March 16, 2006

Voltaire’s Essays

Posted in non-fiction, philosophy at 9:29 am by Jerry

Penguin Books has put out a collection of forty "Great Ideas" books. I've purchased up to four of them so far, Miracles and Idolatry by Voltaire being one of them. It's a collection of essays from Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique. Here's a little blurb in the back of Penguin's edition:

Voltaire's short, radical and iconoclastic essays on philosophical ideas from angels to idolatry, miracles to wickedness, make wry observations about human beliefs, and mock hypocrisy and extravagant piety – his call to his fellow men to act with reason and see through the lies they are fed by their leaders has provided inspiration to freethinkers everywhere.

Here's an example from the last essay in this collection, called "Wicked":

..old friend, you who preach that the whole world is born perverse, you warn me that you were born thus, that I must distrust you like a fox or a crocodile. 'Not at all!' you tell me, 'I'm regenerated, I'm neither heretical nor infidel, you can trust me.' p.125.

I love Voltaire's voice! His Candide is one of my top ten favorite books. This collection of his essays are okay, but it's his attitude that remains the drawing factor for me. There's quotable material in this book too…

In Voltaire's essay entitled "Character":

Age weakens the character, it is a tree that produces nothing but a few degenerate fruits, but they are still of the same kind; it gets to be covered with knots and moss, it becomes worm-eaten, but it is still an oak or a pear tree. If we could change our character we would give ourselves one, we would be the masters of nature. Can we give ourselves something? Do we not receive everything? Try to arouse continuous activity in an indolent mass, to freeze with apathy the boiling soul of the impetuous, to inspire a taste for music and poetry into one who lacks taste and an ear: you will no more succeed than if you undertook to give sight to one born blind. We perfect, we mitigate, we hide what nature has placed in us; but we place nothing in ourselves. p.40. (italics mine)

In his essay entitled "Enthusiasm":

How can reason govern enthusiasm? This is because a poet first sketches the structure of his canvas: the reason then holds the brush. But when he proceeds to animate his personages and to endow them with passions, then the imagination kindles, enthusiasm takes over: it is a race horse carried away headlong, but its course has been properly laid out. p.48-49. (italics mine)

One analogy that I've created for myself regarding emotion and reason is Flesh and Bone. Without the skeleton (reason), all you have is a puddle of flesh (emotions). Without the flesh (emotions), all you have is drying up, brittle bone (reason). One should never be without the other. Reason gives emotions structure to live within, and emotions give reason life and movement.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] [note: I’ve described here my analogy of the relationship between emotion and reason, but I’d like to expand on it a little. Though I think emotion is to reason as flesh is to bone, I want to emphasize that there is a time when bone is not yet formed. And I say this because I want to emphasize that flesh and desire are much more prevalent than bone and reason. Just as flesh sets up the bone to keep the flesh in its place, I think desire does the same with reason.] […]


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