Voltaire Hacking Through the Weeds - Part 1

Listening up on Voltaire via the Great Courses Lecture series, I get the same sense that I did with Mark Twain, and even to an extent, with Charles Darwin—that if they had had any sense of the overall coherence of the Bible writings, their output would have been much different.

Darwin at one point toyed with becoming a clergyman—a respectable profession for a man of letters who couldn’t otherwise figure out what he wanted to do with his life. The historical novel ‘The Origen,’ by Irving Stone, vividly tells of and probably exaggerates Darwin’s brief stint as a priest, and how he infuriated his superiors. Not only did he refuse to shake down his peasant-class parishioners for money, but he committed the unforgivable sin of joining them in their toil and day to day lives. (It was a long time ago I read this—I really should re-read it.***)

[Edit: Whoa! It’s a good thing I did. I got him mixed up with Vincent Van Gogh. Irving Stone wrote a book on him, too. That, too, I read long ago.

Yeah—it wasn’t Darwin at all. He did toy with going into the clergy, though. That is for sure. But he never actually did it, not even as a trial gig

Sigh...That’s what one gets for relying on memory. I knew something didn’t quite jive—like how Charles could end up in France.]

Mark Twain savaged religion, and Christianity in particular. He is widely thought to have been atheist, and yet—he never had an unkind word for Jesus. His constant complaint was that those who claimed to follow him did not. “There has only been one Christian,” he would write. “They caught and crucified him—early.” Imagine what might have been if he had found a people who follow the Christ.

He did not find one because the weeds were proliferating, and they had choked out the wheat. “Do you want us to pull the weeds out?” the slaves asked the master, and the reply is to hold off until the harvest. The harvest begins after Twain’s time, and Darwin’s, and Voltaire’s. It hardly seems fair to them, but “the devil” who planted the weeds while “men were sleeping” must be given full reign to prove his claim that humans need not heed God’s right to rule. (Matthew 23:24-30, 36-39). The wheat was completely overrun by our trio’s time. One result was that a coherent explanation of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures was nowhere to be found, and not one of the three greats could figure it out on their own.

It makes a difference. You will fight a lot harder to save your home than you will to save your dumpster. Voltaire and Twain readily condemned the travesties of religion—they were principled men, offended at injustice, so why would they not?—and in the process nearly threw the baby out with the bath water. Their successors would later do just that.

Voltaire’s brashness caused him trouble in France, so he fled to England, where he remained for a decade or so. Whereas France allowed only Catholicism to be practiced, England had many faiths and they all at the time, more or less got along with one another. He wrote ‘Letters on England’ and remarked on how others besides Catholics can appeal to verse to buttress their point of view—to frothing clerical disapproval back home. He sets himself up as a devoted and rigid (and naive), Catholic himself, aghast to find Quakers appealing to verse “wrongly”—as his narrative demonstrates that they are not doing it wrongly at all.

Feigning shock that the Quaker is not baptized—after all, Jesus was baptized—he wonders how the Quaker can call himself Christian. The Quaker asks him if he is circumcised—since Jesus was. He replies that he “has not had that honor.” “So—I am a Christian without having been baptized and you are one without having been circumcised,” is the reply. Voltaire lets that stand as having proved the point that all religions can successfully argue scripture.

What is amazing is that he has no concept that scripture might be grasped as a coherent whole. It is perfectly fine with him to cherry-pick verse, and the reason that it is perfectly fine is that no one has ever demonstrated any other way. When in the skirts of ‘Babylon the Great’ is found the blood of ... all those who have been slaughtered on the earth” (Revelation 18:24) it is not so much for her acts of commission as it is for her acts of omission; it should have been teaching the complete Word of God, but it neglected that task, and thus Voltaire quite naturally assumed that it was not possible to teach it—so far as he knows, no one has ever done it.

We Witnesses may not be ones for exalting humans, but by this standard, C.T. Russell becomes one of the most innovative humans of all time. You would think his approach to unlocking the Bible would be the most common-sense thing in the world, but it appears to be revolutionary: Toss out a verse for discussion, and do not move on until every other verse on that same topic is discussed. In that way, get a grasp on what the scriptures teach as a whole. The basic Bible teachings that Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for, so different from what may be found in any of the churches, have been in place for well over a hundred years.

It gets much heavier than this, and the blood of Babylon gets much thicker. More to come—























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Things Voltaire Didn’t Say

Here is still another “Everything you thought you knew about such-and-such is wrong” revelation. Voltaire DID NOT say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He never said it! 

In fact, it is a double “everything you thought you knew is wrong” revelation for me because I had somehow got it into my head that Patrick Henry was the one who said it. He who said “Give me liberty of give me death!” must surely have said the latter phrase as well—if you would say one, surely you would say the other—throw it on the stack! and somewhere in popular folklore someone did just that. But he didn’t say it. When I went to verify it on the internet, I was re-directed to Voltaire as the true source.

Now I find out that he didn’t say it either! He said a lot of “enlightened” things, and so, here again, some revisionist thought: What is more enlightened than dying for free speech? Throw it on the stack! If he said other enlightened things, who’s not going to believe he said this one as well. He didn’t

The Great Courses professor, (I am on a Great Courses kick these days) says it is the bane of Voltaire schlolars—everyone thinks he said it—it is practically the defining declaration of his to many—and he didn’t. 

This is pretty common—to append statements to famous others whose backgrounds suggest they might have said it because they have said other things like it. Any acerbic, pretension-deflating statement about human nature you can attribute to Mark Twain, for example, since he said a lot of stuff like that. One of my favorites, on how he would relate that when he was 16 his father was so ignorant he could barely stand to have around, but was amazed at 21 on how much the old man had picked up in those few short years—he never said it! Or at least there is no record of him saying it. This a great hazard for me, because I love to quote Mark Twain. Check before you quote.

It is similar to how David Splane said the Watchtower decided to no quote the Mahatma Gandhi line, supposedly made to British Viceroy to India Lord Irwin, that “when your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.” It’s a great quote, says Brother Splane—we love it. But we can’t use it because there is no record that the two ever met.

There’s a danger in attributing your lofty thoughts to someone else because you may find that they are not quite lofty enough to think that themselves. Alan Kors, the Great Courses professor, says Voltaire would never say something like that. He’s not going to fight to the death so someone else can say something stupid because he savored his life too much. It’s a pretentious statement—just a little too showy. I’ve always distrusted it. Who’s really going to do that? Let the merits of the fellow’s own argument cause him to rise or sink without dragging others down with him. Now—if you had a heads-up that what was going to be said was truly brilliant it might be another matter. But...

Well, if he didn’t say it, who did? His biographer. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym S. G Tallentyre. She wrote that line herself in ‘The Friends of Voltaire’ (1906) and served it up as an example of what Voltaire would have stood for. She’s drinking too much of her own Kool-Aid, apparently—no way would Voltaire have risked his neck to sponsor the cacaphonous mayhem of Twitter.

The professor does not mention Sturgeon’s Law—that is me who mentions it—but it fits in nicely. “People who say that 90 percent of science fiction is crap are correct, but then 90 percent of anything is crap,” Theodore Sturgeon said. This has been truncated into: “Ninety percent of anything is crap,” but the original quote included a reference to his own profession—that of writing science fiction. I know this, because he was the guest speaker on campus once upon a time, and I heard him say it.

Voltaire should throw his life away for 90 percent crap? I don’t think so. If a dolt can’t get his dopey message out, that’s his problem. I may not say: “Look, throw the idiot off the forum, won’t you?” but that’s a far cry from being willing to die so that the world may hear more 90 percent idiocy—there’s enough of it to go around as it is.

Does not the Word celebrate the right of anyone to be heard? Alas, at times the it celebrates shutting people up. “It is necessary to shut their mouths,” Paul says of some, who “keep on subverting entire households by teaching things they should not for the sake of dishonest gain.” Sure. “They want to be teachers of law, but they do not understand either the things they are saying or the things they insist on so strongly,” he says of others. (Titus 1:11, 1 Timothy 1:7)

Those 90 percent people cause a lot of trouble.



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Henry VIII—“What of His Character”? “Ah”

The three magnificent ships of Henry VIII land ashore and Henry leaps out of the most magnificent in a single bound. He splats in the mud. He landed on his feet, to be sure, but it was his not exactly the grand entrance he had envisioned. It was more like that Far Side cartoon in which the head alien trips and tumbles down the gangway, landing with his nose to earth, and the ones still aboard the ship say, “So much for impressing them with awe and grandeur.”

Deathly silence prevailed among all on show and yet afloat—that’s how ‘A Man for all Seasons’ presents the landing scene. Would Henry erupt in fury at his crew for “botching” the landing? Would he turn his wrath upon the household of Thomas Moore, whose castle he had come to visit? You did not want to cross the king! For seconds that seemed like hours all held their breath.

“Ha Ha!” Henry bellowed out at last, savoring the fine joke that nature had played upon him, and everyone knew it was safe to breath.

He loved it that way—everyone holding their breath awaiting his next move! Bold and larger than life—this portrayal is so much like Henry. At any rate, I instantly assume that the movie has it right. It squares perfectly with the image built up by Dale Hoak, the professor conducting ‘The Age of Henry VIII’ Great Courses series.

When I listen to CDs such as this, I become what they said about Paul at Acts 17:18–that he was a “chatterer.” (babbler—NIV, KJV, know-it-all—CEV, pseudo-intellectual—HCSB, word-sower—Douay, blabbermouth (!)—ISV, ignorant show-off (!!)—CSB) The word literally means “seed-picker,” denoting a bird that picks up a seed here and poops it out there. Only ‘Young’s Literal Translation’ renders it just that way—as seed picker. Accordingly, I drop something in conversation, and people assume that I am as smart as Dale Hoak. They do not realize that I have just said everything I know. Press Dale Hoak for details and he will regale you for hours. Press me for details and I will change the subject to Gilligan’s Island.

The bold portrait of Henry VIII striking a defiant pose that everyone will recall, and if not they will know it when they see it, is not anatomically correct. Body proportions are altered by the artist (Hans Holbein) to heighten the sense of majesty. What was Henry’s purpose on earth? Pretty much to enjoy himself—Professor Hoak infers this but does not outright assert it. His reign over England? Kings of that age ran their domains pretty much as a business. His foreign policy? Whatever made him look good and contributed to his glory—that Professor does assert repeatedly.

Does he not remind me of a certain customer of mine from long ago, a doctor, a fellow I used to describe as a man who expected that the world revolve around him? Upon hearing that description, friends would sympathize with me for how unpleasant it must have been to deal with him. Not at all, I would tell them. As long as the world did revolve around him, he was very pleasant, so I—I was in business, after all—tried to ensure that it did, until one day that it just got to be more trouble than it was worth, and I let a certain hour of decision blow whichever way it would.

Henry was like that—jovial and pleasant as long as the world revolved around him—but the moment it didn’t.... Now, this doctor wasn’t imposing like Henry at all. He was a petty stickler impressed with personalities whose staff poked fun at him behind his back. Spying through the blinds the young couple touring the manor for sale next door, he exclaimed to his wife, “They can’t afford that house! They’re just a bunch of grungy hippies!” However, it turned out that the grungy hippie was a rock star. Afterwards, the doc would tell everyone how he live right next to so-and-so and they were on the chumminess of terms.

But back to Henry:

At first, you almost feel sorry for Dale the Professor having to cover such a lout—it’s like being a celebrity reporter for Inside Edition, only to discover that many celebrities that look so shiny on the outside are in reality not so hot. At first, it really does seem that if you know the Herman’s Hermits song, you know all you need to know about Henry VIII. But sometimes the pivotal moments of history are steered by overbearing louts—they just are. One must get used to it.

Henry’s reign is pivotal because it marks a break from the Church—severing a connection of only 1500 years (!) to found what became known as the Anglican Church. He made the break, popular opinion says, because he wanted a divorce from his first wife and the Pope wouldn’t give him one. Professor Hoak doesn’t declare this nothing—it is a factor, he says, but he advances a greater reason: Henry needed the Church’s money. The Church was fabulously rich, and he had squandered every penny that had come his way. Not just in wartime did he squander it—that was to be expected—but even in peacetime his expenditures bore no restraint. With 50 palaces around the country, all them hosting gala bashes constantly to impress whatever dignitaries might come around, and certainly the one he occupied at the moment—like the Jurassic Park guy who “spared no expense” on anything, he needed the dough. Badly.

Doesn’t it remind one of what Samual told the people in Bible times when they demanded a king?

“Samuel told the people who were asking him for a king all the words of Jehovah.  He said: “This is what the king who rules over you will have the right to demand: He will take your sons and put them in his chariots and make them his horsemen, and some will have to run before his chariots.  And he will appoint for himself chiefs over thousands and chiefs over fifties, and some will do his plowing, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be ointment mixers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and he will give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grainfields and your vineyards, and he will give it to his court officials and his servants. And he will take your male and female servants, your best herds, and your donkeys, and he will use them for his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you will become his servants. The day will come when you will cry out because of the king you have chosen for yourselves, but Jehovah will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:10-18)

Yeah. That’s pretty much what Henry did—drained the country dry. You wouldn’t think it possible for one man to cause such cash flow chaos—but there it is. He broke with Rome and dissolved the monasteries. All that was theirs became his.

‘Retrospect’ is the title of Professor Hoak’s last lecture, and here he turns pontifical. Maybe you have to do this if you’re an historian—you just can’t say, “the guy’s a jerk.” What was Henry like? “By what criteria, whose criteria should we judge him: yours, mine, his subjects, those who knew him, himself?”—the professor sets the stage for consideration, and first starts out with what he considers the good: He was a “brilliant player of the game of princes, of intelligence taste, training, of record for princely pursuits. A man for the renaissance.” Great.

A short list of his attainments. He cherished music, his compositions are really good, his playing might not have landed him a philharmonic spot, but it was surely good enough “for the Boston Pops.” He was a great athlete, first rate with bow and arrow, tops at tennis, wresting, horseback, feats of arms. He was a great dancer! a master of the “art of conversation!” he could write in several languages. He had fantastic artistic tastes! his tapestry collection “the greatest ever assembled!”

He “understood the requirements of princely magnificence!” He “set a very high standard of princely high conduct! And his war-making! The professor quotes some author who describe renaissance monarchies as “machines for the battlefield,” and in this Henry excelled!*

Got it. He knew how to play the game. Is it only me who wishes to be remembered for things more meaningful than this?

“But what of his character?” the professor says.  “Ah.”

“We must admit that the character of any person ultimately remains unknowable, even enigmatic. But I think it is possible to draw a few tentative generalizations based on what we clearly know of the king’s behavior.”... and with that Dale goes on to mention “the executions of two wives, a cardinal of the Church, a bishop (John Fisher) lord chancellor (that’s Thomas More) a duke, a marquis, two earls, a viscount, a viscountess, four barons, and hundreds of subjects, commoners who resisted his authority.” Well, yes—that might give a clue as to his “character.”

Look, the professor is an historian. He has to do it. His job is not to judge history—it is to relate it. But I kind of miss the Bible accounts that sum up this or that king by saying he was a real rotter. “He did on a grand scale what was bad in Jehovah’s eyes, to offend him,” we read of one. And as to what a person might hope to be remembered for, who can beat the prayer of Nehemiah: “Remember me, O Jehovah, for good”?


*Henry is also listed as renowned for his “theology.” Professor Hoak mentions his interchange with the Pope, and I wish he had explored it more thoroughly, but he didn’t. There were other factors involved, but the Pope annulled marriages all the time. If Henry had just asked him to override scripture, he might have done it—he was the Pope, after all. But instead Henry sought to debate scripture (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21—his first marriage was never valid because it violated these two passages) with the Pope—as though he was equally qualified—and you just KNOW that will arise the ire of the latter.

Oh, and Thomas More, the “man for all seasons” from the first paragraph? He lost his head. It was chopped off. Literally. He was supposed to cheerlead for Henry’s break from Rome and he just couldn’t do it.



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