Sabbaticals are wondrous times for rejuvenation. And what better to rekindle one’s mind and heart than to read great literature?
I’ve read a variety of things this semester, including Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, Cervantes’, Don Quixote de la Mancha, and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Each of these offers wonderful insights into life and ethics. I hope to blog on each of these if time permits.
My most recent foray was to read Voltaire’s Zadig, The Book of Fate (1747). I came to know of this novella because I’d read Poe, and scholars say that Poe’s invention of the detective story genre owes in part to Voltaire’s character, Zadig, the philosopher, who amazes all with his powers of observation and deduction.
Zadig is set in ancient Babylonia and other nearby regions. It is a romp quite reminiscent of Don Quixote, in that both protagonists are highly ethical men who rush in to save damsels and fight duels for the benefit of others. Fate deals terrible blows to both, and only through perseverance and faith do both rise to overcome their circumstances.
As one would expect from Voltaire, the writing is enlivening and the philosophy enriching. Here are some quotes from the Project Guttenberg edition:
Opening quote: “Wherever the fates may lead us, let us follow them.” – Virgil
“He had learned from the first Book of Zoroaster, that Self-love is like a Bladder full blown, which when once prick’d, discharges a kind of petty Tempest.”(p. 2)
“Zadig, in particular, never boasted of his Contempt of the Fair Sex, or of his Facility to make Conquests amongst them.” (p. 2)
“Zadig found, by Experience, that the first thirty Days of Matrimony … is Honey-Moon; but the second is all Wormwood.” (p. 20)
“Zadig ... was fully convinc’d, that it was very dangerous to be over-wise; and was determin’d to set a Watch before the Door of his Lips for the future.” (p. 31)
On justice: “’tis much more Prudence to acquit two Persons, tho’ actually guilty, than to pass Sentence of Condemnation in one that is virtuous and innocent.” (p. 53)
On diminishing marginal utility: “One continued Scene of Pleasure, is no Pleasure at all.” (61)
On trying to change other people: “Flints will never soften; and Creatures, that are by Nature venemous, forever retain their Poison.”(70)
“All the Acts of Benevolence which I have shewn, have been the Foundation of my Sorrows, and I have been only rais’d to the highest Spoke of Fortune’s Wheel, for no other Purpose than to be tumbled down with the greater Force.” (p. 76)
“He then reflected on the whole Race of Mankind, and look’d upon them, as they are in Fact, a Parcel of Insects, or Reptiles, devouring one another on a small Atom of Clay. This just Idea of them greatly alleviated his Misfortunes, recollecting the Nothingness, if we may be allow’d the Expression, of his own Being, and even of Babylon itself.” (p. 78-79).
“’Tis an old saying, that a Person is less unhappy when he sees himself not singular in Misfortune.” (149)
Zadig has a variety of mental techniques for dealing with misfortune. Unlike the “coddled” youth of today (according to Jonathan Haidt), Zadig keeps his mind and heart positive despite all the negativity that befalls him. He is resilient.