Friday, November 11, 2005

Through the Eye of Enlightenment

Wayne S. Rossi
Dr. DeMeritt
HONR 151
16 November 1999
Through the Eye of Enlightenment
Eighteenth Century Views on Man
Throughout societies, throughout time, man has questioned. And, no matter how abstract or indifferent his analysis may attempt to be, his eye will eventually fall upon himself and speculation as to the exact character of man. So it was, by necessity, that man created ideas on his own nature during the Age of Enlightenment, the historical period after the Renaissance was over in its entirety. These particular ideas would have the power to shake and reshape the world, starting during the late eighteenth century, when the European monarchies, having grown to almost unimaginable heights, would begin to be questioned to the very core, and in many cases, fall. The Enlightenment saw revolutionary political and religious philosophy, venomous satire, and statesmen who would forever change the face of government. As the realm of philosophy is often too abstract and shows its impact elsewhere, four works of the latter two types will be considered instead in speaking on eighteenth century man’s views on himself. The single most important pair of documents in American history, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, will be considered first, and then the great French satirist Voltaire’s considerably less serious views on man from the novellas Candide and Zadig will be discussed. The uttermost seriousness of ideas and the parody of men will then be seen to form a more satisfying Aristotelian mean between extremes.
Borrowing heavily from the considerably earlier philosophical ideas of John Locke, the Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most important philosophical work in American history. Instead of merely stating its opinion and leaving it to the realm of abstraction, the Declaration dared to actually enact its revolutionary claims. The foremost among these is that men are created equal, and deserve equal rights. Furthermore, it makes the assertion that government derives its power from the assent of the government-the Lockeian social contract. Its absolute most bold claim is the right of the people to revolution against a despotic government. The remainder of the Declaration is largely a statement of why the American states had this right at the time of writing. However, these first three major statements-men created equal, government as a social contract, and the right to revolution-are indicative of a perspective on man’s nature. The claim of equal rights to the famed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was quite revolutionary to European thought, as was the social contract (a drastic contrast to the supposed “Divine Right” of kings). Even today, the right to revolution is not widely recognized. This view is one of the more optimistic-man is naturally good, and holds the famed “inalienable rights.” These rights spring from the very nature (there is a Deistic content to it, speaking of the Creator), not from some governmental source. The social contract is an idea that comes from the same school of thought that says that rights are natural. This view, that man is a basically good creature with natural rights, is among the most optimistic of the Age of Enlightenment’s views of humanity.
During the years that followed the Declaration of Independence’s writing, the American Revolution brought those high-minded ideals into reality. For the large portion of the 1780s, the government was under the Articles of Confederation, which proved themselves to be vastly ineffective as means of any central government goes. So, it is only logical that the Constitution, successor to the Articles, was not in the same optimistic, Lockeian tone as the Declaration of Independence. Rather, the Constitution was written to deal with the less than ideal realities of a government. It has a noteworthy and well-designed system of checks and balances, designed to ensure that there was no single figure in the American government who would grow too powerful. These checks and balances, coupled with the Bill of Rights, shows the idea (which is quite verifiable) that power can easily corrupt a man, and that a government must pre-emptively keep such individuals in check. However, it is a marvelous act of faith in humanity that the right to vote is given as fairly unconditionally as it was at the time (and that it was later expanded to include the entire populace over the age of majority). From this, it can be said that the Constitution was not truly pessimistic, but rather optimistic with a very cautious outlook. It views man as a good, but corruptible, creature, and quite obviously is in line with the idea of securing the basic human rights and the social contract of the Declaration of Independence. So, it could be said that the Constitution takes on a similar, but more reserved, view on humanity compared to the Declaration of Independence.
A second pair of eighteenth century works reveals a completely different side of the popular views on man. This time written around the middle of the century by famed French satirist Voltaire, the works Zadig and Candide reflect a somewhat different view of man. Whereas the prior two were serious works of governmental doctrine, Voltaire’s writings are lighter in tone and possess a certain biting sarcasm. As they were political commentaries, there was a necessary specific element of parody to these, which may be counted among Voltaire’s longest and best-known works. The earlier writing, Zadig, is also the more positive of the two by quite a good measure, which is doubtless a reflection of the author’s own better situation in life during its writing than when he wrote Candide, which was the result of a good number of misfortunes in his life. With Zadig, Voltaire, still a heavy proponent of the optimistic Age of Enlightenment’s views (especially on rationality) stays mostly within lampooning his enemies and generally promoting reason through the resolutions gained by the title character. Here, many of the tough spots that Zadig is thrust into have logical and reasonable solutions, which generally tend to save Zadig’s neck at the same time. Candide, on the other hand, was written after a long string of unfortunate circumstances were thrust upon Voltaire, and he was generally bitterer toward his philosophical colleagues. Candide’s adventures are more as a consideration of various philosophies, and the throwing-out of the same afterward. However, there is ever the question in Candide’s mind of whether Dr. Pangloss is right in claiming that this world is the best of all possible worlds. His ultimate sentiment seems to be rejection.
These cases are curiously similar. In both the founding documents of the American government, and in Voltaire’s works, there is an initial sentiment of pure, unbounded optimism and faith in mankind. In the latter works, one written after a decade filled with war and instability, the other after a similar falling apart of a personal life, there is considerable tempering to the radical, free ideals earlier espoused. One could say with good accuracy that the Declaration of Independence and Zadig are works closer to pure philosophy than reality, and that the Constitution and Candide are works with their heads more firmly grounded in reality. However, all of these do share a great faith in reason and the natural rights of man. Interestingly enough, a disdain for organized religion can be seen, in the vague Deism of the Declaration’s “Nature’s God”, the Constitution’s famed First Amendment, and Zadig and Candide’s over-zealous priests. There is obviously a parallel distrust of large governments.
The Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, and Voltaire’s Zadig and Candide offer clear, applied examples of how eighteenth century Europeans looked upon their own race, and that their views were rather revolutionary during their own time. These examples of eighteenth century views of mankind combine to show a unique worldview whose repercussions continue to be seen and felt today.


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