Voltaire and Hume: The Similarities in their Critiques of Religion

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David Hume criticizes religion by arguing against the argument of design. Voltaire also criticizes religion in his work by arguing against the belief that this world is the best possible world we’re living in. The critiques from both philosophers are very similar in that they touch on the aspects of the world that a benevolent God would not allow to happen if he were to exist. Along with this, their critiques both rely on observations gathered from the world to come up with conclusions making their points based on logic.

Both the argument of design and the statement of “the best possible world” depend on the fact that the society Hume and Voltaire lived in was during a time were people believed in an omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent (a perfect) God. The argument of design is based on observations of the world as beautiful and having things function just well enough for this life to be sustained, that means that, if there is someone who created this world, it has to be a perfect being. Similarly, the statement of this being the “best possible world” means that if a perfect being created this world, then this world also has to be perfect since the being cannot do worse or better than what is already present (this argument seems to work well for people because there is a predetermined acceptance that there is a God already and it is just proof of his existence).

An important attribute often associated with God is that he is omnibenevolent; however, Hume and Voltaire argue that an omnibenevolent God would not allow misery and evil to exist. It can be said that if there is evil and misery, then the best world possible would be one without evil and misery in it. Hume acknowledges this when he says, “You afterwards become so enamored of this offspring of your brain that you imagine it impossible but he must produce something greater and more perfect than the present scene of things, which is so full of ill and disorder.” (Hume, pg. 588) He describes the preexisting idea people have of God from admiring the beauty in the world.

This public notion can be countered by looking at the evil that people can possess and be used to cause sorrow towards others. Not just that, there are natural examples of evil, such as natural disasters, that can cause severe damages to populations yet God is still given this title of perfect while allowing this to happen. The only evidence we have is the world we live in which is plagued with plenty of problems so we cannot attribute the word “perfect” to God if the world (which people claim he made) is not. Voltaire argues something similar, but his argument is express through the characters in his story. There are nothing but hardships that are faced by the main characters throughout the entire plot and it makes it so hard for the reader to overlook since it is constant hardship after hardship.

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One character, Martin, expresses his interpretation of the existence of God when he says, “Their secret sufferings are even more painful than their public miseries. In a word, I have seen so much, and experienced so much, that I am a Manichean.” (Voltaire, pg. 47) Martin draws on his experiences and observations of the lives of other people to conclude that, while he cannot actually dismiss the existence of a God, he admits that he believes that there is more than one God. This is what it means to be Manichean. Martin adds another layer of suffering which is that of personal suffering. A better world would be one in which no one has doubts, fears, or troubles of the mind. There is evil within each person that could cause harm to, not just others, but themselves as well. Martin believes that there must be a God of evil because there is no reason a benevolent God would allow people to have such bad thoughts and let all that he has witnessed happen.

Some might argue that the two philosophers do not have similarities in their critiques of religion because Hume does not focus too much on the evil of the world, rather he mentions on multiple occasions a critique similar to the following: “When we infer any particular cause from an effect, we must proportion the one to the other and can never be allowed to ascribe to the cause any qualities but what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect,” and “…nor can we, by any rules of just reasoning, return back from the cause and infer other effects from it, beyond those by which alone it is known to us.” (Hume, 588). They might say that Hume wants to deal with the proportionality of inferences concerning cause and effect rather than emphasizing evil in the world. While there is a point that Hume mentions this multiple times, it can be argued that both Voltaire and Hume’s arguments are still similar because they are based on observations they have made in their own lives and in the world they live in and are imperative to creating these conclusions on the credibility of an omniscient, omnipotent, and (especially) omnibenevolent God. So, rather than having similar topics of argumentation (like that of evil), looking at the similar ways those topics of argumentation were achieved through observation is more important.

Looking at Candide, there is an entire character created to represent the beliefs of those claiming that this world is the best possible one, Pangloss. He is a stubborn optimist who will tell people this belief no matter what. This is clearly shown when he goes through nothing but misery throughout the book (as well as the rest of the characters) and still states that all is well. One the other hand, even he becomes susceptible to doubt. “Pangloss admitted that his life had been nothing but dreadful suffering; but having once maintained that everything was going well, he still did so, and didn’t believe it for a moment.” (Voltaire, pg. 77) The only reason Pangloss sticks to his beliefs is because he thinks that, as a philosopher, he should not change is mind. This stubbornness is synonymous to the people observed by Voltaire in his French society at the time. This is what is meant when saying that Voltaire took from his observations. French society was, to Voltaire, very corrupt and by wearing down this character of Pangloss, the observed society becomes a target for Voltaire to analyze and criticize. Voltaire’s observations of the world and its people for what and who they are serve as the bases for the personalities and opinions of the characters in Candide.

Hume’s observations lead to similar conclusions leading to the denial of the argument of design. Using the analogy he uses on page 591, Hume describes observing an almost built house and determines that it was created by a human, as well as telling that, in the future, the house will eventually be completed. It is only because there are past observations of houses being built by humans that one is able to make these sorts of inferences about the house. This is very unlike observations of worlds created by God (of which there is none). One cannot infer that a God created the world nor that other worlds will be made by God since there is no passed observations of God doing so. There is a lot of importance placed on past knowledge through observation. Hume emphasizes empirical analyzation of the causes and effects of the world. The argument of design, as Hume discusses, does not revolve around empiricism because proportional inferences do not exists in this argument, nor are there the expected observations needed for the conclusion of a perfect God capable of creating the world much less be perfect in his benevolence.

Going back to the topic of evil for a bit, it is abundantly clear (and relevant to bring up) that this topic relies heavily on the observed worlds of Hume and Voltaire. With the organization of the population of 18th century France being divided into three estates consisting of the wealthy, less wealthy, and poor, there is no doubt Voltaire saw many injustices towards the poor inflicted by the wealthy. An example being that the third estate was entirely taxed while only some of the second estate was taxed, with the rest (including the first estate) not having to pay taxes. (Lecture 7) Hume would also see this in that freedom to freely speak of orthodox religious values was frowned upon and could be detrimental in a person’s way of life. (Watkins, Information for Reading Hume) With both Voltaire and Hume being in societies containing such observable evils, using empirical ideals would mean using these evils to be able to disprove what the argument for so many (of design or this being the best possible world) has been for so long.

The similarities in the beliefs of the societies in which Voltaire and Hume separately lived warrant arguments that are also similar in their critiques. Both philosophers touch on the fact that observed evil in the world means that a perfect being could not have had a hand in making it (because the world would also have to be perfect, without evil) and that this version of the world is the best possible one (because a better one would be one, again, without evil). While it can be argued that Voltaire and Hume’s arguments differ and that Hume may focus on improper inferences based on unobserved causes, like Voltaire, he relies on conclusions based on observations. Each argument emphasizes using empirical techniques to properly come up with their respective conclusions.

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