Why It's A Good Time To Read Voltaire


In his novella Candide, published in 1759, Voltaire has his hero — or anti-hero — exposed to a succession of shocks arising from persistently thwarted expectations of benign rationality. In one striking example Candide, arriving in his travels with his companion Martin near the coast of England, is horrified to witness the strange scene of an English admiral being executed. As Martin sums up the scene, the admiral is being shot for not having killed enough men: “He fought a battle with a French admiral, and it was decided that he wasn’t close enough to him.”

Amazed, Candide comments: “But the French admiral was just as far away from the English admiral.” “That’s undeniable”, comes the answer. “But in this country it’s good to kill an admiral now and then, to encourage the others.”  Candide, the narrator reports, “was so bewildered and shocked by what he had seen and heard that he would not even set foot on shore.”

Increasingly dark and bewildering developments in the mentality manifested in Australia’s current asylum seeker policies make this a good time to re-read Candide.

In August 2012, the Houston Panel on Asylum Seekers delivered the report which has become the basis for policies governing the flow of “irregular maritime arrivals”. The panel stressed that the efficacy of its approach required that its 22 specific recommendations should be implemented in their entirety. Central to this insistence on the complete package was the idea of a “balance” between “incentives” and “disincentives”. New “regular” pathways to re-settlement were to be created while strengthening measures  to deter “irregular and dangerous maritime options”.

The report argued that this “dual approach” would “shift the balance” towards the pursuit of regular pathways. The whole “integrated” framework was envisaged as being implemented in a way that would be “clear, sustainable over time, phased and contingent on developments.”

Crucial to the achievement over time of this “balanced” approach was the so-called “no-advantage principle”, which was designed to ensure that no benefit would be gained through circumventing “regular migration arrangements”. Not surprisingly, the upshot of the Government’s acceptance of the panel’s specific recommendations has been that the “disincentives to irregularity” have proceeded apace, while the impact of new  “incentives to regularity” recedes into an indefinite future.

The resonances with Candide become apparent in the cruel and incoherent situations arising from attempts to implement the inherently indeterminate “no advantage principle”, as if it could somehow of itself contribute to attaining the desired future “balance”. The policy relies on the notion of a completed whole whose rationale remains unavoidably opaque to those subjected to it. Asylum seekers arriving by boat — sent to languish indefinitely in “off-shore detention”, or condemned to live indefinitely in poverty on bridging visas “on-shore” — are understandably bewildered by their harsh treatment. We are, it seems, doing it all “to encourage the others”.

Candide’s experiences challenge his initial conviction that he lives in the “best of all possible worlds” — the metaphysical optimism associated with Alexander’ Pope’s Essay on Man and, more notoriously, with the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s defence, in his Theodicy, of the claim that the evils suffered by human beings have their place in a rationally ordered perfect world, chosen as the best possible by a loving and omnipotent God. Naive though Candide’s expectations of the actual world might be, Voltaire’s target was not Candide’s bewildered wonderment but rather the dogmatic confidence exhibited by his foolish mentor Pangloss.

At the heart of Voltaire’s ridicule of Pangloss was a repudiation of the judgement that the good of the whole can somehow compensate for the misery of a suffering part. Voltaire of course wilfully exaggerated the insensitivity of Pangloss’s doctrinaire responses to human misery. Pangloss is not Leibniz; and Candide  is not an adequate refutation of Leibniz’s Theodicy . Nor was it intended to be one. Yet the novella does offer a strong challenge to one strand in metaphysical optimism which is still relevant: Voltaire focuses our attention on what can be grotesque in attempts to shift moral perspectives away from present misery to a supposed justification in an intellectually compelling whole.

The justifications offered for present asylum seeker policy policy, in the wake of the Expert Panel’s Report, often echo the trust in completion evoked by Voltaire’s Pangloss — the idea of a balancing of good and evil in a perfect whole. That notion was central to Leibniz’s Theodicy — and to Voltaire’s resistance to Leibniz. As Voltaire elsewhere commented, the belief that human suffering can be justified by appeal to its place in the best of all possible worlds — far from being a basis for optimism — is actually “a cruel philosophy under a consoling name”. Despite the Expert Panel’s insistence on a policy implementation that would be “phased and contingent on developments”, its central “no-advantage principle” has been invoked to justify policies in the here-and-now whose rationale is intelligible only from the perspective of a completed whole.

It is only from a God’s-eye-view that all the pieces of the Panel’s recommendations can come into view as a “ balancing” of incentives and disincentives. If all the “incentives” to “regularity” were already in place, it might be appropriate to insist on a “no-advantage principle”. Where “regular pathways” are readily available to all who seek them, it makes sense to require that none should claim an unfair advantage. At present, large numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat have been unable to access “regular” pathways. In the lack of any progress towards a viable “regional system” for providing such pathways, our harsh “disincentives”  amount — to adapt Voltaire’s phrase — to “a cruel policy under a consoling description”.

In Voltaire’s story, Pangloss represents the incapacity for wonder. He lacks the capacity to be shocked, and hence any real readiness to learn from experience and reflection. He persists in mouthing dead platitudes, separated from all intellectual vitality. Voltaire shows in Candide that wonder can have political significance — that it can fuel indignation at irrationalities that are avoidable through the exercise of common sense. Candide is not the mouthpiece of any particular political doctrine, any more than he offers an alternative metaphysics to that associated with Leibniz. He wanders and wonders on, until he finds a solution of sorts to the challenge of living — in an abandoning of metaphysical optimism, which is nonetheless not a surrender of hope.

No political programme emerges from this fable. Yet its sharp observations on the assumptions that underlie prevailing platitudes have contemporary relevance. We have, it seems, lost the ability to be shocked by current policy on the treatment of asylum seekers.  We should wonder at our cruelty; but, in our mindless repetitive slogans about finding the “right balance” between compassion and deterrence, we have become like Pangloss.

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