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EDITOR'S CORNER: Voltaire and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Que Sera, Sera

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Vincent Valentine, MD
ISHLT Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Alfred Hitchcock's suspense thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much, was released and included the Oscar Award winning, "Whatever Will Be, Will Be" (Que Sera, Sera) sung by Doris Day, who starred with James Stewart in 1956, precisely 200 years after Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a furious response to Voltaire's Poem on the Lisbon Disaster published in 1756.

The Lisbon earthquake shook Europe on November 1, 1755 and left Lisbon in ruins and seared Voltaire's and Europe's consciousness at a time when 18th Century Europe was enlightened; seeing through nature to the God of nature, and through the laws of nature to the wisdom and beneficence of God. In his poem, Voltaire reassessed his Leibnizian optimistic philosophy and theology, seeing evil and suffering as inexplicable given that God is infinitely good, and asserting that suffering humanity requires his love more than God does. The furious response from Jean-Jacques Rousseau accused Voltaire of attacking the Divinity. Voltaire's influential Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake and his most enduring work more closely associated with the modern mind, Candide, transformed Voltaire from a philosophical optimist to a philosophical humanist. He then rejected philosophical optimism and considered it, instead, to be anti-humanistic.

To better understand Leibnizian philosophy, let's recall Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz of Leipzig, Saxony, Germany 1646-1716. A great mathematician and philosopher, he was credited, along with Sir Isaac Newton, with the discovery of calculus. The works of Newton and Leibniz are still evident today in the commonly used calculus notations. Newton introduced the notation ƒ, the derivative of a function ƒ(x) and Leibniz introduced ∫, the elongated S from the Latin word summa, for the integral and wrote the derivative of a function, (using the d used for differentials from the Latin word differentia), y of the variable x as dy/dx which remain in use. Unlike Newton, Leibniz saw the tangent as a ratio between ordinates and abscissas from Descartes' Cartesian coordinates. Leibniz's reasoning led him to believe that the integral was the sum of the ordinates for infinitesimal intervals in the abscissa, or the sum of an infinite number of rectangles. It became clear that the integral has an inverse relationship with the differential. While Newton avoided infinitesimals, Leibniz made infinitesimals the pillars of his notations and calculus.

Now, recall from the ISHLT June 2014, Volume 6, Issue 2 on Voltaire, The Enlightenment and the The Wit (WIT) that it was Madame du Châtelet who introduced Voltaire to Leibnizian philosophy. Initially, Leibnizian philosophy appealed to Voltaire's sense of God known through nature, which attracted a large and growing number of European thinkers. Philosophical optimism originated from Leibniz's Essays on Theodicy. Theodicy is that branch of philosophical theology that deals with the problem of evil. Rationally, Leibniz had no problem thinking in terms of infinity or infinitesimals. Leibniz posits that for everyone who believed in a God who is infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, and infinitely good, he sets this as a mathematic given, or what is known. What then logically follows with absolute and geometric certainty is that God would not create a perfect world because He is the only perfect being; therefore He can only create "the best of all possible worlds." God has full divine knowledge of how everything fits into the world with no true evil. Leibniz was an optimistic philosopher and concluded, as a matter of logic, that though you may not know the reasons why, God had a necessary and sufficient reason for everything is in this world. If something serves a good purpose, it is not evil. A medicine for a child that tastes horribly or is painful may be good and helpful and therefore is not an evil. Parents know that the medicine or "shot" will make the child better. The child believes it is evil. As the child ages, he learns it is not evil. From this Leibniz argues that God chose everything in the creation as necessary and sufficient and, therefore, good. Nothing that appears evil in the creation is evil. If we possessed God's knowledge, then we would understand the good of what we might think, from our limited perspective, to be evil. As Alexander Pope put it from his Essay on Man, "Whatever is, is right." Or to restate it, whatever will be, will be. This is precisely what troubled Voltaire.

Voltaire was always skeptical about philosophical optimism. Despite best efforts to support it, probably out of his love for Madame du Châtelet, The 1750's saw his vehement rejection of Leibnizian optimism. It started with the tragic death of Madame du Châtelet. Devastated by her death and disgraced by the French court (he was unwanted in Paris, he accepted an invitation to live at the court of King Frederick II of Prussia. There, he thought he would serve as an enlightened advisor to an enlightened king, but found that he had been invited as an adornment to the court and was humiliated. Now disillusioned by Frederick the Great of Prussia, Voltaire had no home, no place in life and sunk into despair. His depression deepened with the 1755 earthquake and by his pupil, Frederick the II of Prussia, who plunged Europe into the Seven Years' War. His deepened despair was furthered by Rousseau's caustic letter in response to his Poem on the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire finally settled in Geneva in 1759, where he purchases an estate in Ferney at the French-Swiss border. The years between the Earthquake and publishing of Candide are among the darkest years of his life. The Earthquake, War, European famine, the optimism of the philosophers and the bitterness of the theologians, including Rousseau's critique of him, all intertwined and nearly killed him with anguish. He wrote to a friend as if it was the end of the world. "People are dying under man made bombardments and famines during siege and the destruction of God's own nature while the philosophers are saying this is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

Voltaire challenged, could not an omnipotent God create a world without such catastrophe and concluded "you do not cure our evils when you deny them in the manner of Leibnizian philosophy." Life has pain and suffering from nature which is inexplicable and leaves us in such suffering. Voltaire gave his respect to God, but he gave his love to human beings who suffer. What gift can we give to God? What does God not have? God does not have defects, sorrow, ignorance and hope. That is what humans have? Hope! Man's only bliss is hope. One must choose between a Leibnizian Optimism that denies the existence of evil or the only other choice, the cry of humanistic anguish that admits to evil. In an attempt at the philosophical explanation for suffering, simply watch a mother dying with her child dying in her arms. To this, the Leibnizian philosopher would state that it is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire concluded that evil is real and comprehensible, though God did exist.

For years Voltaire tried to write a piece on optimism in response to Rousseau, then finally his catharsis emerged in the form of his greatest and most influential work over the ages, Candide.

The themes of Candide are simple and direct. Leibnizian philosophy or any metaphysical philosophy that seeks to deny the reality of natural and physical evil is absurd and irrelevant given the human suffering, the horror wars and natural catastrophes. The one solace human beings have is love. In Voltaire's usual satirical manner, it is this love that produces syphilis, largely transmitted by clerics in the course of humanity, which in turn gives us slow and painful deaths.

The philosopher says everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Candide, who is everyman, is the student of Pangloss, an all-tongue Leibnizian philosopher who gives a reasoned explanation for human suffering or catastrophe on why these events are good things and part of the best of all possible worlds. Such philosophical optimism, Voltaire argues, is fatalism. If whatever is, is right, then whatever will be, is right. Then why work against suffering, war, disease and catastrophe? If whatever is, is right, if whatever happens is the best of all possible worlds, then why intervene in the final analysis? Philosophical and theological optimism are fatalism.

Jacques the Anabaptist, one of the best characters out of Voltaire's Candide, falls overboard while trying to save an ungrateful sailor from drowning in the Lisbon harbor during the Earthquake. As Candide prepares to dive in and save Jacques, Pangloss stops and reasons with Candide. If Jacques drowns, then it was part of God's plan in this best of all possible worlds. If he drowns it was part of God's plan, because there is no real evil. This philosophical optimism denies the human reality of irredeemable pain, injustice and cruelty. Candide's journey is through a landscape of war, arrogance, abuse of power, religious persecutions, colonial degradations, betrayal, disease and despair. Evil is real. If one concludes that there is a God incomprehensible to us, then that is what one must conclude. Human beings are here to care. It is not philosophy, it is the cultivation of the human garden with attention to the real causes of well-being and remediable suffering as the only antidote to despair. It is from abstract philosophy to humanistic activism. Whatever.... ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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