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Voltaire | Page Crimps
Key Takeaways from Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories
A few years ago, I got a box of old books from a relative. From time to time, I’ll sift through it to pick something semi-random as my next read. The last time I did this, I found a beat up copy of Voltaire’s Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories and decided to go for the ride.
Voltaire is the type of author who when you read his work, you will find yourself drawing so many comparisons to the folly of modern thinking that you will humbly wonder if the social chaos that many perceive as an issue of our time, has always been the norm, merely manifesting around the issues of the day. Voltaire also has a unique ability to make broad philosophical points through written sarcasm in a way I’d never read through with such clarity of intention, even if I disagree with his point.
I had quite a few notes from this book, and because they are largely from disparate stories without a common narrative throughout, I’m going to stick to the higher level ideas without getting too into the weeds unless necessary.
Why do I call this ‘Page Crimps’?
Readers who’ve been with me for a while may remember the pattern language description from my first edition on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I’m going to start adding this blurb to future posts to loop in new subscribers as to the name and format of these posts.
When I'm reading a book, I crimp the corner of pages that include ideas or passages that stick out to me. When I finish reading a book, I then write out these passages and ideas in a notebook, generally including why they stuck out to me. To extract further value out of this practice, I pool the most broadly valuable ideas for consumption on this newsletter, once a month. My notes here however are no substitute for a good book. My highest hope would be not that this series be used as an alternative too engaging in a good read, but as a tease to pickup the book and enjoy the ride yourself.
On to it —
p24 | Voltaire is known as a deist. In short, this means that he accepts the idea of God while rejecting the idea that that God regularly engages in the world. There’s more nuance than that, but that’ll come later. On this page in his first story Candide, he criticizes the idea that God is all good. He does this by illustrating a character who argues roughly, that more suffering equals more good, because the two go hand in hand. Reader’s context tells me that this point was made with the air of sarcasm mentioned above.
p41 | The absurdity of life for some people is to continually bear the burden of wishing to throw it—life—to the ground. That burden is better than nothing.
p49 | Still on Candide, the main character finds 2 naked woman running out of a brush being chased by monkeys. Candide does what he thinks is the favor of killing the 2 creatures, but as he does this, the 2 women turn to weep over their dead pursuers.
‘Can you blame them?’, suggests a companion of his. It’s all they know.
p56 | In Eldorado, a magical place where all people worship one God without debate and are all priests amid no chaos, the only thing that the people have to pray for is gratitude.
p65 | With his companion Martin, who is expressing dissatisfaction at the evils of the world, Candide highlights that yes, there is evil, but there is also good. To me, this was a point made on the simple choice of perspective.
p85 | Candide comes across a Venetian, and is surprised by his expression of original opinions. When asked whether he’s read Cicero, the Venetian replies, that no, he didn’t bother. This is because he knew that all Cicero managed to write about was doubt for the world, and so the Venetian assumed that he knew just as much as he.
p92 | Candide asks his companion Martin who he thinks deserves the most pity out of a Sultan, and Emperor and a King who’d all experienced hardship. Martin knows that suffering is relative and answers that he couldn’t possibly know what is in their hearts for suffering in order to weigh how they should be pitied.
p99 | Martin, a bit of an extremist says that ‘Man is born to live in the convulsions of anxiety or the lethargy of boredom.’ Candide disagrees.
p101 | Candide, Martin and an old philosopher by the name of Pangloss cultivate a small garden at the end of their journey. They conclude that man wasn’t born to rest and that doing good work without too much reason is the way to make life bearable.
p107 | In Voltaire’s next story of this collection, Zadig, his wife is expressing judgement towards another because this other woman attempts to divert a stream up river. She is doing this because she had vowed to be by her husband’s grave as long as this stream flowed by it, and so this is her way of escaping this commitment. He responds to this judgment by faking his death—rather extreme, eh?—and having a good friend of his convince his wife that he needs her dead husband’s nose to help with an ailment he is enduring. As she goes to Zadig’s ‘grave’ to cut off his nose with a razor blade, Zadig arises and says,
“Hereafter don’t cry out so much against young Cosrou; the plan of cutting off my nose is fully a match for that of changing the course of a stream.”
p109 | The narration describes how Zadig doesn’t focus his efforts of study on ‘calculating inches of additional rainfall or making porcelain out of broken bottles.’ He instead focuses on studying nature as a whole and knows bounds more for it.
p113 | Extracting the main idea: curse those who judge because they have nothing better to do. Live only in good company.
p118 | Zadig becomes a prime minister for a king. When describing how Zadig enforces the law, the book describes how all of his decisions are made off of the following premise:
“Better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn and innocent one.”
p166 | Zadig meets a hermit who does seemingly chaotic and atrocious things. Upon explanation, it is learned that he is making better men through his acts of chaos and a better whole through his atrocities towards certain men.
He goes on to say more clearly than example how men are fools to pass judgement on a whole of which they perceive only a part.
p169 | Still with the hermit, Zadig asks, ‘What if there were only good?’ after the hermit explains how there is no evil with which some good isn’t born.
Long story short, the hermit answers that a world made up of only good would be another world than this and that Zadig should worship and understand the ways of this one rather than fantasize about what could be in another.
p182 | In the story of Micromegas, a large celestial figure is exploring our galaxy with some companions. They reach earth and pluck a whale out of the ocean. They watch it for a few moments and return it to the ocean. They conclude on this one example that there mustn’t be any souls on this planet.
p199 | Price is relative. In another short story, there is a merchant who comes to return another character’s purse after he leaves it at his shop. This character is surprised because when he was at the shop, he points out how the merchant had sold him some items for a high multiple of what they were worth. ‘Price is set by a man’s fancy.’ replies the merchant. It’d have been criminal not to make the sale.
p207 | In the same story as above, our judgmental character is challenged by another in conclusion. There is a beautiful statue adorned with B-tier gems and trinkets. He asks should it be shattered simply because it is not gold and diamonds?
“Leave the world as it is, for if all is not well, all is passable.”
p241 | In another short story from the book, there is a Brahman who feels burdened by his own philosophizing. When he sees an old woman who is more happy than him but also by his own description, ‘an automaton’, he reconsiders his perspective saying,
“I have told myself a hundred times that I would be happy if I was as stupid as my neighbor, and yet I would want no part of such happiness.”
p244 | In the story of a young boy who’s parents get him a new tutor to teach him how to be successful in the world, the tutor the parents choose is described as ‘one who teaches fashion, and therefore knows nothing.’
For more context, an idea worth exploring is Stewart Brand’s Pace Layering, where fashion is at the top layer of the framework for how a healthy society functions.
p245 | Again using his token sarcasm to make a point, Voltaire justifies his character’s decision to choose the tutor of fashion by running though the return on investment for different areas of study that they elect to neglect.
Why learn astrology when no one guides themselves by starts anymore? Why learn history when one is living in the present moment? The examples go on…
“Then what should my son be taught?” he(the father) said.
“To be attractive,” replied the friend they were consulting; “and if one knows how to please, he will know everything…”
An unfortunate truth.
p285 | In another short story from the collection, a determinist and someone who believes that God endowed man with free will argue over whether God is responsible for sin. To the determinist, this is obvious based off of his worldview, and in trying to convince the one who believes in free will, he asks something like, “Is the one who delivers man into sin not themselves the author of sin?”
p290 | A character named Ingenuous has been raised in the dark from science because his teachers feared that upon learning what science had to teach, he would stray from God.
In the story, as our character learns astronomy, rather than expelling his believe upon the learning of this new system at work in the universe, his faith is deepened at the appreciation of the beauty is has to offer.
“Jupiter and Saturn revolve in those immense spaces; millions of suns light up billions of worlds; and in the patch of land where I am cast there are beings who deprive me, a seeing and thinking being, of all those worlds which my vision could reach and of the one in which God had me born!”
p296 | Our same Ingenuous learned nothing in childhood, and he knows no prejudices. But who on earth would want to be certain of nothing just so that they don’t know prejudice?
p318 | A story ending quote to the tale of Ingenuous that I appreciated:
“Misfortune is good for something. How many good people in the world could say misfortune is good for nothing!”
p334 | In the final short story of this collection, a character named Sidrac points out how in our study of metaphysics, we have only discovered our ignorance. Rather than choose to be anxious in the face of this uncertainty, he notes that he is thankful that he can know nothing of first principals. It leaves him free to live in the present. It can leave you free too if you let it.
It has been nearly a year since I finished this read at the time of posting this. Going back through these notes was a welcomed refresher, which is one of the main reasons I’ve taken to doing this, aside from having an easy content bucket to pull from to add to my weekly format. I’m reading Dracula this month as part of a book club. Maybe you’ll read one of these for it around this time next year, but if you’re interested, it’s not too late to join us for the ride.
Next week, I’m going to talk about 2 different kinds of freedom.
Don’t stop now.