Monday, 10 April 2017

Was Voltaire right?

In a previous blog, I mentioned Voltaire as a major figure in Europe’s and thus our culture. Challenging the roles of religions, rulers, war, and ideas then in the ascendency; wit; Anglophile; humanist and author, he is a towering figure in the development of political and philosophical thinking. In his great satire, Candide, his innocent young hero, is faced with the follies of the great and the good of the times but can find no sense in them, despite their being presented as inevitable according with the prevailing determinist philosophy of the times. If, regardless of circumstance, the well-meaning individual had no free will and could do nothing to change things, surely s/he should content him/herself with “cultivating the garden”. The inevitable conclusion of having no agency is to do nothing.

Today, politics and events seem to be approaching a condition of near-determinism: where nothing can be done to oppose those in the ascendency. Someone decrees that something is true: it becomes fact. Someone is appointed leader of the country, with no bow to democracy: then claims a democratic mandate to put into effect actions she had previously opposed. Someone opposes the policies being advocated as bad for the country: and is dubbed a traitor. An opposition party supports the greatest constitutional change in decades which its members oppose. Millions with a desire to oppose have no means to do so.

So what is today’s Candide to do? Is it the case that things are inevitable; that we have no agency; that we must merely cultivate our garden?  Philosophical thought has moved on. We are supposed to have and exercise free will. The belief system of the Right would hold that we should be in control of our own destinies; whilst the Left supports collective action for the wider good. This being the case, we should be in a position where citizens can vote against the prevailing authority; but with the official Opposition nowhere to be seen; and with large parts of the electorate living where they have no prospect of electing even a local councillor, how meaningful is enfranchisement?

Maybe Voltaire was right. We should cultivate our garden but not literally, as an expression of disengagement, but metaphorically, starting at the grass roots; working for the values we espouse within our communities, to be and feel useful. Like charity, politics can begin at home – or in the “garden”.

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