Comparing the Pope's and Voltaire's Perspectives on Enlightenment Being the Vanity Age

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The Age of Vanity

The Enlightenment was an age of intellectual revolution, in which enlightened individuals either challenged or supported the paradigmatic goals of the time through great philosophical works. Scientific advancements assisted with the movement to stray away from the powers that had been dominant for so long, most notably the church. The church and religion as a whole played focal points in many works at the time, and thus thinkers in this era endorsed and advocated views on free will and optimism relative to this central theme. Pope and Voltaire exploited opportunities to express their individual paragons in “Essay on Man” and Candide (respectively) but took their ideals to the extreme, and created works that presented skewed views on reality.

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Pope’s “Essay on Man” endorses a strong sense of fatalism throughout the epistle, but does so in such a way in which he intends the reader to be joyful in his/her realization of this inevitable doom. Pope goes on to say that even though people are all faced with death, their time alive plays a significant role in terms of God’s plan and the future of the universe. “So Man, who here seems principal alone, Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown” (57-58). He states that nothing we do is based on our on free will, but rather, on the divine acts of God; furthermore, we cannot question why we succumb to this celestial power because we lack the capacity and coherence to do so. Pope takes the idea of not having any free will to a tremendous length and in doing so poses the question: why is there so much wrong with the world and why are there so many people who commit heinous acts? Pope asks, "First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess/Why formed no weaker, blinder, and no less?" (36-37). This exemplifies the idea that Pope doesn’t understand that people as a whole tend to move toward destruction. Pope denies that evil is something that should be taken care off, because he believes it is necessary in this perfect world that God has formed. Pope forms a completely unrealistic depiction of life that is too extreme to be plausible.

Contrarily, Voltaire criticizes Pope’s view that everything happens for a reason by arguing that it would result in many deaths. He also implies that Pope’s view is very passive. What Voltaire means is that man can govern the outcome to some degree, but man cannot neglect the situation as a whole. Voltaire opposes the idea of predetermination: "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"(358). He backs up his argument by using examples such as natural disasters and asks why they have to happen. Voltaire takes a satirical approach in discussing free will; Pangloss, an extreme optimist, is put through hell throughout the story for the sole purpose of mocking said theory.

“I should like to know which is worse: to be ravished a hundred times by pirates, and have a buttock cut off, and run the gauntlet of the Bulgarians, and be flogged and hanged in an auto-da-fe, and be dissected, and have to row in a galley -- in short, to undergo all the miseries we have each of us suffered -- or simply to sit here and do nothing?' That is a hard question,' said Candide” (383).

This is another quote that directly rejects Pope’s implied passive views. Voltaire says that some action must be taken to prevent wrong doings rather than accepting these atrocities as God’s will. This point of view shows the polar opposite of Pope’s perspective on the matter, but yet yields to the fallacy of extremity. Voltaire exclaims that humans are the primary cause of everything, and all that happens is based on their free willed decisions.

Pope is infamously known for his extreme optimism, a trait that is directly linked with his beliefs on free will. “Say rather man’s as perfect as he ought: His knowledge measured to his state and place” (70-71). He notes that people should be more than content with where they stand in the universal hierarchy and emphasizes that the world is perfect. “When earthquakes swallow, or when tempests sweep Towns to one grave, whole nations to the deep? No, (’tis replied) the first Almighty Cause Acts not by partial, but by general laws” (143-145). Pope explains that in this so called perfect world, everything goes on exactly how it should and therefore any perceived evils or destruction are actually deliberately created by God in order for the world to even itself out. He continues the first epistle with similar ideas; human happiness is achieved by acknowledging human’s place in the universe and coming to the realization that human imperfection in terms of the universe are analogous to nature in the sense that if natural disasters don’t break heaven’s plan why should certain human acts be able to do so: “If plagues or earthquakes break not Heaven’s design, Why then a Borgia, or a Catiline?” (155-156). Pope values optimism to a very high degree and maintains a level of incoherence in his writing, thus presenting obvious flaws in his arguments that are directly countered by Voltaire.

Just as Pope denies free will, Voltaire denies anything joyful. Voltaire delves into his ideas of pessimism in his work Candide and although Voltaire does have some good points in the story, he completely removes any chance for hope happiness in the writing. He goes too far in trying to mock Pope’s extreme optimism and ends up with a dystopian setting where his characters hold on to a false sense of positivity in an obviously corrupted world. “But for what purpose was the earth formed?" asked Candide. ‘To drive us mad,’ replied Martin” (380). This quote directly embraces the idea that Voltaire repeats throughout the story. The characters suffered/witnessed rape, brutality, rapes, robberies, and countless other things and yet still tried to hold on to this fall sense of optimism for as long as they could. In chapters 17 through 19, Candide and Cacambo’s horses die when they run out of food. When they find the perfect civilization they can’t stay and they lose all but two of the sheep that the king gave them. When Vanderdendur offers to sell his ship to Candide for a high price that Candide agrees to, Candide puts the sheep on board and Vanderdendur sails off without Candide. After all this misery that Candide has to go through he starts to doubt Pangloss’s beliefs of everything happening for a reason. This leads to a conversation between Candide and Cacambo, “"O Pangloss!" cried out Candide, "such horrid doings never entered thy imagination. Here is an end of the matter. I find myself, after all, obliged to renounce thy Optimism." "Optimism," said Cacambo, "what is that?" "Alas!" replied Candide, "it is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst" (381). Candide starts to take the side that everything is not always for the best because life is sometimes unjust; blindly believing that everything. He shows that all these horrors don’t serve a greater good, but represent the cruelty and imperfectness of the human race.

Religion was another major theme that was apparent in many philosophical works at the time. Pope was a firm believer of God and the entirety of his essay related back to God and our subordination to God’s plan. For this reason, he was a highly esteemed writer at the time; his ideas didn’t go against the grain or deviate from the norm but did the opposite. Nonetheless, even while advocating the majority viewpoint, Pope went too far in his description of the power that God had. “Or in the full creation leave a void, Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroyed” (243-244). Pope asserts that even one misstep in heeding to God intended plan; the whole of creation must be destroyed. Pope also mentions that it is absolute madness if man chooses to deviate from God’s order through the sin of pride. ‘In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies; all quit their sphere, and rush into the skies” (123-124). Pope states the knowledge man gains from trying to understand the world better is embedded in this sin and if man learns more he is trying to be a God in his own right. However, people need some form of knowledge in order to evolve and to live civilized life, a right that Pope aims to take away from people through his writing. Pope affirms that God is an almighty being, but dramatizes his influence and power on individuals, once again creating an altered and misleading view.

Voltaire’s references to God in Candide are much more subtle to those in Pope’s Essay on Man. Voltaire satirizes religion by means of a succession of immoral, hypocritical religious heads who make appearances throughout the novel: the daughter of a Pope (a man who as a Catholic Priest should have been abstinent); a hard-line Catholic Inquisitor who hypocritically keeps a mistress; and a Franciscan friar who functions as a jewel thief, despite the vow of poverty taken by members of the Franciscan order. Finally, Voltaire introduces a Jesuit colonel with marked homosexual tendencies. An example of hypocrisy of religious heads is shown through this examination:

‘My friend,’ said the orator to him, ‘do you believe the Pope to be Anti-Christ?’ ‘I have not heard it,’ answered Candide; ‘but whether he be, or whether he be not, I want bread.’ ‘Thou dost not deserve to eat,’ said the other. ‘Begone, rogue; begone, wretch; do not come near me again.’ (384)

After preaching about charity, a minister refuses to give food to Candide because of his religious indifference. Religious leaders in the novel also carry out inhumane campaigns of religious oppression against those who disagree with them on even the smallest of religious matters. For example, the Inquisition persecutes Pangloss for expressing his ideas, and Candide for merely listening to them. Though Voltaire provides these numerous examples of hypocrisy and immorality in religious leaders, he does not condemn the everyday religious believer. Although it is clear that Voltaire disapproves of organized religion, his works push the boundaries of exploiting the Catholic religion and in doing so may have created notion to make people skeptical about religion as a whole.

Although the Enlightenment brought about many new ideas and revolutionized many people’s perceptions of the world, it was also very subjective and led to dubious interpretations of religion, free will, and optimism. Voltaire and Pope are prime examples of writers who took their viewpoints to extremes. Although neither Pope nor Voltaire achieves “realism,” a combination of the philosophies from the two writers reaches Aristotle’s golden mean. This is the idea that moral behavior is governed by two extremes, one that works at an excess and another that works at a deficiency and the adequate equilibrium between the two will allow one to act morally. Pope and Voltaire, through their individual works, balance out their beliefs on free will, optimism and religion.

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