Thursday, May 26, 2011

History 111: Candide and the Innate Goodness of Man (Part I)

(Go to 2:55 for Candide's showdown with the villainous  Jew.)

My last discussion of the early modern debate about human salvation proved surprisingly fitting for the last book we are doing, Voltaire’s Candide. Candide has the advantage of being short enough that we can go through it in two classes. If it is part of the Enlightenment, it is a critique of the old world I have spent the quarter trying to describe. If Voltaire was prejudiced against Jews, it is still one of the funniest books ever written. Candide also serves as an example of the modern shift in the understanding of human nature from a pessimistic view, in which human beings are hopelessly depraved, to a more positive view, in which humans are assumed to be innately good.

In the debate over salvation, both our Catholics and Protestants operated from the assumption of human depravity. In the Catholic model humans are just mostly depraved. We are tainted by Original Sin; while we are capable of doing good and resisting sin in specific situations, it is inevitable, barring divine intervention through grace, that we will come to sin. For example, even if I resist temptation and do not sin with a woman, the mere fact that I lusted after the woman is itself a sin; if I truly understood who God was, I never would even contemplate breaking his commandments. The fact that I would contemplate such a thing demonstrates that I am under the taint of Original Sin and of Satan. From this perspective it may be less damaging for my soul in the long run if I had given in to temptation. Now that I have not, I am in danger of believing myself to be righteous so I will never repent and I will add the sin of pride. The Catholic solution is that one needs to enter the body of the Church and come under the forgiveness earned on the cross. Being baptized and receiving the sacraments will not necessarily make me a better person; human depravity remains and I will have to answer for my sins in purgatory. By being part of the Catholic Church, though, one has access to Jesus’ atonement and can hope to eventually get out of purgatory and enter heaven.

Protestants are even more pessimistic about human nature than Catholics. Lutherans believe that man is almost completely depraved, incapable of doing any good or avoiding any sin on his own. The only redemptive feature in human nature is the ability to have faith. Calvinists are the most extreme, believing in utter human depravity and that humans can have no role in their own salvation. While, in a sense, Protestants value good works less than Catholics do, Protestants tend to agonize over the implications of their day to day works. Catholics can feel confident that, having entered the body of the Church, they are part of the saved despite their sins. With Protestantism there is no longer a set recognizable body of believers that one can belong to and be confident of salvation. Furthermore there is an assumption that one’s salvation should be manifested in good works. Thus if I am still sinning, even after being baptized as a Protestant, it is a sign that perhaps I never genuinely believed and received graced and am therefore not really one of the saved.

This view of human nature has political as well as religious implications. If I cannot hope to get right with God on my own because I am so depraved, neither can I fashion laws and a government for myself to live with others. Just as I need God to reveal his laws through the Church as I could never learn them on my own, he also needs to establish a government for me, such as a king, with rulers to keep me in line, because I could never do so on my own. Now it might happen that this king will prove corrupt as he is also a depraved human sinner. If that happens then I should take it as a punishment from God for my sins and should pray for forgiveness and ask God to change the heart of the king. Under no circumstance should I even contemplate rebellion. What basis do I have to believe that I, a depraved sinner, can possibly fashion anything better? How dare I reject the government that God saw fit, in his infinite mercy, to grant me that I may become less of a sinner.

Admittedly, already with Protestantism this model becomes more complicated. While Protestants may believe in human depravity they also believe in grace which can rectify human nature. This allows for there to be a “community of saints,” that small group of people blessed with grace. Such people would be capable of establishing their own “godly” government. It may even be their duty to seize the reins of government from an unsaved king. In the case of the English Civil War, this led to the execution of Charles I and the establishment of an English Republic under Oliver Cromwell. It also led to the Fifth Monarchy movement, which thought that Cromwell was not godly enough and tried to remove him as a limb of Satan.

No comments: