the human mind.

I: Voltaire, can you leave us on a hopeful note? What kind of real change is needed to make the human race worthy of the name?

voltaire 4

V: We are misled by our betters: “Be content with what you have.” They will tell you to “desire nothing above your station”. Indeed! Curb your enthusiasm? If we always followed these maxims, we would still be eating acorns, we would still be sleeping in the open air, and we would not have had Corneille, Racine, Molière, and countless other great minds at play. Liberty is the way forward, ever more liberty. Let men read and let men dance – these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

I: What is wrong with a little irrational superstition? For simple people, can’t it be comforting in dealing with the unknown? They love their psychics and astrologers.

V: We should not seek to nourish ourselves on acorns when God gives us bread. Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy, the foolish daughters of very wise mothers. These two daughters, superstition and astrology, have subjugated the world for a long time. As I used to say at every opportunity, ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!’ (Crush infamy).

I: Since Socrates and Aristotle, philosophers have searched for the light.

V: Bah! I believe that there never was a creator of a philosophical system who did not confess at the end of his life that he had wasted his time. It must be admitted that the inventor of the mechanical arts have been much more useful than the inventors of syllogisms. He who imagined a ship or a machine towers considerably above he who imagined ideas.

I: But where are we supposed to find this energy for renewal today in a sea of apathy?

V: It is up to each of you to learn to think for yourself. You were born with this ability. If you choose to follow the herd, you deserve what you get.

— Dialogue quoted and adapted from Voltaire’s works, principally le Dictionnaire Philosophique, Treatise on Tolerance, Micromégas, Letters from the English Nation and Candide. Sketch of Voltaire by the author.

____
Michael Johnson
 is a former AP foreign correspondent and McGraw-Hill veteran of 17 years. He now writes for the International Herald-TribuneAmerican Spectator, thecolumnists.com, the Washington Times and a couple of specialized classical music outlets.

7 Comments »

  • Vladimir Gmitrovitch says:

    Wow! I was not expecting to make it to the end. The ‘interview’ gets better and better, and the exhortation to ‘think for yourself’ is powerful at the end.

    Is everything Voltaire says in this interview quoted directly from his writings? If so, it’s surprising how relevant it all is.

    My only misgiving with this essay is that I wish that there were specific footnotes, so I could go back and dig in to Voltaire’s works at the appropriate sections.

  • Michael Johnson says:

    Vladimir:

    I was gratified to see that the interview seemed so relevant. I can confirm that every response is directly quoted or adapted from original Voltaire texts. Some linking language was needed to make the “interview” work but I never strayed from his meaning. Textual footnotes? Let’s see if others want them. If so, maybe I’ll provide the sources.

    Michael

  • Michael,

    I love the Voltaire piece–and the original drawing—and, like Vladimir, would like the textual footnotes. I always love sources and dig into the source material after reading anything that provides them. I do know that on a piece like this the notes would add to the length, but what if you added an endnote? I think then this piece would get quoted more widely than perhaps it already is or will be. Great work here.

    The frustration—that perhaps Vladimir and I share—is all the great quotes on the Internet or in books (yes, this is so!) that get bandied about without any indication of the actual textual source. Sometimes in my own writing and radio interviewing, I have spent hours trying to find a source, for example, of a quote attributed, in this case, by a well-known popular book author to Emily Dickinson. But the quote is not in any of her poems, might be in one of her letters (Yes, I searched the letters too!)–but I still can’t find the actual source. I finally gave up.

    I follow all your pieces, Michael, because they are so well-done. So this is not a criticism; rather an academic longing. So, you and Open Letters will have to decide if Vladimir and I are worth the trouble.

    No matter what you decide, Michael, kudos for originality and scholarship.

    Mary

  • Michael Johnson says:

    Mary,

    Thanks much for your kind comments. I am now convinced that sourcing of quotes is essential. I am on the road for a few weeks but will gather my sources and list them in a new version. I may simply replace this one with the annotated version. I will alert you and Vladimir and any others who come forward.

    MJ

  • Richard Cheeseman says:

    Hi Mike,

    This is a great piece; deserves wider publication.

    Interesting to read about Voltaire’s ideas on liberty, personal freedom and the need for ‘irregular’ growth within societies. Reminded me of what JS Mill wrote in On Liberty: “The omnipotence of Society means a dead level of uniformity. The claim of the individual to be heard, to say what he likes, to do what he likes, to live as he likes, is absolutely necessary, not only for the variety of elements without which life is poor, but also for the hope of a future age.”

    Richard.

  • Astronist says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious, the application of Voltaire quotes to the present-day situation represents Michael Johnson’s opinion, not Voltaire’s. What would Voltaire have made of the vastly greater freedoms and opportunities of modern life in developed countries, the cessation of great-power wars since 1945 due to the nuclear balance and to economic development, and the steady spread of development to formerly poor countries? Would he really (as you claim) have clung to a zero-sum view of society, when modern economics can only function on a win-win system in which everybody benefits? Would he not have noticed the improvements in medical care since his day? And what would he have made of the fact that abuses of power, fanaticism and injustice have largely been superseded as threats in many people’s minds by environmental and technological dangers which were inconceivable in Voltaire’s time?

    If one wishes to advance the dubious claim that society does not evolve, despite the glaring contrasts between pre- and post-18th century periods, it is better to base that argument on its own merits than to lend it the spurious authority of someone who was very much a transitionary figure at the start of the modern era.

    Stephen
    Oxford, UK

  • Gail Noyer says:

    I’ve read considerably more of Voltaire than the works cited here, including a good 50 or 60 years worth of his correspondence and my personal guess would be that his views would fall between the two: delight with the improvements in laws, in our less extreme poverty and in science (especially medical science! considering the ill health he suffered most of his life), yet he would surely be much disappointed that the liberties he so greatly contributed to our winning are still so poorly understood and so under-appreciated, to result indeed in a “plus ça change” state of affairs. I’m quite sure he might even agree with his old pal, Frederick the Great’s barb today, when he said “Intelligence and education only makes men cleverer in their vices!”

    But indeed, our opinions of what Voltaire would say today is of far less interest than what he actually said. What I’d really like to say addresses rather Vladimir and Mary. Voltaire’s works are both quite short and brilliant. They sparkle with wit and intelligence and amazing facts. He was amazingly well-read himself. Those books Michael cited are very good places to start, and it would be a terrible shame not to read them entirely – instead of just getting someone to provide ‘specific footnotes’ for you to quote. Really. I’m speaking from the heart here. Every hour I’ve spent reading Voltaire felt like a privilege. And many of the great minds of all ages have said the same. Do yourselves a favor and read a few of them yourselves!

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