François-Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) were highly celebrated writers and social thinkers of their respective eras. As can be learned from their works, the two authors spent considerable thought reflecting on the role of religion and God in nature, society and life. This paper reviews some prominent works by the two and compares their attitude towards religion in terms of style, narrative and ideological perspectives.
Voltaire: The Unapologetic Arch Nemesis
Like many of his contemporaries during the Age of Enlightenment, Voltaire’s views on religion and its many facets were rather fierce. A self-proclaimed deist, Voltaire did not hesitate to criticize blind faith and organized religion and saw the latter as an obstacle in the way towards human liberty, progress and happiness, famously arguing against religious extremism: “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Many of his works clearly and explicitly express these views, as well as the aspiration to replace the perceived repressions of the prevalent monotheism with a new sense of critical observations, justified reasoning and tolerance towards opposing views of nature and society.
One of the most celebrated examples for Voltaire’s criticism on the role of religion in society is his 1759 satire Candide. Briefly speaking, the thematic core of this short novel is a critique on the optimistic notion that God, as a perfect deity, created the world as the best possible world. The notion, which is usually referred to as Leibnizian optimism, is presented through the character of Dr. Pangloss, who argues that
things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best. (Voltaire, “Candide” 12)
Dr. Pangloss is not such a fictional character. In fact, his views may very well represent the Zeitgeist in the time of writing, when a seemingly endless series of catastrophes (such as the Seven Years’ War and natural disasters) strike Europe and receive a clear representation by the experience of the characters. These experiences are used as the background on which Voltaire launches his attack on organized religion:
You have no monks among you to dispute, to govern, to intrigue, and to burn people who are not of the same opinion as themselves? (Voltaire, “Candide” 71)
It is important to stress that Voltaire’s criticism on religion did not focus only on the church or the naïve majority that follows organized religion. Indeed, he condemns the very essence of faith, namely the Holy Scriptures. Famously quoted saying that ?if we would destroy the Christian religion, we must first of all destroy man?s belief in the Bible,? Voltaire dedicated a substantial part of his literary work to the study, interpretation and critical analysis of the Bible. The focus of these works varied, from examinations of specific narratives to more general or abstract discussions. One pretty known example of Voltaire’s rich bibliography on the Bible is The Questions of Zapata, an extremely provocative essay whose arguments may still trigger contemporary thinkers. Putting in writing a series of questions originally formulated in Spanish by Dominico Zapata, a professor of theology, Voltaire deals with questions such as (“Toleration and Other Essays”):
On the church treatment of Jews:
If God is the God of Abraham, why do you burn the children of Abraham? And, when you burn them, why do you recite their prayers? How is it that, since you worship the book of their law, you put them to death for observing that law?
On the representation of God in the Old Testament:
What explanation shall I give of the law which forbids the eating of the hare “because it ruminates, and has not a cloven foot,” whereas hares have cloven feet and do not ruminate? We have already seen that this remarkable book suggests that God is a poor geographer, a poor chronologist, and a poor physicist; he seems to have been no less weak in natural history. How can I explain other equally wise laws, such as that of the waters of jealousy and the sentence of death on a man who lies with his wife during the menstrual period? etc., etc., etc. Can I justify these barbaric and ridiculous laws, which are said to have been given by God himself?
And finally, on the biblical representation of miracles:
I am not sufficiently versed in chemistry to deal happily with the golden calf which, Exodus says, was made in a day, and which Moses reduced to ashes. Are they two miracles, or two possibilities of human art?
Indeed, Voltaire’s era, education and protagonists may aggravate his critical work. As an outspoken arrowhead of the Enlightenment Movement’s call for social change, Voltaire was unapologetic and direct towards his contemporaries. Cronk translated one of Voltaire’s typical appeals:
It is characteristic of fanatics who read the holy scriptures to tell themselves: God killed, so I must kill; Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, Rachel stole: so I must steal, deceive, lie. But, wretch, you are neither Rachel, nor Jacob, nor Abraham, nor God; you are just a mad fool, and the popes who forbade the reading of the Bible were extremely wise. (2009, 199)
Franz Kafka: The Moderate Secular Jew
The personal, historical and political underpinnings of Kafka’s work were materially different from those of Voltaire. Any comparison between the two authors’ work must consider the fact that the Kafka and his contemporaries knew their predecessors’ work rather well. A similar transformation into secular life might have been more apparent among Kafka’s contemporaries. In The Man Who Disappeared, the Country Doctor considers the idea that the layman, who is always seeking for higher sources of authority, treats science as an alternative for religion. He mentions that patients “have lost their old faith; the priest sits at home and picks his vestments to pieces, one by one; but the doctor is expected to accomplish everything with his sensitive surgical hand” (“The Transformation and Other Stories” 159).
It is sometimes argued that religion is underrepresented in Kafka’s works, but as a Jew growing up in church-dominated Prague Kafka has indeed used biblical and religious references rather often. However, Kafka’s literary and thematic approach stands in a clear contrast to the militancy of Voltaire, thereby arguably making similar resentment much more digestible. Take, for example, The Trees, which appeared in Kafka’s 1912 Mediation, one very early work:
For we are like the trunks of trees in the snow. Apparently they rest smoothly on the surface and with a gentle push we should be able to shift them. No, that one cannot, for they are firmly attached to the ground. But see, that too is only apparent. (“Metamorphosis and Other Stories” 32)
As discussed earlier, Voltaire might have been describing this lack of stability in the framework of one’s inability to rely on God for protecting the former from the evil nature of mankind and nature. Kafka, however, introduces a mediating interpretation. He recognizes that any sense of stability is a mere illusion, but refrains from pointing fingers. Instead, he offers to accept the fragility of life as a law of nature. Faith, it seems, cannot change such as fundamental force.
Nevertheless, faith is not utterly incompetent in Kafka’s views compared to those of Voltaire. Blind as it may be, faith becomes stronger and gives strengths when there is no other source of hope. Perhaps the clearest example for this case is the role of faith in Kafka’s 1919 In the Panel Colony. In this microcosm of life where the end is painful unavoidable, the condemned spend the final stages of life in great misery, waiting for their turn to be executed. The old Commandant’s cult shares much symbolism with Christianity, and his epitaph reminds the reader the main Christian myths:
This was what it said: “Here rests the old Commandant. His adherents, who now must be nameless, have dug this grave and set up this stone. There is a prophecy that after a certain number of years the Commandant will rise again and lead his adherents from this house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!” When the explorer had read this and risen to his feet he saw all the bystanders around him smiling, as if they too had read the inscription, had found it ridiculous, and were expecting him to agree with them. (“Metamorphosis and Other Stories” 32)
A secular Jew, there is very little room to doubt Kafka’s views on the Christian ideas of the Jesus resurrection and other popular myths. His attitude towards his own religion seems to be rather more dynamic, gradually shifting from the natural resentment towards Judaism of the secular assimilated European Jewry of the early 20th century to sympathy towards Jewish mysticism and Zionism. Furthermore, it is often argued that several themes in A Penal Colony were in fact conceived as a response to some events the European Jewry at the time, most notably anti-Semitic demonstrations and pogroms in Eastern Europe.
Two notable authors of their times, Voltaire and Kafka did very little to obscure their views on God, religion and its role in society. A thorough comparison between some of their key works reveals a number of differences, most notably in terms of style (the explicit Voltaire vs. the implicit Kafka) and general attitude (Voltaire’s militancy vs. Kafka restrained sympathy). For the religion skeptic it might be hard to find a silver lining between the two approaches, but it is rather clear that Kafka’s treatment of the situation may help religious communities to get a moderate glimpse into the philosophical depths of secularism.
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