Sunday, May 29, 2011

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

(Part I)

If medieval and early modern Christianity had a pessimistic view of human nature in which man is innately sinful and can only be kept in check by Church and State, we moderns tend to have a rather optimistic view of human nature that stresses man's innate natural goodness. This too has consequences for both theology and politics. If man is good then it stands to reason that he can achieve salvation through his own means without the aid of the Church. Now it becomes possible to talk about human reason as the bar against which to judge all things. Only someone confident in the intrinsic goodness of human beings could allow them to judge the world around them and do it based on what is innate to them. As for politics, a belief in human goodness allows for human beings to craft their own laws. We can even begin to talk about government as a contract between equals instead of the dictates of a patriarch to his children, leading to liberal democracy.

The legacy of this notion of human goodness still presents itself in our debates over crime and punishment and foreign policy. Why do people commit crimes? A conservative would say it is because they are "bad" people, motivated by greed and malice. In order to protect itself, society must remove this person from its midsts, either through prison or even the death penalty. Punishment is something that the person deserves as his just deserts. In the liberal model crime results from either mental illness, being raised in a problematic society or simply bad education. One way or another it is not the person's fault and the purpose of any "punishment" is not to penalize the person, but "rehabilitate" them. (See "C. S. Lewis on the Implications of the Nazi Holocaust.") Why are there terrorists? The conservative will tell you that it is because they are "evil" and hate "freedom." Naturally such people can only be stopped by invading other countries and killing those people who deserve it. The liberal will tell that terrorists are the products of economic inequality, the legacy of colonialism and a fundamentalist education that preaches hate. Agree to peace talks, address the massive economic inequalities across the globe and provide a proper education for all and terrorism will disappear.

Now even the liberal acknowledges that there is much that is wrong with the world. Rather, though, then lay the blame on people, the blame is placed on society. It is society that creates inequalities and teaches prejudice. People, left to their own devices, would naturally wish to live in harmony with others, recognizing the common humanity of all, and would not be bothered by the existence of others races and creeds. People have to be taught to hate others because of the color of their skin and the deity they pray to. The good news is that people can be saved from their own prejudices. With a properly funded welfare program, civil rights legislation and tolerant education, the natural human goodness in people will reassert itself and stand against all the ills created by society in the first place. 

This brings us to Candide, a novel that represents this Enlightenment shift in how one views humanity. Candide is naturally good. Contrary to a simplistic view of the character, Candide is not stupid (a mistake made by the modern day adaptation, Forrest Gump). Candide is simply naive due to the fact that he is raised with no experience with the world. This is crucial to the character, because it is precisely this lack of worldliness that allows for Candide's goodness. Candide does not suffer from greed, does not hate anyone and only wishes to live in brotherhood with all. Candide is not even capable of understanding the possibility that other people are not like this. The reason for this is that Candide exists completely uncorrupted by society. (This idea would be taken even further by Rousseau.)

It is for this reason that Voltaire subverts the garden of Eden story. Instead of Adam and Eve committing Original Sin, willfully disobeying the divine commandment to not eat from the tree of knowledge, and being rightfully thrown out of paradise, Candide has no notion of sin. He only wishes to experiment with the laws of "cause and effect." The fact that he kisses Cunegonde is interpreted as sin by a corrupt society, leading to him being wrongfully exiled from his beloved home in Westphalia. Instead of degenerate humans needing to be saved by righteous laws, Candide is the pure one, it is the outside system that is degenerate.



no one said...

you essay on this subject got me to thinking about this subject.
in fact as you noticed the left was on the side of equality which was associated in peoples minds with the enlightenment though in fact it came from the anti enlightenment thinker Rousseau. the right on the other hand was for the old regime--princes kings and priests.
Few people in France had considered the John Locke model which was the cumulation of enlightenment thought. In John Locke freedom --not equality is uppermost. and people are not considered good or bad but a blank blackboard.
Only in Rousseau are all people considered good by nature and this has become the religion of the left until today.
But what bothers me in all this is the shallowness of the self.
In kabalah i think we find a lot more depth to the human soul.
Personally If i had the time I would go back the the deep thinkers of the Renaissance and the middle ages to begin thinking about what a human being really is.I would start with the 6 chapters of the rambam and the reshash in kabalah. But even after all that it would seem to me that the Talmud itself may have a different model based on zoraster.--Ir that there is the person himselgf and beside that there is the evil inclination and the good inclination. This seems different than the general kabalah which considerers different aspects of the soul to be then self. rebbi nachman seems to believe the self is the Nefesh--the lowest aspect of the soul but which is totally on the side of Good.
He would then at that point say the good inclination is higher aspects of that nesfesh. All this is just a few thoughts on this subject for now.

I must say that to me it seems no one has really yet comprehended what a human being is. all the models seems to me to be critically flawed.
Obviously John Locke only took from the human soul what he needed to create a just a and free society and he did a great job (The USA)
But obviously people are not always or even consistency selfish with enlightenment or not.People do lots of self destructive things for all types of motivations.
Rousseau was way off in terms of human nature. and the left is going deeper and deeper into the stupidity of believing all people are by nature good.

Izgad said...

Locke forms an important part of the transition away from the traditional man is depraved model. If man is a blank slate then he cannot possess Original Sin. In practice Locke operated from the assumption of innate goodness; compare his state of nature to that of Hobbes.
Fitting Judaism into these models is difficult as Judaism is much less concerned with the question of salvation. That being said I would argue that Judaism has been influenced by the modern turn. Jewish apologists who knock Christianity for its pessimistic view of human nature are being disingenuous as traditional Judaism, while more optimistic than Christianity, was still far more pessimistic than modern sensibilities.
One of the interesting things about kabbalistic theology is that it breaks down the dichotomy between good and evil, making evil a necessary by product of creation instead of the tragic by product of man’s fall.

A Rosten said...

(I think the first person to come up with the kabalistic concept of the breaking of the vessels that made evil necessary was Origen.) But that being said I have to admit i am very impressed with the Arizal in his integration of many strands of thought in and out of the Zohar to come up with a complete world view of the universe. However it seems to me that Rebbi Nachman was necessary to bring the Ari's thought down to the human heart.
But still with all this depth i still have a sneaking suspicion that no one has really penetrated very well into the Human being. i just find Kabalah to be the deepest and less prone to the very dangerous mistakes Rousseau and the general left (As the USSR had tauhjt us all a very bitter lesson--especially Russia).