Le Mort de Socrate

On the eve of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David painted the Death of Socrates [Le Mort de Socrate]. The oil on canvas work completed in 1887, focuses on the scene from Plato’s work Phaedo in which the philosopher, convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens, was sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock.

He was given the choice of exile or death, and he boldly chose death.

Socrates actions taught his pupils that a true philosopher neither fears nor flees death, but rather faces it with the same calm he applies to life. The scene, while capturing a moment of tragic end, in fact also depicts the moment of the birth of western philosophy.  Socrates death signalled the end of the reign of superstition and dogma in Greece, and the birth of rationalism and individualism.

Is it not ironic that the very men who accused Socrates of “introducing new gods” and “corrupting the youth of Athens”, by executing him, essentially killed their own traditions and saw the birth of what they feared, a radical new ideology that would transform their nation and the world.

What power is there in one man’s death to bring down his enemy’s legacy and give ascendancy to his own?

It is as though “ideas” are one’s true power, [the pen, rather than the sword?], and one’s true immortality?

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Aslo on the eve of the French Revolution, Voltaire, aka François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), died at the age of 84. He was an enlightenment writer whose wit and word frequently targeted intolerance, religious dogma, and other French institutions of his day.

He did not die for his beliefs, but rather ten years after his death of old age the French Revolution [1789-1799], broke out, turning France on its head. The blood thirsty rise of the common people in France saw the overthrow of the aristocracy and the institution of a republic, the abolition of slavery in French colonies, and the establishment of the French motto ‘liberty, brotherhood and equality’ [liberte, fraternite, egalite].

Interestingly,  while in Socrates case, the ruling elite secured their own demise by killing the philosopher they opposed, in Voltaire’s case, the ruling elite secured their demise by ignoring the philosopher poet and his disciples, finding instead angry bourgeois with gunpowder, torches and ploughshares at their doors, and guillotines and prisons awaiting them.

The French Revolution

Moreover, while Socrates ideas defeated his enemies ideas costing his life, one life, Voltaire’s ideas defeated his enemies, costing them their lives, thousands of lives.

What is mightier then, the power of the sword, or the pen?!

Well one may ask, what ideas bring life? One must better ask, what ideas bear good fruit, generations after they are germinated in a philosopher or poets teachings ?

Perhaps as in all legacies, time is true decider.

As written about in an earlier Bear Skin post, Jonathan Ralston-Saul’s incisive work “Voltaire’s Bastards” gives a critical analysis of the legacy of Voltaire’s writings.

Voltaire and his contemporaries believed reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the superstitions of religious dogma. It was the key not only to challenge the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane society. This emphasis on reason has become central to modern thought. However, unfortunately, subsequent society bears little resemblance to the visions of the 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers.

Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and methodology is based on specialised knowledge and the manipulation of “rational structures” rather than reason. The link between justice and reason has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical framework have turned rational calculation into something short sighted and self-serving. This can and does lead to a directionless state that rewards the pursuit of power for power’s sake.

Moreover, we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs. The rationalism Voltaire advocates, … has led to the rise of individualism with no regard for the role of society has not created greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation.

Ralston-Saul called for a pursuit of a humanism in which reason is balanced with other human mental capacities such as common sense, ethics, intuition, creativity, and memory, for the sake of the common good.

The death of Socrates show us so powerfully, that ideas give or take life. Socrates did not fear the loss of his own life, because he knew that there were power and truth in his ideas, ideas which would long outlive him. In contrast, Voltaire’s ideas while enlightened, gave birth to a range of ‘children’, among them bloodshed, individualism and management as proxy for leadership, the pursuit of rational structures and of power pursuits.

 

Candide and ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’

François-Marie Arouet [1694 – 1778], known by his pen name, or nom de plume, Voltaire, was a French Englightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. Voltaire was a prolific writer, despite the strict censorship laws of the time. As a satirist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of  his day.

Candide, also L’Optimism is a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire. It begins with a young man, Candide, who has lived a sheltered life and indoctrinated with Leibnitzian optimism by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes his slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.

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Written as a playful comedy, behind its amusing façade, there lies very harsh criticism of contemporary European civilization. European governments such as France, Prussia, Portugal and England are each attacked ruthlessly. Organised religion, is also harshly treated. For example, while in Paraguay, Cacambo remarks, “[The Jesuits] are masters of everything, and the people have no money at all …”. Voltaire depicts the Jesuits holding the indigenous peoples as slaves while they claim to be helping them.

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Moreover, Candide was written into the context of mid 1700s natural disasters and war. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 led to a tsunami and city fires which rattled the philosophical optimism of the day, particularly that of Gottfried Leibnitz and his optimist worldview. Voltaire actively rejected Leibnizian optimism after the natural disaster, convinced that if this were the best possible world, it should surely be better than it is, describing the catastrophe as one of the most horrible disasters.

Voltaire concludes with Candide, advocating a deeply practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden“, in stead of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds“.

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Candide has enjoyed both great success and great scandal. Immediately after its secretive publication, the book was widely banned because it contained religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of satirical amusement. Today, Candide is recognized as Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Candide has been listed as one of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.

Voltaire’s Bastards

In 1992, Candian born political scientist Jonathan Ralston Saul published “Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.” Part of a trilogy of political essays, Saul points out the ills of a dictatorship of reason, unbalanced by other human qualities.

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Saul points out that Voltaire and his contemporaries believed reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the supersititons of relgious dogma. It was the key not only to challenge the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane society. This emphasis on reason has become central to modern thought. However, unfortunately, today’s rational society bears little resemblance to the visions of the 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers.

Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and methodoloy is based on specialised knowledge and the manipulation of “rational strucutres” rather than reason. The link between justice and reason has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical frameowrk have turned rational calculation into something short sighted and self-serving. This can and does lead to a directioness state that rewards the pursuit of power for power’s sake.

voltaire

 

Moreover, we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs. The rationalism Voltaire advocates, captured in Candide’s mantra, “we must cultivate our garden” has birthed has led to the rise of individualism with no regard for the role of society has not created greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation.

He calls for a pursuit of a more humanist ideal in which reason is balanced with other human mental capacities such as common sense, ethics, intuition, creativity, and memory, for the sake of the common good.

In brief

What interests me in this literary debate between political minds is that art and art forms are 100 years ahead of academic thought, most of the time.

The modernist writers of the turn of the century and their melanchology works, the surrealism and absurdism is art and literature and the nihilism produced by many of the war writers and poets – signalled he death knell that pure “rational frameworks” brought to society.  Lost and adrift without meaning, this generation saw the effects of reason driven ideology in Stalin and Hitler and its consequences.

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Children’s writers such as C S Lewis and J K Rowling have made as much sense as Raslton Saul in calling out western rationalism for its hollow promises. Harry Potter’s “muggles” a great example of the non-sense in seeing magical and spiritual things the cause of social ills.

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May we learn in this new generation, to balance celebrate learning and shun supersition without hiding within rational frameworks at the expense of ideology in the form of “truth”, intuition, creativity, spirituality and a framework for justice to work hand in hand with reason.