Voltaire and the Pursuit of Happiness
This essay discusses what the “pursuit of happiness” might have meant to Voltaire.
At least for Americans, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is an unalienable right granted to them in the Declaration of Independence. This is somewhat astonishing if we consider it for a moment—how can anyone grant happiness to another as a right? Nevertheless, the words are there for all to see.
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The idea of the pursuit of happiness didn’t originate with the signers of the Declaration but is a product of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, that amazing period (the 17th and 18th Centuries up until about the time of the French Revolution) in European history, when new discoveries were being made, and new philosophies transformed the human experience.
This paper looks briefly at Voltaire, and what the idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ might have meant to him.
The words that Thomas Jefferson put into the Declaration of Independence were those of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire among them. They are closely tied to two other words, “life” and “liberty.” Perhaps we should start there, for it’s obvious that one must be alive and at liberty before he can pursue happiness.
Voltaire and other thinkers of his time shared a basic belief in the power of human reason. It was this idea, that men were capable of thinking for themselves that led many of the thinkers and philosophers of the period, Voltaire prominent among them, to renounce the Roman Catholic Church. This does not mean, as many people think, that Voltaire was an atheist. On the contrary, he was raised and taught be Jesuits and retained a deep reverence for them; he also apparently believed in God and the immortal soul. It was the corruption of the priests and the Church itself that he attacked. I think we can infer that he saw the Church as an institution that stood for irrationality in an age of reason. Church doctrine, after all, is based on faith, and faith is not susceptible to proof; that’s what the word means. But Voltaire was living at a time when philosophers had propounded a new idea: that knowledge is not innate (inborn) but comes “only from experience and observation guided by reason.” (“The Age of Reason,” PG).
The great truths of the human condition were to be discovered by observing nature rather than simply accepting received wisdom from sources such as the Church and the ancient philosophers. The idea that men should observe nature and learn for themselves runs directly contrary to Church teaching, which suggests that knowledge is innate and comes from God. This is the fundamental conflict and one of the reasons why Voltaire was forced to leave France though, as I said above, he was not an atheist—he simply had no use for the men of the Church.
I would submit, then, that Voltaire wanted to be free to pursue his own thoughts without interference from anyone, and that for him this is the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ But he also pursued it in another way, in one of his most famous works.
One of the most prevalent doctrines at the time of the Enlightenment was Optimism, which sought to explain the presence of evil in a world created by a God believed to be just and good. The Optimists solved the dilemma by stating that this was the best of all possible worlds, and that if there was evil in it, it was there because God put it there, which meant that despite its presence this was still the best of all possible worlds. (Sareil, PG). Voltaire took direct aim at Optimism in his short novel Candide.
The story, which is very funny, tells of a young man, Candide, whose teacher Pangloss is an Optimist. The latter’s motto is indeed that “this is the best of all possible worlds.” However, the story itself shows us Candide, Pangloss and the other characters lurching from one disaster to another without having time to take a breath. Voltaire piles on catastrophe after catastrophe, sometimes several on the same page, so that his readers understand this is satire; and what might be horrific becomes hysterically funny. Just about the time one of the characters says, “things can’t get worse,” they do.
Voltaire challenged Optimism for another reason, and that was because it “presupposed an absolute determinism: there was not a single effect without a cause.” (Sareil, PG). If this were true, then a man, in essence, has no free will, which means that he would not be responsible for his actions and that in turn would mean there would be no such thing as ethics. Voltaire solves this problem in “Candide” by making Pangloss ridiculous. As a defence of the idea of cause and effect, Pangloss comes up with this one: “’ Note that noses were made to wear spectacles, so we wear spectacles.’ Even if the reader agreed that there is a final explanation for everything, he would probably think that noses were made for breathing.” (Sareil, PG).
Voltaire’s idea of the pursuit of happiness closely coincides with freedom: the freedom to think as he pleases, freedom to attack the Church for its corruption; even the freedom to question the doctrine of Free Will, as implied by the Optimists of his day. It’s not surprising that such a free spirit was both loved and despised, and that the controversy surrounding him continues to this day.
Sareil, Jean. “Voltaire.” European Writers 4 (1994): 367-392. Retrieved 2 Mar 2003 from The Literature Resource Center, The Gale Group, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA at: http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC?c=2&ai=91294&ste=6&docNum=H1479001452&bConts=16303&tab=1&vrsn=3&ca=2&tbst=arp&ST=Voltaire&srchtp=athr&n=10&locID=san67255&OP=contains
“The Age of Enlightenment.” [Web page]. Undated. Accessed: 2 Mar 2003. http://lonestar.texas.net/~mallarj/aj/Enlightenment.htm
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