I’ve been collecting and posting tests of how much one loves truth, as proposed by famous philosophers. So far, we have
- Plato’s test: Tell children glorious stories. Emphasize that the stories are true when they are, in fact, false. See which children can resist the stories’ appeal, and spontaneously protest as to why they are impossible.
- C.S. Lewis’ Test: Upon learning that an ugly rumor about one’s enemies is false, is one relieved that even they aren’t as bad as all that, or does one wish to cling to the rumor?
Now for Voltaire’s.
For my entire adult life, this writer of the French Enlightenment was reviled as an enemy of God by every one of my acquaintances who was educated enough to recognize his name. I formed the impression that he was a villain who, entirely unprovoked, spent his bitter life writing polemics against Christianity.
Imagine my curiosity when I read Robert Ingersoll‘s Lecture on Voltaire, and learned that he was exceedingly generous and warm-hearted, a tireless advocate of liberty and justice, and may have done more than anyone else to abolish cruel and unusual punishments in France.
I decided to read the first of his works that I could get my hands on, and that happened to be Candide. In this book, the guileless Candide is raised in a castle and tutored by the philosopher, Pangloss, whose most memorable tenet is that we live in the best of all possible worlds. (“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.”)
Almost from page 1, bad things begin to happen to Candide and everyone else in the castle, from which they are all driven out. Candide, separated from Pangloss for most of his tribulations, wonders whether the philosopher would maintain his sunny outlook in the face of so much distress.
Pangloss returns at the end of the book, having suffered at least as much as Candide.
Candide asks him, “When You were hanged, dissected, whipped, and tugging at the oar [as a galley slave], did you continue to think that everything in this world happens for the best?”
“I have always abided by my first opinion,” answered Pangloss; “for, after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments; especially as Leibnitz could not be in the wrong: and that preestablished harmony is the finest thing in the world.”
In the final chapter, Candide and Pangloss are living a quiet life on a small farm. Pangloss tries to convince Candide that Candide’s misfortunes, which were many and severe, are entirely compatible with this being the best of all possible worlds. “For had you not suffered them,” Pangloss says, “you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”
Obviously and comically, the pleasures of citrons and pistachio nuts are as nothing compared to what both men have suffered. But they are all Pangloss needs to hold onto his doctrine.
I suppose there are many truth-loving tests one could extract from this book, but I’ll choose this one:
Our love of truth is inversely related to our stubbornness in holding onto our ideas, and the lameness of our rationales, as judged by an impartial, educated observer.
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