During the summer of 1987, a stockbroker in Kentucky told his colleague at a major Wall Street firm that one of his biggest clients was complaining. He had just hung up the phone with her; she had told him that “No one should have the kind of money I have.” His fellow agent offered condolences, “Well, at least she has the right broker!”
Black Monday came and went, problem solved, but the essential lesson is that markets bring people together for peaceful, and mutually beneficial exchange, regardless of political opinions, religious convictions, and ethnic origin. Over two hundred fifty years earlier, Poetic Justice Warrior François-Marie Arouet had written,
Go to the London Stock Exchange, you will see representatives of all nations gathered for the service of mankind. Jew, Mohammedan, and Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion, and give the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt.
We know him as the French philosopher, writer, and historian Voltaire, who also poetically defended Freedom of Speech – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” Religious Freedom – “In my life, I have prayed but one prayer: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it,” Limited Government – “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” and perhaps most self-aware of all, Reductio Ad Absurdum – “A witty saying proves nothing.”
Mr. Ralph’s Opus
Voltaire was not Arouet’s only pseudonym. His work was frequently censored and banned for its blasphemy and sedition, and his classic novella Candide is no exception. Published in 1759, Voltaire distanced himself from it for several years, attributing authorship to Mr. Ralph. The whimsical tale roasts the usual muckety-mucks such as priests, princes, generals, and philosophy professors.
Particularly, the German polymath Gottfried Leibnitz and the system of ideas he named Theodicy, no pun intended. It’s the rationalization of God’s perfection amid Man’s malevolence, and the justification of moral and physical evil for a greater good. In other words, Leibnitz’ Metaphysics of optimistic determinism, a philosophy barren of reason, purpose and pride,
I do not believe that a world without evil is possible; otherwise it would have been preferred. It is necessary to believe that the mixture of evil has produced the greatest possible good: otherwise the evil would not have been permitted.
Leibnitz is interpreting Aristotle’s Law of Causality – actions are caused by the nature of the actors, while denying the reality of its predicate, the Law of Identity – attributes define the unique nature of the actors. Candide describes Leibnitz’ brand of optimism as “the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.”
A weary Candide finally asks, “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?” For Voltaire, this was a rhetorical question, and Candide provides the truly optimistic answer, the one rooted in purposeful action, and the Ethics of self-creation,
I have no more than twenty acres of ground,” he replied, “the whole of which I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and our labor keeps off from us the three great evils – boredom, vice, and want.
In Candide, Voltaire gave the world a great work of art, one whose philosophy is dedicated to the proposition that you can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.
More than thirty years earlier, and already a well-know playwright and poet, Voltaire was imprisoned without due process for the second time. His first incarceration at the Bastille in 1717, for libelous poetry involving a government official, lasted eleven months. This time he had offended an aristocratic family after they arranged for his beating, and after a few days, Voltaire was able to negotiate his exile to England in 1726.
During the course of his nearly three-year visit to this strange land, Voltaire would discover a socioeconomic system that was much more liberal than in France. Upon his return in 1733, Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation were published, twenty four letters in all, first in English and then French, and was quickly quashed by French authorities.
While French snobbery dismissed England as a nation of shopkeepers, Upward Mobility was possible there, “You hear no talk in this country of high, middle, and low justice, nor of the hunting the property of a citizen who himself has not the liberty,” Religious Tolerance was more prevalent – “This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a freeman, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases,” and the promise of Capitalism was respected, “The merchant justly proud compares himself not without some reason, to a Roman citizen.” Oddly enough, a Google search for Voltaire’s reviews of English cuisine is spartan.
However, Oxford University professor Nicholas Cronk discovered letters written in English by Voltaire and reports,
He came to England as a relatively unknown poet. While here, he was exposed to ideas of English writers and later took empiricism back to the continent. They show how Voltaire’s close interaction with the English aristocracy exposed him to Enlightenment ideas.
As Libertarian historian Wendy McElroy explains, “This difference in attitude was a large factor in explaining the extraordinary rise of the English middle class, their wealth deriving from trade.”
The Letters and Laws of Poetic Justice
The quality of Voltaire’s writing made him one of the easiest to read among great writers, and his subjects included the greatest minds of the Enlightenment – John Locke, Lord Francis Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton. As historian Jay Winik writes, “He hated bigotry, intolerance, and superstition, yet he was less concerned with personal liberty. Thus, he was an ardent admirer of enlightened rulers.”
The “common good” was Voltaire’s ideal, not the individual. To him, “Aristotle was unintelligible,” he denied Locke’s blank slate of innate ideas, and believed that all great inventions and discoveries were merely accidents. He was also a close acquaintance of the Prussian King Frederick the Great, and inspired the short-lived “Enlightened Despotism” of Russia’s Catherine the Great. Yet McElroy asserts that Voltaire’s insight on the economic way of the English (what would become known as Adam Smith‘s “we expect our dinner from their regard to their own interest.”)
Was nothing short of revolutionary. It reversed the accepted policies on how to create a harmonious society. Traditionally, nations enforce a system of values to ensure peace. Voltaire argued the opposite. Diversity and freedom created a thriving and peaceful society.
As Winik continues, “In the end, he reflected the temper of the times. Even in his final days, Voltaire relished civilization in every form. In 1778, one month prior to his death, Voltaire embraced Benjamin Franklin. Here were two of history’s great bons vivants, one of the Old World, one of the New, one a patriarch of Europe, one a republican from America. Franklin was then the most famous American in the world, Voltaire, who had spanned the age of classicism right up to the revolutionary era, was the most famous man of letters in all of Europe. America’s John Adams was there to witness the spectacle.”
The event was recorded by America’s Adams and France’s Condorcet as “Solon embraced Sophocles,” (two classical Greek philosophers, one of letters and one of laws). It was the passing of the torch of Poetic Justice from the 17th century’s Age of Reason to the 19th century’s Artistic, Scientific, and Economic explosion of human flourishing.