Thoughts on Zadig

The current Non-Believing Literati book is Zadig, by some guy named Voltaire. My copy indicates that it was “Translated from the French Original of Mr. Voltaire”, and was published in MDCCXLIX, so if some of the quotes I use look a bit archaic, you now know why.

As I read it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Æsops Fables, as it is structured as a series of tales surrounding the exploits of Zadig, a sort of superman of the Middle Ages. He doesn’t have supernatural powers, rather he is possessed of a heightened intellect, coupled with a charm and sophistication which he uses to sway commoner and king alike. Traveling around the Near East, he rises to the heights of royalty and the depths of slavery, all the while charming the pants off of men and women alike. (Not literally, he seems to be a sexual celibate.) And each tale ends with a moral, a life lesson for the rest of us.

I’m thinking Lynet picked this book for its relevance to atheism, or at the very least, skepticism and the use of reason. There certainly is a lot of “Reason trumps superstition” laced throughout these fables. For instance, the story of the widow who planned on throwing herself onto the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, primarily because it was the custom to do so in her society. Zadig is appalled by the mere thought of it. Arguing with his master (he’s a slave at this point, though an almost irresistible one at that), Setoc (his master) states:

‘Tis now…above a thousand Years since the Widows of Arabia have been indulg’d with this Privilege of dying with their Husbands; and how shall anyone dare to abrogate the Law that has been establish’d Time out of Mind? Is there any Thing more inviolable than even an antient Error?

Zadig has the answer:

Reason is of more antient Date than the Custom you plead for.

Interesting thought, isn’t it? We atheists confront this sentiment routinely in debates with theists. How often do we have to refute a book written anywhere between 2000 and 4000 years ago, depending on the appropriate chapter? This is “antient’ wisdom we’re talking about here, set down, if not by god, at least by god’s scriveners. Well, now I’ve got the perfect rejoinder.

“My reason predates your stupid book. Nyah, nyah, nyah”

The ability to use our brains, logic and reason is what defines us as atheists. The willful choice to turn off those brains is what defines theists. Getting back to our tale, good old Zadig uses his age old reasoning prowess to talk this widow out of self-immolation. He asks her, “Were you especially fond of your husband?”

“No, he was a Brute”, she says.

“Do you harbor some secret pleasure of being burnt alive?”

“Not really, but I must comply with the Law and the custom of my people. If not, everyone will laugh at me” She says.

Zadig so forcefully persuades her that what she contemplates doing makes no rational sense, that she changes her mind. In the process, he asks her what it would take to drop this foolish notion:

Why, said Dame, with an amorous glance, I think verily I should accept of yourself for a second Bed-fellow.

And he walks away, the fool!


Zadig seemed to live a life of contemplation. He was always philosophizing, or as he put it

…he gave himself up to this Flux and Reflux of sublime Philosophy and Anxiety of Mind…

At one point, while star gazing, he ruminates:

He reflected with Admiration on those immense Globes of Light, which appear’d to the naked eye no more than little twinkling Lights; whereas the Earth he was then traversing, which, in Reality, is no more than an imperceptible Point in Nature, seem’d, according to the selfish Idea we generally entertain of it, something very immense, and very magnificent. 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 is another sentiment we often have to refute. That we humans are the center of the universe, that it was created by God for us, to do with as we please. There is sheer arrogance and extreme egotism involved in thinking that the hundreds of billions of galaxies, within the immense vastness of the universe, were created for our entertainment, even though they can neither be seen, nor, given our current state of knowledge, visited by man. We are but a “Parcel of Insects” scrabbling for existence on this “Atom of Clay”. We most decidedly are not creatures of god.

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.

Notwithstanding my previous post, perhaps there is something to this Philosophy thing.

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Zadig

  1. SI:
    Is there any Thing more inviolable than even an antient Error?
    It sounds like you read the King James Version of Zadig. But I don’t remember any pictures.

  2. Ridger and Ex

    I had a feeling as I was reading this that there just had to be a more modern translation, but since I got this for free by downloading it from the Gutenberg project, I was going to stick with it, by doG!

    Actually, it was kind of fun too. Is that how people talked back then?

  3. I haven’t read the book yet (I just bought it yesterday – I’m a wee bit behind the time line on this one), but I’ve enjoyed reading the various reactions to it. Notwithstanding the quaint language, you found some interesting ideas to write about. I just hope the version I bought is not written in medieval English!

  4. What gave you the impression that Zadig was a celibate? He had “relations” with the queen’s chambermaid in Chapter 6, after all. My translation describes her as a paramour, even.

    The widow and the funeral pyre was probably my favorite part of the book. That is one of the best comebacks ever.

  5. yanyang asked;

    What gave you the impression that Zadig was a celibate?

    Primarily that last thing I mentioned in the post. But you’re right, he was attached in other parts of the tales.

  6. Why do people think too much when reading a book? For me, i will just give Zadig for my children in the future. He might be a superman in his era, but at least the moral lesson was sent with a very simple story that even your children can read.

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