Sunday, March 15, 2009

Air Voltaire

(image: Voltaire)

Before Air Jordan (the U.S. basketball player, not the airline), there was Air Voltaire, although I'm not sure he actually went by that nickname.

However, in the image above, he certainly is styling, even if he doesn't seem to be leaping, sinking jump-shots, playing suffocating defense, or making lots of commercials. Voltaire was in favor of so-called "free trade," so if he were alive today, he might do American Express adverts or maybe ones for travel in France.

Actually, "Voltaire" itself is a nickname, or at least a pseudonym--for François Marie Arouet, born 1694, died 1778, and most famous, of course, for having written Candide. In his own lifetime, he was more famous for pamphlets and encyclopedia-articles (in an age when encyclopedia-articles were more sexy than they are now).

Voltaire was essentially a satirist in the tradition of Swift, whose writing he admired. He wasn't an atheist or a revolutionary but was rather a deist and a reformer. In the town he ultimately settled in, for example, he used his capital to create what we might call small business, and he built housing, which he offered to people on extremely reasonable terms.

At the same time, Candide is a hilarious, scalpel-like attack on optimism (especially that suggested by Leibniz), on religiosity, on fanaticism of any kind, and on humans' capacity for getting almost everything wrong. After Pangloss, the hopelessly optimistic philosopher, yet again expresses his view that "all was for the very best," a character named James replies, "Men," he said, "must have corrupted nature a little, because they weren't born wolves, yet they've become wolves: God didn't give them twenty-four-pounders [cannons; we might substitute "nuclear missiles"] or bayonets, but they've made themselves bayonets and cannons with which to destroy each other. I might also mention bankruptcies, and the law which takes over a bankrupt's property to defraud his creditors of it." (end of chapter three)

Imagined how amused and unsurprised Voltaire would be by the current global-captial implosion, which seems to spring directly from greed, corruption, and "de-regulation," also known as white-collar lawlessness.

Circuitously and incorrectly, Voltaire often gets blamed or credited, depending on your viewpoint, with the French Revolution, but, as Andre Maurois points out in a nice introduction to the Bantam Classic edition, Voltaire was a monarchist, a deist, and a scientist. He was Monsieur Mainstream Enlightenment, in other words, as well as being Air Voltaire. His view, as expressed in Candide, was that one needed to tend one's own garden--tend to business, that is; concentrate; practice moderation; be sensible; follow the data.

Maurois calls this a "bourgeois" worldview, as well as a scientific (in the sense of Englightenment) one, and he's probably right. Voltaire was no revolutionary. It's just that his views were so anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian at the time that people reacted as if he were a revolutionary. He often faced censorship. My own less-than-educated guess is that he managed to be a monarchist and a reformer/deist at the same time chiefly because he liked sensible order and seemed to be getting it from the system. He seems to have been a monarchist in the sense most Brits are monarchists now--liberal (in the 19th century sense, not as in U.S. Democrats), republican (small "r"), and tolerant of tradition, as long as it didn't go crazy.

Best of all, Candide is a very quick, funny book--still. Air Voltaire is in the house.
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