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Posts Tagged ‘Alphabet Of Wit’

This is my last book review in the fading moments of the year. This book is a compilation of short essays that Voltaire wrote on different topics, arranged according to the letters of the alphabet. There is atleast one essay for each letter, except for ‘X’ and ‘Y’. In his essays, Voltaire shares his thoughts on a wide range of topics with his customary intelligence, humour, satire. The essays are interesting to read, insightful, intelligent but accessible. In many essays, Voltaire pokes gentle fun at existing practices, beliefs and systems. The legendary Voltairean wit is on glorious display – at times gentle, at time sharp, at times acerbic. It is to be expected from a man whose words offended the powers-that-be of his time that he was imprisoned many times by them. Voltaire’s love for freedom of speech, his critique of religion, and his curiosity and acceptance of other cultures shine through in the book. This is to be expected from a man to whom is attributed the legendary lines – “I may vehemently disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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There were many passages in the book which made me smile and some which made me laugh. For example, he says this about ‘Enchantment‘ :

“The word enchantment is said to derive from the Greek by way of the Chaldean, meaning ‘song that has power to move.’ Thus it was believed that Orpheus made stones and trees dance. If this ballet was so simple, a city might be built with a violin or razed with a ram’s horn.”

And he says this about ‘History‘ :

“History is the recital of facts represented as true. Fable, on the other hand, is the recital of facts represented as fiction. As for the history of man’s ideas, unfortunately this is nothing more than the chronicle of human error.”

And he says this about ‘Novelty‘.

“Nobody gets very excited by the wonderful spectacle of sunrise, which can be seen every day, but a lot of people run to gape at the smallest meteor that plummets through the autumn sky. We despise what is common or what has long been known.”

Later in the essay, he tries to answer, why we like novelty.

“Perhaps this widespread hunger for novelty is a benefit of nature. We are told, ‘Be content with what you have. Desire no more than you deserve. Quell your restless spirits.’ These are good maxims. But if we had followed them we should still be feeding on acorns and sleeping under the stars, and should have had no Corneille, Racine, Molière – or Voltaire.”

There was one essay on ‘Optimism‘, which I loved very much. It was not at all about optimism 🙂 I wish I could quote it in full, but it is too long – it is the longest essay in the book. Instead of that, I will give below three of my favourite essays, so that you can get a flavour of the book.

Appearances

Are all appearances deceptive? Have our senses been given us only to trick us? Is everything error? Do we live in a dream? We see the sun still setting when it is below the horizon. A square tower seems to be round. A straight stick in water seems to be bent. You see your face in a mirror; the image appears to be behind the glass when it is neither behind nor before it. The glass itself, seemingly so smooth and even, is made up of tiny projections and pits. The fairest skin is a bristling net of minute hairs. What is large to us is small to an elephant; what is small may be a whole world to an insect.
      Nothing is either as it appears to be, or where we think it is. Philosophers, weary of being deceived, have in their petulance declared that nothing exists but what is in our mind. They might have gone all the way and concluded that, mind being as elusive as matter, there is nothing real either in matter or mind. Perhaps it is in this despair of ever knowing anything that certain Chinese philosophers say that Nothing is the beginning and end of all things.
      You do not see the net of hairs of the white and delicate skin you idolize. Organisms a thousand times less than a mite perceive what escapes your vision; they lodge, feed, and travel about on it as in an extensive country; those on a right arm are ignorant that creatures of their own species exist on a left. If you were so unfortunate as to see what they see, this charming skin would transfix you with horror.
      All is in due proportion. The laws of optics, which show you an object where it is not, make the sun appear two feet in diameter when it is s million times larger than the earth, a size impossible for your eyes to encompass. Our senses assist much more than they deceive us.
      Motion, time, hardness, softness, size, distance, appearances, all are relative. And who has created the delicate adjustment of relativities?

Happiness

Can one man be happier than another? It is clear that a man who has the gout and stone, who has lost his money, his good name, his wife and family, and who is about to be hanged after having been mangled, is less happy than a young, vigorous sultan, or La Fontaine’s cobbler. But how are we to determine which is the happier of two men equally healthy, prosperous, and placed in society? Their temperaments must decide it. The most moderate, the least worrisome, the most keenly perceptive is the most happy; but unfortunately the most keenly perceptive is often the least moderate. It is not our position, but our disposition, which renders us happy. Our disposition depends upon the functioning of our organs, over which we have no control.

Queries

Why was not a tenth of the money lost in the war of 1741 used in helping and improving the country? If half the men killed to no purpose in Germany had lived, might not the state have been more flourishing? Why prefer a war to the happy labors of peace?
      Why have nations reduced to extremity and humiliation still supported themselves in spite of all efforts to crush them? Is it not because they were active and industrious? Are not their people like bees : you take their honey and they work to produce more?
      Why in pagan antiquity were there no theological disputes, or hostile sects?
      Why do booksellers publicly display the ‘Course of Atheism‘ by Lucretius, why is it to be found, in handsome morocco, in the libraries of princes and bishops, while the works of modern deists are banned?
      Why do we abandon to sneers and neglect that great mass of men who cultivate the earth that we may eat of its fruits, while we pay court to the useless men who live by their labor?
      Why is there no place on earth where there are not more insects than men?
      Why, since we are always complaining of our ills, are we always doing something to redouble them? Why, since we are so miserable, is it thought that to die is bad – when it is perfectly clear that not to have been alive, before birth, was not bad?
      Why do we exist? In fact, why does anything exist?

I loved ‘Voltaire’s ‘Alphabet of Wit‘. Can’t wait to read more of Voltaire’s work. If you have read this, I would love to hear your thoughts.

So, that’s it 🙂 This is my last review of the year. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

Wish you and your family a very Happy New Year! May your New Year be filled with light, love, friendship, joy, happiness and beauty!

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