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Voltaire and the confrontation of religious extremism

One of the most read works of Voltaire is a short philosophical novel, Zadig or the Book of Fate. It describes Zadig as he wanders in the East, prey to destiny’s whims that intervene in his actions and rob him of his sought-after happiness. Mid way (in the chapter “The pyre”) he finds himself a slave of Setoc, a master with good judgement and an inclination to virtue. They become friends and reach Setoc’s tribe in Arabia.

Voltaire (21.9.1694 – 30.5.1778)
Voltaire (21.9.1694 – 30.5.1778)

In Arabia they had a custom. When a married man died and the wife wanted to be sanctified, she would let herself be burnt in public in her husband’s funeral pyre[1]. The tribe that numbered the most burnt widows was the most honorable and respected one. Stunned by this needless waste of human life, Zadig expressed his contempt for the barbaric custom which separated the state from its female population, the women from their own lives and the children from their mothers, making them orphans.

Zadig, who sees the need to change this ‘cannibalistic’ practice, recognizes his inability to argue with forces so strongly connected with the sense of identity of the locals and with the relationship between person and community. The widow preparing to be the next to self-sacrifice in this “pyre of widowhood”, easily confesses she didn’t even love her deceased husband: “He was a boorish, jealous, insufferable man”. However, her conviction to fall in the pyre is immovable. Could it be, Zadig asks, that there is a “sweet pleasure” in her burning alive? Zadig receives a negative reply, and comes to finally realize what the reason of the widow’s willingness is. She wants to be sacrificed in order to secure piety, and to not lose her repute and become an object of mockery.

The widow has managed to focalize her entire being around her sacrifice. If she does not die she will not earn the, needed by all, appreciation of the community; but it is not merely peer pressure that urges her. In fact, there is no obvious pressure from her neighbors –they don’t even guard her in case she escapes before the ceremony. Zadig finds her alone waiting resignedly for the time to come. She will die for her own sake, because she desires piety, as a necessity to acquire self-appreciation.

There are some who find self-sacrifice seducing. It is those who consider the promise of otherworldly gifts so alluring that they can’t wait for death to come. Who haste to lose the carnal obstruction (“this mortal coil” as Shakespeare would say) in order to gain metaphysical reward. The worship of death goes hand in hand with the cosmic interpretation of things, and it is perhaps impossible to separate in them ritual and theology. And that’s because theology and ritual coexist in religion as the central elements of faith. An attack on either of the two would constitute a threat on faith itself. But, which faithful would not counteract to a threat on his faith?

So, Zadig does not attempt to make the widow abandon the religion that lies behind the ceremony, but only tries to redefine it. He does this by convincing her that her willingness to die, not only is it not a mark of holiness, but it also betrays vanity on her account, on the one hand, and, on the other, the fact that the only thing she will achieve by falling in the pyre will be to do the willing of others. Voltaire does not make an effort in giving us the details of the rhetoric Zadig used, but only conveys that he succeeded to make the woman love life again. So now, she has no motive anymore to offer her body; neither does she value her community’s recognition, since it was revealed to be an abandonment to the wills of others, nor does she appreciates anymore the act she was willing to do, since self-sacrifice has been redefined from a holy duty to a show of arrogance; while Zadig offered an anti-motive simply by reminding her the joys of life. There was no need to lose her faith in order for a change in the widow’s behavior to take place, only to re-appreciate what it means to self-sacrifice and to more accurately define what exactly she desires –and therefore a new way to achieve it. The demand for a pious life and the respect of her neighbors still remains, although now it has to be achieved on her own terms.

It is the means that have changed for her, not the goal. The goal was never death. Death was only the means to a greater end, in the context of the hereafter that religion promises, or her fame after death, or her contribution in her tribe’s honor and respect. Now the means have changed –the widow even wants to marry Zadig! He ignores her desire as he wants to keep searching for his beloved Astarte, but his work would be left unfinished if he wouldn’t convince the rest of the tribe on the errors of the ceremony.

Setoc protests on his friend’s objections on the character of the ceremony, who considers this horrible practice to be against the benefit of the entire human race. This tradition holds for more than a thousand years, says Setoc. Who would dare to change “a law instituted by time”? Zadig replies that the roots of the ceremony are, in reality, much older than his friend thinks. Voltaire recognizes the power of ritual in the souls of men, who are not willing to change a custom sculpted by countless ancestral generations, a habit that would be difficult to locate in the history of the country and can be perhaps traced in the mythical land of primitive gods. Setoc does not seem to sternly resist his friend’s criticism on the barbarity of the pyre ritual, but he’s still unable to act. “Is there anything more honorable than an old delusion?” he tentatively wonders. Who could take on his ancestors? How could a ritual, to which innumerable women in the passing of centuries have given their lives, now change? This would mean to say that all those lives have been lost in vain, that the widows wasted their life, and that the members of the community have been acting foolishly, paying and, at the same time, demanding the highest price.

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Zadig, in the beginning of this episode, had already managed a first blow on Setoc’s theology, when he berated him on worshipping the stars, the sun and the moon. Setoc defended himself: “They are immortal beings and give us countless benefits”. The invention of gods in the face of “beneficial objects” was considered by ancient Sophists to be the first step towards the creation of a religion, and their theory echoes in Voltaire’s text. Zadig convinces Setoc that to worship beneficial things would mean to worship even the candles that light their tent, something Setoc agrees is ridiculous. What really deserves worship is the master of all things –the candles and the stars-, meaning the “eternal Being that made them”[2]. Zadig did not negate Setoc’s religion, but only reinterpreted it, like he did the widow’s faith. The stars and the sun may not deserve man’s worship, but they are still beneficial nonetheless. The objects, thus, not only are not insulted but they remain, in a way, ‘holy’, as the creation of the Creator. That which, in the end, deserves Setoc’s worship is that which hides behind the objects; that which created them.

As for the pyre ritual, Zadig’s solution is as simple as it is brilliant. He advised the tribe leaders to add a law according to which it would not be allowed for a widow to fall in the flames “except if she would have been with a young man alone for one full hour”. So, the only thing he does is to insert a limitation to the same practice, without deeming the actions of the past wrongful, without offending the memory of the sacrificed women; an insult that would find resistance in the tribe and would make any change impossible. And the addition of the law does not constitute an arbitrary criterion in the context of the ritual, but an alternative method of proving purity or holiness. It will be a test for the widow who, if she satisfies it and does not ‘find herself alone’ with another man, she will attain piety for herself and for the tribe. Zadig avoids blasphemy but achieves reform. The preponderance of moderation over extremism, the de-radicalization, cannot be achieved, at least for some, with a complete negation of the religion (or the ideology) that gives birth to it, but with small victories in small battles.

In simpler words, it is easier for someone to become more and more moderate than it is to apostatize. Zadig had no right to ignore the history –neither the personal history of the widow nor the collective history of the tribe. If he did so, he would have refuted everything that made them who they were. People are tied to their history and their traditions, even if the traditions do not offer much for their well-being and even if today’s idiosyncrasies and moral codes have surpassed them. This binding with the past constitutes a kind of nostalgia; a feeling of familiarity that is invaluable. A nostalgia that, however much of a negative role it can play, functions as a means of connection with the ancestors, the community or even with a person’s childhood, as in the case of Setoc. It’s not something that could, or should, be completely ripped out, but that can prompt the creation of new traditions which can become links in the chain of local culture, without the disclamation of the older ones. (Maajid Nawaz has similar thoughts on this same feeling of nostalgia in the context of the Islamic tradition)

And so, the leaders of all the tribes, along with Setoc’s, easily accepted the new law Zadig suggested and, since then, no woman was ever burnt again in Arabia; and the harsh tradition that lasted for centuries was unmade in one day.

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The failure of a less artful criticism becomes obvious in Zadig’s next experience of religious fanaticism (in the chapter “The supper”), when he finds himself having dinner with people of all kinds of religions, from all over the world. There, an Egyptian is offended when the rest don’t appreciate the great value of his aunt’s mummified corpse who died recently, while the Indian takes it unkindly when the Egyptian is about to eat a piece of chicken from the table, since it could very well be that the chicken was the reincarnation of his dead aunt. The Egyptian flares up and scornfully says that in his country they worship the ox and not the chicken, for 135 thousand years now. The Indian, now obviously offended, claims that India was founded just 80 thousand years ago by the Egyptians’ ancestors, therefore the Egyptian must be making an overestimation of the oldness and the rightfulness of the custom, since the Indian Brahma had banned the eating of the ox way before the Egyptians decided to worship it on altars. A Chaldean forces himself in the disagreement, to claim that they are both wrong since only the fish deserve man’s worship; it was the fish Oannes that had given many benefits to mankind. A Chinese takes the lead saying that all the others are in error, since the sky supersedes all animals, and since all the calendars of all the countries come from China. “You are all ignorant” cries the Greek, supporting the idea that the beginning of everything was chaos, schema and matter.

The hilarity of the argumentation among religious authorities always provokes awe and amusement for those who don’t participate, but Zadig soon feels the need to intervene once more to appease the spirits since his comrades, by accusing each other and mocking their religion and history, are setting themselves up to start a physical fight. He finds a common ground in all the aforementioned traditions in that, deep down, everyone recognizes a ‘first force’. Even the Greek has to agree that behind the chaos there is some higher Being from which schema and matter arise. “You all are, therefore, of the same mind and there is no reason to fight each other”. This admittance by everyone of their common core belief that hides behind the local differences of their traditions, constitutes a compromise for everyone and convinces them, bringing accord among them. Everybody embraces Zadig and they reconcile.

[1] Voltaire seems to describe the Sati ritual, observed in India, in the context of Hinduism. It was outlawed by the British in 1829.

[2] Voltaire himself was a Deist. He did not believe in any specific religion (although he had a weakness for Hinduism), but only in a “necessary, eternal and logical being”.

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  1. Thank you, nice read.

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