5 March 2005 - Saturday

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

At The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik analyzes the humanitarian impulses of Voltaire, the Enlightenment's intellectual plenipotentiary. According to Gopnik's interpretation, Voltaire was neither the radical nor the pessimist that some think. His early advocacy of human rights came from inclinations we might regard as conservative, and his criticism of optimism was actually an attack on militant ideologies.

As Tocqueville saw half a century later, home-making, which ought to make people more selfish, makes them less so; it gives them a stake in other people’s houses. It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally. [. . .]

The horror that Voltaire wanted crushed, cruelty in the name of God and civilization, was a specific and contingent thing. [. . .] The villains are the villains: Jesuits and Inquisitors and English judges and Muslim clerics and fanatics of all kinds. If they went away, life would be much better. He knew that the flood would get your garden no matter what you did; but you could at least try to keep the priests and the policemen off the grass. It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

| Posted by Wilson at 18:23 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk