By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
The debate between Voltaire and Rousseau about Enlightenment occurred almost a century later after the famous debate between Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Leibniz. The spiritual crisis of the Reformation led to a general sense of crisis by the end of the 17th century. There was a general sense of the inadequacy of received forms in learning, values, and faith; all these things together came to provoke what is known as the Enlightenment.
When Lisbon Was Destroyed by the Hands of Nature
A philosopher, Susan Neiman, says in a book that what Auschwitz is to the 20th century, Lisbon was to the 18th. It is the epitome of the problem of evil. Interestingly, Lisbon, of course, is the epitome of the problem not of moral evil, not of an evil caused by obviously human hands, but of natural evil, a problem caused by nature itself. On the morning of November 1, 1755, there was a very big earthquake in Lisbon.
It was devastating; it ruined buildings and started fires. But 40 minutes later, things got far, far worse. The Bay of Lisbon emptied out, and a tsunami rolled in and washed away the rubble, the burning fires, and a large number of the people.
Around 85% of the buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged, and about 40,000 or 50,000 people of the capital city of Portugal, Lisbon, simply disappeared, washed out to sea. After this, Portugal, which had been declining as a power but still had significant power, especially overseas, was never a power in Europe again.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Voltaire’s View on Lisbon’s Earthquake
This event made philosophers across the continent extremely curious to think about how an ordered world could make sense of an event like the Lisbon Earthquake. François-Marie Arouet, who became known as Voltaire, criticized the optimistic theodicies of Leibniz and Alexander Pope and those who came after them from the basis of the reality of the Lisbon Earthquake. After the earthquake, in essays and poems, he argued that justifications of these sorts of events are inevitably uselessly theoretical; that is, they are empty of a helpful meaning.
First, theoretical questions distract people from fundamental philosophical implications. Second, these theoretical questions distract people from the practical obligations that the reality of evil presents to them.
It’s quite possible to see someone being mugged on the side of the road and say, “Now what kind of world is it where someone can get mugged on the side of the road?” But they’re lying there; you should go help them. That’s Voltaire’s point: To ask theoretical questions when confronted with practical evil is a profound misconstrual of your own not only moral but intellectual obligations.
Learn more about Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques.
Candide: Voltaire’s Brilliant Book
This vision of Voltaire’s is especially explored in his brilliant book Candide: A Novel, which offered a wonderful story of a man who has many misfortunes that happen to him, but then at the end of the novel, he finally says, “In the end, we all have to retreat back to our own lives and cultivate our own gardens.” In some sense, he’s lost his hopefulness about the intellectual ambitions of his youth, and he’s come to see that it’s much happier to live a quiet and happy life in your own garden.
Voltaire’s hostility to theodicy seems to emerge from his overall skepticism about intellectual efforts, theory, abstract reasoning per se; his suspicion there is that it’s simply not grounded in reality. He was skeptical about traditional thinking, too—traditional Catholic theology was not on Voltaire’s top 10 list of things to be reading—but he didn’t take it as seriously as he did the thinking of his Enlightenment colleagues who were more optimistic about reason.
Voltaire and Rousseau’s Debate on Evil
Others such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau took the problems presented by history and reflection on human evil in a slightly less angry way than Voltaire did. He says in a letter to Voltaire that your critique of them offers no positive contribution; it only offers scorn. There’s something; he suggests, profoundly misanthropic and anti-intellectual to Voltaire’s hostility to the intellectual effort of theodicy here.
Second, Rousseau said, Voltaire’s rejection of theoretical questions about evil is also cruel. There’s something important that evil presents to people, not just on the practical level; there’s something important it presents to people on the intellectual level. Even children who want to know why their parents are suffering from an illness don’t necessarily only have practical questions about how to help their parents.
Third, Rousseau suggested that optimism is itself, the tendency humans have to look for signs of hope, is a fact about the human condition that must be acknowledged and has to be a philosophically significant fact.
Learn more about Rousseau and the prevailing Enlightenment beliefs.
What Rousseau Thought about Hope and Evil
Rousseau thought humans are hopeful and intelligent, meaning-seeking creatures. The optimism itself suggests that in the face of evil, people can well rely on a kind of supra-rational hope as a mode of response to it. They may not be able to rationally formulate that hope, but nonetheless, they can never attempt to suffocate that light, extinguish that candle of hope.
Rousseau thought that evil is the result of the unintended consequences of free decisions taken in response to actions early on in people’s lives. For him, the source of evil comes out of the same energies that are the wellspring of human hope; and even as that hope always springs again anew into their hearts, people are going to have to confront its perpetual struggle with their misappropriation of that hope and their misappropriation of that freedom in their evil actions. But you cannot deny hope by recognizing the evil actions alone.
Common Questions about the Voltaire–Rousseau Debate and Their Views on Evil
Rousseau thought that evil is the result of the unintended consequences of free decisions taken in response to actions early on in people’s lives. For him, the source of evil comes out of the same energies that are the wellspring of human hope.
Voltaire’s hostility to theodicy seems to emerge from his overall skepticism about intellectual efforts, theory, abstract reasoning per se; his suspicion there is that it’s simply not grounded in reality.
Rousseau suggested that optimism is itself, the tendency humans have to look for signs of hope, is a fact about the human condition that must be acknowledged and has to be a philosophically significant fact.