Essay examples

In: Section 4 – samples

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The strength of the skeptical position comes out once more in Zadig, an Oriental tale tossed off in a few days in 1746. It is a trifle, illustrating the view that men are doomed to disappointment unless they allow for the fact that nature and the external world in general are inherently inhuman in their complete disregard for the interests and preferences of the individual. Like much eighteenth-century literature, this romance describes the education of its hero, ending when he has achieved the mature, rather disillusioned, scientific attitude towards life, already visible in Micromégas, and again later in Candide. A pervasive curiosity, an objective tolerance that finds all shades of opinion interesting and respectable as long as they do not interfere with liberty of inquiry and belief, a systematic pursuit of truth in spite of traditions and doubts--these, much more than a taste for sentimental botany and rhapsodical astronomy, were the product of the five years or so that Voltaire spent in active pursuit of science at Cirey with Madame du Châtelet; like his heroes, he has learned from science, and achieved in his own way a synthesis, quite different from that of the seventeenth century.

It is not necessary here to review all of Voltaire's work. In him, as in Montesquieu, and in Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we meet a mind whose perspectives lie almost wholly within the framework of the natural sciences. Each of these reaches a view of man and society by an inductive process from credible facts, assuming that a natural origin for law is possible, even probable. Civilizations are described in such a way as to lead men to sounder and more useful decisions on the basis of facts available to all. This utilitarianism marks a significant advance over the typical products of seventeenth-century thought. It exerts a powerful and often unacknowledged influence over much that is to follow, in the writing of history, in the social sciences, and in the imaginative forms of literature and criticism.

In this way the contact between literature and the sciences grows progressively closer as the classical and theological patterns of human nature lose their validity for the reading public and the writer. Old forms will no longer hold the new data, the motivations of Racine please but do not convince a reader of La Mettrie and even Buffon. A new didactic literature delights and instructs a generation of readers who need no romantic plot to enliven a picture of rugged nature in its untamed aspects.

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