The real lesson of the Good Brahmin

{The Story of a Good Brahmin, my last post, should be read first, before reading this.}

Happiness or Reason? Civilization or Barbarism? Parliaments or Despotism? Hitler hated politics, by which we should understand, to use the modern term of disdain, gridlock. No Hitler preferred more direct means. Let’s take the unification of Germany as an example: that silly Parliament of Frankfurt (1848-49) accomplished nothing; it was old blood-and-iron Bismarck who really effected German unity. “The great questions of our day will not be settled by congresses and debate, but by blood and iron,” said the Iron Chancellor (and “better pointed bullets to pointed words”). What music to Hitler’s ears! These sentiments have a long tradition in Europe, and can be seen buried in the probably apocryphal statement of Louis XIV, “I am the state.” Against such notions the subject of this post labored might and mane. This will be the first of several posts discussing what is for me kind of an anti-hero, a man almost universally loathed among Christians, and I will admit, in the main justly so. I am speaking of François Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de guerre, Voltaire.

I make my students read Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities.” Berlin’s essay traces the modern academy’s most basic division back to a split in perception between Giambattista Vico and Voltaire: Vico put guarded stock in science and Cartesian reasoning (it could only give a skewed, partial picture of reality), and championed a marriage of the poetical with the rational in understanding human nature; Voltaire, conversely says Berlin, was the cold and calculated, a champion of Newton and a hater of obscurantism. After we discuss Berlin’s article, I give the students “The Story of a Good Brahmin.” After we read it I then ask: who wrote this, Vico or Voltaire? They all answer, Vico. It is a shock to them that Voltaire did.

While Voltaire is repeatedly cited as a champion of the Enlightenment (which he was) and the Enlightenment the first maturing of modernity (to be debated), and modernity as the triumph of scientism and progress, the “Good Brahmin” gives the lie to all of this, for as we can see, it wasn’t. Reason could lead to despair. All one has to do is couple this with Candide and we can see that Voltaire had a dim view of the human prospect. This was not always the case, as one can see by reading his story Zadig, but after the Lisbon earthquake and the Calas affair, Voltaire soured on progress. Voltaire’s problem, it should be noted, arose from his own misperceptions about the promise of reason, for to him it held as a promise only for the rational. And indeed he feared its wider dissemination to an extent. He once commented that not everyone should learn to read, for who would then chop wood. The irony is that in an age when everyone learned to read the need for chopping wood was greatly reduced. It is perhaps a commentary on our decline of culture that more and more people are having to find themselves needing to chop wood.

But the misperception was more than this, and actually would place Voltaire among the Romantic revolutionaries, as Berlin defined them in another of his essays, for Voltaire has separated the rational order from the proper human end of felicity, beatitude, or happiness. At the least, he has posed the questions that they are dissonant, and certainly seemingly incommensurable. Thus it is the Enlightenment itself (and we can find this mentality as well in Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew) divorced reason from true pleasure. This notion of pleasure, however, should not be confused with the modern hedonist approaches to pleasure that are libertine in nature. For this pleasure – – promiscuity, gluttony, prodigality, the wanton imbibing of mind-altering substances – – had nothing whatsoever to do with happiness as thought of by the likes of Aristotle and Cicero, Petrarch and Leonardo Bruni, or even Montaigne and Locke, a happiness by aligning one’s sentiments, reason, and emotions with the greater harmony of the cosmos. This modern happiness is purely animalia, the consequence of divorcing reason from “the good life,” and seeing the human as nothing more than a more highly organized version of the brute. Ultimately, while such thinkers as Voltaire and Diderot would champion some types of republican reforms within France’s monarchical system, they were at once, by their divorce of reason from man’s true end, creating the basis for the secular nightmares that we have witnessed in this last century; and no doubt will see much more of in this one. For if we are but cattle, what we need are herders, and not parliaments.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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9 Responses to The real lesson of the Good Brahmin

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  2. David Fraser says:

    Thanks for a stimulating two-step Voltairean meditation. I find Voltaire difficult to pin down because of his ironic spirit (one never knows what his position finally is on numbers of matters — is he or his character winking as they articulate a given conclusion?).

    He wrote over 25 conte philosophique and you have mentioned three of them. They seem mostly to push the reader to come to their own conclusion. They portray inconsistencies and paradoxes of the human condition. The lived reality of philosophical position leads to certain “crazy” places (as in the madness of philosophers preferring reason to happiness, given their own systems). He seemed to be clear about the folly of pure metaphysics and the limitation of human knowledge (Micromegas ends with all the pages of “the answer to the ultimate essence of the world” blank, as a good Lockean would expect). For being the “patriarch” of the Enlightenment, he has a number of “anti”-Enlightenment themes.

    His concern seemed to be with ending unnecessary human suffering and our shame as humans in not doing so (we need, he seems to say, to be keenly aware of how deeply rooted in human nature is the readiness to do injustice). Our propensity to self-deception, the abuse of power, the pettiness of the causes over which we fight — all of these are deeply rooted in human nature. He also is thematic about the need for religious tolerance. He may well be the “father” of modern tolerance, something we Christians need to learn, even toward one another. He seems to trace the outline of original sin better than many contemporary Christians, even if his persistent Deism keeps him from portraying the face of God.

  3. Cyril says:

    I will be incommunicado for the next few days, but Micromegas brings up another whole set of trails to follow. And while I think his ideas on Tolerance grand, he could be himself highly intolerant: e.g., ecrasez l’infame. That also is another trail. Thanks for your response David,

  4. marcusjosephus says:

    Your piece on Voltaire reminds me of the Name of the Rose. Below is a much edited meditation/critique of the book. It bears directly on what you are saying.

    The Wondrous and Terrible Struggle

    The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is a masterpiece of intrigue, mystery and most importantly, symbol. This is a novel concerning an apocalyptic war over the use and interpretation of images, icons and various symbols. Eco will set two opposing forces against each other in this battle, the Realists and the Nominalists
    The story opens with the central theme of name giving. The Hero for the rationalistic, Nominalist party is one William of Baskerville, a devotee of Aristotle, Bacon and Ockham. In the opening chapter William perceives several seemingly insignificant symbols and gives a name to something he can not even see. By viewing several small and somewhat disconnected symbols, William deduces that the monks are chasing a horse that belongs to the abbot and without even seeing the horse he gives the size, height and color, but most importantly he gives it a name, Brunellus. William knows monks well. He knows the books they read and the way they think through them. Brunellus is the “Universal Horse”, and William gives the steed the only, particular name it can possibly have. William can make a thing “real” even if it is invisible or does not exist, if he can name it he can claim it. What else would a powerful Abbot name his most prized equine? To William, the naming of names and the deciphering of symbols is a great love. William is a master of symbols and names. He is accompanied by his servant, and reluctant apprentice Nominalist, Adso. Adso is the teller of this tale of “the wondrous and terrible events that happened in my youth.” Adso will be caught in the struggle between these two awesome forces. The Armies of Realism and radical Nominalism will struggle and vie for his soul.
    William’s system of reading symbols, ably displayed throughout the book finally fails him. At the end of the novel we see him in great despair actually questioning the existence or reality of God and “Reason”. In fact, when the monastery burns, William is in utter despair over the order of the universe, the omnipotence and freedom of God and the point that his extreme Nominalism has brought him. William can not give a name to everything in creation therefore it is chaos. William’s extreme penchant for Nominalism and Rationalism fails in the end. He discovers the finis Africae by accident, his symbols and his system has misled and failed him.
    The great struggle between Realism and Nominalism is pictured in Adso’s encounter with the symbol of ultimate reality “the maiden, beautiful and terrible as an army arrayed for battle”. Adso is quickly and efficiently learning all he can about symbols and logic when he is confronted by the maiden. Adso describes the encounter in this way, “and I was struck by the impression of human reality that emanated from that form.” Adso’s encounter and “affair” with Realism as embodied in the young woman leaves him sick with the malady of love and most importantly unable to assign this love, a name. His greatest and only true love, the most important thing he, as an aspiring Nominalist could possibly give her, would be a name. The movie version makes much of this fact, but for the wrong reasons. I make much of the fact to show that Adso had learned much from his master and had even received his special glasses from William. The young student is now seeing the world through William’s nominalist eyes. These glasses were a product of the new learning, something with which to see symbols better, yet as the heir of the Nominalistic treasure house, he still could not give a name to something that was very important to him.
    One of the greatest casualties of this war of diametrically opposed forces is the Church itself. The world is changing, the Church and its old powerhouses, the monasteries, are not keeping pace. Universities are on the rise as well as the cities that surround them. William is Oxford trained, not of the old monastic school. The Abbot Abo is a picture of monasticism of this time in that his only claim to fame is that he carried the dead body (a pun on the corpus of works) of Thomas Aquinas down a difficult flight of stairs. So at this time as the world and the Church change, the old corpus of Thomistic thinking is being carried down by the monasteries who are not adapting to a changing world. The new cities and the universities, of whom William is a symbol are rummaging through the secret places of the old libraries of the monasteries and surpassing them in knowledge. William is an excellent type of this new learning, while Abo and his library, which is laid out like the known world, goes up in flames. Years later Adso, like a modern day Jeremiah visits the ruins of this “Jerusalem”.

    Lam 1:1-2¶ How does the city sit desolate, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become a slave! She weeps bitterly in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she has none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.
    Lamentations is an appropriate passage for what is left of the monastery after this apocalyptic battle. The monastery, which symbolizes the Church and its library, plainly laid out in the pattern of the world, are all a casualty of this battle.
    The Name of the Rose may be viewed as the wondrous and terrible battle between Nominalism and Realism. Adso finally seems to be a reluctant and faulty convert of the Nominalists. After all is said and done he is compelled, for reasons he can not express, to place his experience into words/symbols, perhaps to make it real. William’s system fails him and he dies in obscurity, in the dearth of a plague, Umbertino is most likely murdered in some lonely hermitage, and Adso winds up alone and in a cold dark scriptorium with a sore thumb. It is sore from writing too many words, names and symbols. The book ends in despair because extremes have taken the characters there. Adso too is at the end of his life, because Nominalism has ultimately failed him as it failed his master. Balance seems to be a rare commodity in this story. Adso seems to be the nearest thing to a balanced person, yet even he seems tired in the dark and cold scriptorium with only the memories of Realism (the girl) to keep him company.

  5. Cyril says:

    Mark, is this yours, or someone else’s? If it’s yours, I will repost this into the main feed, if you don’t mind.

  6. marcusjosephus says:

    Gary, Yes this is Mark Joseph Kelly

  7. marcusjosephus says:

    Yes. It is mine. Did it back in RE Seminary

  8. Venkataraman N says:

    I am a Brahmin by birth and an Indian.I began reading Voltaire at the ripe young age of 51 through the audio lectures as a philosopher of enlightenment. My views earlier were that he was a caustic person and his teachings are contrary to the normal rules of the common man.Only now i have taken to great liking him as a great philosopher who moved the 18th century populace from Renaissance to Enlightenment. His path breaking lectures and books are as relevant and current today and in my opinion will remain for the time mankind will survive.His Utopian thoughts must be the basis for many more authors, say from Swift on wards who took to pen the ridiculous organised religions, Kings, Papacy, Clergy, Nobles,Mullahs and the Brahmin. It is a strange coincidence that i have contemplated the same question the Brahmin asks in the story myself before i read this story today. So thoughts are the ones that in genera ltravel and transcend time i feel.There are somethings that philosophers have a somewhat ‘Law”unto themselves but don’t want it to be canonical, one of them being that ‘Thought is more important than the physical being’. These thoughts must be occurring to many among us, but as i read earlier, ‘ what we know is a handful of what we don’t know’. I would prefer to be a simple and ignorant person but not a simpleton, the english meaning is very strong for a simpleton.

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