Voltaire and Pope
Use of Reason to Support Polarized Viewpoints During the Enlightenment great thinkers began to question all things.Rather than just believe in something because an authority (church, political authority, society) claimed it to be true, these men and women set out to find the truth through reason, to provide explanations for all actions and events.Both Alexander Pope and Voltaire discuss some of the more common questions posed during the Enlightenment: What is the nature of humanity and what is our role in the greater picture of the universe?
Pope argues that everything in the universe, whether it is good or evil, is essentially perfect because is a part of God’s grand plan.
In essence, Pope believed in pre-determined fate, where no matter our actions, our fate remains the same as it was decided upon before you were born. Voltaire will critique this viewpoint by exploring the negative results of the belief that blind faith will lead to the best possible result and that man does exercise free will.
While Pope’s “Essay on Man” and Voltaire’s Candide are derived from polarized viewpoints and speak about a very different set of beliefs, they both use the same fundamental concept of reason to provide the basis of their argument. Alexander Pope set out to write his “Essay on Man” to use reason to justify his viewpoints of optimism, predetermined fate, and God’s use of both good and evil for balance in the universe.
Pope begins the essay by claiming that man can only reason about things in which he has experience with and goes on to illustrate that our limited knowledge is not capable of understanding God’s systems by questioning, “What can we reason, but from what we know? ” (17) He uses the reason that since man can only understand what is within the scope of his knowledge that he cannot expect to comprehend the greater systems that God knows intimately. Pope also believes deeply of in the Great Chain of Being and it is the foundation on which his arguments rest.
This chain is a concept derived from the classical period and is a notion that all elements of the universe have a proper place in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was pictured as a vertically extended chain (Renaissance). In its most simplistic form God would be at the top of the chain, man would be directly beneath it, and all other beings that existed would be beneath man. In the 2nd section of the essay, Pope begins by mocking men who do not know their own limits within the universe. He exclaims, “Presumptuous Man!
The reason wouldst though find, / Why formed so weak, so little, and so blind? ” (Pope 35-36) He goes on to say that man is not created in a perfect state and that all men have limitations by nature. He continues with the claim “say not Man’s imperfect, Heaven in fault; / Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought: / His knowledge measured to his state and place; / His time a moment, and a point his space” (69-72). Pope is reasoning that the limitations and imperfections in man are necessary for man’s place beneath God in the universe and the Great Chain of Being.
Section III begins with Pope stating that God keeps the future fate of all creatures from them in order to protect them; that all beings are blessed to only be dealing with their present state. He reasons this by questioning if the lamb would happily ”lick the hand just raised to shed his blood” (Pope 84). This symbolizes the predetermined fate that is made from God regardless of our actions and that only God is capable of knowing what the future has in store for all of the universe.
In Section V, Pope reasons that God and nature have greater powers than man by speaking about the terrible effects that natural disasters, such as earthquakes, have with little resistance from man, “But All subsists by elemental strife; / And Passions are the elements of Life. / The general Order, since the whole began, / Is kept in Nature, and is kept in Man” (169-172). He is speaking of these horrific and evil events as being a part of God’s almighty cause, that evil is always balanced by good.
Pope concludes the first epistle of “An Essay on Man” with the thought that all that is within in the world is the way it should be as a result of God’s plan: All Nature is but Art, unkown to thee; All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see; All Discord, Harmony not understood; All partial Evil, universal Good: And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite, One Truth is clear, WHATEVER is, IS RIGHT. (289-294) This belief that all that is is the best there is and that man has no control over his own destiny is a central component to the philosophical view of optimism.
With an “Essay on Man” Pope uses reason to explain man’s role in the Great Chain of Being and that there is predetermined fate established by God. While “An Essay on Man” is a poetic verse which uses reason to justify the viewpoints of optimism, predetermined fate, and God’s use of both good and evil for balance, Voltaire’s Candide is a satirical critique of the essay, while using reason to argue against the belief system of optimism.
In Candide, the main character is raised in a home with a tutor name Pangloss who teaches Candide that “things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end” (Voltaire 356). Voltaire is using the character of Pangloss and his teachings to symbolize Alexander Pope and is mocking Pope’s beliefs as the novel continues. Through Candide’s story, Voltaire will provide the evidence that disproves the belief that all that is, is right.
The first of many terrible experiences that Candide goes through is when he is kicked out of the Baron’s castle for being caught kissing the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde. Upon being kicked out, a hungry, homeless, and broke Candide finds himself at a tavern where he is offered money and a drink from two strangers. Candide naively thinks back to Pangloss and that everything is for the best, that this is his fate, but is quickly transported into a cruel and violent military life where he is forced to endure physical hardships.
Here Voltaire shows that the military’s giving of money to Candide was irrationally thought to be for the better, while it was really a ploy to capture Candide into being a soldier where he witnesses cruelty, violence, and evil – all reasonable evidence against Pangloss teachings. These horrible events are not fate or God’s balancing act, but this is the beginning of Candide’s witness to man doing evil to another man with no greater good in sight.
Pangloss attempts to reason that catching syphilis is a part of the best of worlds by claiming that “if Columbus had not caught, on an American island, this sickness … we should have neither chocolate nor cochineal” (Voltaire 361). Here Voltaire again critiques the irrational use of reason to support the belief that all that is, is for the best. After witnessing Pangloss’ hanging and being flogged himself, Candide asks himself, “ If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like? … was it necessary for me to watch you being hanged, for no reason hat I can see? ” (Voltaire 364) Here Candide is beginning to see these horrific tragedies as evidence that evidence and is using his reason to ponder that perhaps not all that happens in the world is for the best. Voltaire uses the experience of different characters in Candide to reason that evil is derived from mankind and freewill, not predetermined fate from God. One notable tragedy is that of the old woman who was born into a world of privilege and high class, but suffered through violence, rape, and slavery before meeting Candide.
When the old woman asks Candide and Cunegonde to “ask every passenger on this ship to tell you his story, and if you find a single one who has not often cursed the day of his birth, … then you may throw me overboard head first” Voltaire is reminding the reader of the importance of reason through investigation (373). As the story continues, Candide comes across an old and wise scholar named Martin. Voltaire uses this character to symbolize all the negative and pessimistic viewpoints that counter the optimistic ideal that all exists, exists for the best.
Martin uses the evidence of his travels and experience to argue that there is nothing but evil in the world, which serves no purpose: “ I have scarcely seen one town which did not wish to destroy its neighboring town, no family which did not wish to exterminate some other family” (Voltaire 389). The terrible history of Martin and his experiences are Voltaire’s evidence that not all that exists in the world is for the common good, which is contrary to Pangloss’ view that “private misfortunes make for public welfare” (Voltaire 361).
While Martin may be a pessimist, he does believe in predetermined fate and by the time Candide and he are together, Candide, through his own experiences of the world, has begun to believe in free will. Through Candide’s travels Voltaire has shown the reader that not all that happens in this world happens for the greater good or is predetermined by God. At the end of many journeys that result in unjustifiably cruel tragedies, Candide, with all of the other characters, makes the choice to live simply in a garden and mind to it. While this view that one can proceed through life and make their own choices and determinations in the world is ontrary to Pope’s idea of predetermined fate according to the Greater Cause, both writers attempt to validate their claims through reason. Works Cited Pope, Alexander. “Essay on Man. ” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd Edition. Vol D. Martin Puchner ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 344-351. Print. “Renaissance. ” Academic. brooklyn. cuny. edu. Brooklyn College, 30 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. . Voltaire, Francois de Arouet. Candide. The Norton Antology of World Literature. 3rd Edition. Vol D. Martin Puchner ed. New York: Norton, 20