When did it become possible to know and feel pain and suffering beyond our own bodies, beyond our family and friends, homes and villages, and out across mountains and valleys to the homes and villages of others, and now across a planet that stretches nearly 25,000 miles at its midriff?
It is not difficult for the modern mind to imagine that in any one square mile of human habitation—whether now or in 2020 BCE or even 20,200 BCE—there is and was enough misery, joy and all the other human emotions to fill every day of the year. But for virtually all of human history we had to bear the suffering of those around us, but with no way of knowing much beyond that. And that was hard enough, for the human condition everywhere comes with disappointment, disease, and death. But it now feels the way it might to Atlas the Titan were he told that the neighborhood heavens he is holding up as punishment for starting a war with the Olympian gods had just been discovered to be 93 billion light-years across with a mass of 1.5×10⁵³ kilograms.
Empathy is hardwired in most human beings (and other species, too), and shows its first signs around two years of age. Trade routes that brought goods and news—and that spread disease and viruses—first emerged 5,000 years ago. Those networks enlarged and quickened over time with electrical versions beginning with the telegraph and now a global internet we carry in our pockets. This flow of information and feelings can overwhelm and amplify our senses and our sensibilities, and it is now so much more than the occasional news brought back by traders and travelers, or that could fit in handwritten letters carried on ships and horseback. Even the black-and-white television and rotary phone in the home I grew up in seem antiquated now, but they brought plenty of news from around the world, and from the moon, too, in 1969.
The Covid-19 pandemic, climatic collapse and human migrations, heat waves, monstrous hurricanes, and the worldwide response to the murder of George Floyd feel like titanic global events because they connect us to one another and demand our attention above and beyond our own everyday anxieties and battles. Welcome to the global family! And like all families it comes with equal measures of function and dysfunction, and maybe not quite in equal measures. We engage, enrage, escape and evade, hiding under our beds when the arguing gets too loud, losing our temper at dear friends, climbing the big tree in the backwoods or walking aimlessly when we can’t take it anymore. We defend ourselves and our loved ones, attend a demonstration, put long-term friendships at risk, demand change, try to stay centered, and even take risks with light-hearted remarks in the hopes of letting out some of the angry air that threatens to explode in our midst.
Philosophers through the ages have provided plenty of well-articulated anger and rage to fill shelves, as well as calls to revolution, revolt and transformative utopias. There is satire and humor, too, although in lesser supply, unless one counts philosophy and philosophers as the punchlines. One of the best examples—and in the armchair philosophy tradition—is François-Marie d’Arouet (1694-1778), also known as Voltaire. He was both famous and infamous in his own time, having authored plays, stories, poems and analytical writing critical of the leading philosophers, theologians and political leaders of his time. In midlife he announced himself a member of the “party of humanity” and used his pen and influence to speak out against fanaticism and superstition. “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” he warned, and spent years in either prison or exile for such remarks. A copy of his book, Philosophical Letters, was burned by the royal hangman in Paris soon after its release in 1734 because it was “likely to inspire license of thought most dangerous to religion and civil order,” and probably because it lauded Englishman Isaac Newton and was therefore an implicit attack on Descartes, France’s philosopher king.
We may know Voltaire best as the author of Candide, a scathing satire against a philosophical perspective known as “theodicy” (literally, a vindication of God), whereby a divinity’s perfect goodness is defended against the obvious appearance of suffering and evil in the world. Voltaire creates the character Pangloss to represent this perspective. Most likely a caricature of the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, he is described as a professor of “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology” living in a Baron’s castle and serving as a tutor to Candide, a simple young man with gentle manners and the illegitimate son of the Baron’s sister. By the end of the first chapter Candide is expelled from the house for kissing the Baron’s daughter, Cunegonde. What ensues is no end of natural disasters (with the 1755 Lisbon earthquake a recent memory), human brutalities in the name of State and Church, and miseries for the three characters as they become separated and suffer beatings, hangings, starvation, disease and all manner of violence, while meeting others along their journeys who actually have it worse than they do. On nearly every page there is historically accurate and unspeakable horror, as well as deceit and misery mixed in with small supplies of optimism and luck.
Voltaire’s writings put him on the wrong side of the political and religious authorities of his time because he called into question the structures and systems they developed to make sense of the world while also defending slavery, hierarchy, racism, patriarchy and natural disasters as part of the divinely-inspired cosmic and social orders. Like most of the world’s population today, the book’s characters were unable to observe this systems-wide perspective and its abuses, and could do little more than endure it. Voltaire allows all of this suffering to exist in a confined literary space to show overwhelmingly that the arguments that justify it are ludicrous, horrible, false, and despicable. It is only because such horror is described with satirical wit that the reader can endure it, and can even laugh, sometimes heartily and uncontrollably so. The laughter lets the absurdities exist in real time and the reader to feel them without being overwhelmed or stunned into inaction. Better to laugh and let off the pressure so that one will be ready and able to engage the wrongs that have for too long been allowed to exist and endure.
At the conclusion of the book professor and student are reunited, and Candide reluctantly marries Cunnegonde, his long-ago love interest. The three of them, together with some of the people they met on their journeys, settle on a small patch of land to raise and sell vegetables. They continue to debate whether this new life is the best life or whether the terrifying and uncertain lives they had lived not so long ago were better than the drudgeries and boredom of tending a garden. The final words are spoken by Candide in response to yet another attempt by Pangloss to make sense of both a world of suffering and a loving creator: “All that is very well, but let us tend our garden.”
This advice sums up Voltaire’s lifelong commitment to the principle that thought should serve action. He had no interest in building metaphysical systems or creating and defending theories of theology, politics or ethics. He spent the end of his life working to clear the names of people accused of crimes and offenses they did not commit, and he continued to call for tolerance and justice in his voluminous writings, letters and personal interventions with authorities. “Crush the loathsome thing!” (écrasez l’infâme) he would urge his readers and correspondents.
Voltaire’s life of action and those final words in Candide are alive with potential and the necessities of this moment. The garden represents the practical work in the world to bring clear thinking to right action, to defend the oppressed, and to expose injustice supported by baseless claims. The garden holds, grows and protects our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, the natural world, the climate, our daily bread and our deepest values. Hard work and often pure drudgery? Yes. Too often resulting in disappointment, hopelessness and full-on fatigue? Yes. Just ask any farmer and gardener. But they’ll tell you too that this work is necessary, best done with others and with humor and lightness, and fulfilling in ways that other kinds of work are not.
Voltaire gives readers a glimpse of the overwhelming weight of the universe and the worst abuses imagined by human beings. And he does it in a way that we can hold them in our hands, smile at their absurdities, remain fortified against their eventualities, and work to plant and grow new ideas and systems, even if their harvest takes longer than a single human lifespan. And here the wisdom of the Earthly garden has the last word: the oldest life forms on the planet are perennial plants and trees, reaching ages of 5,000 years in some cases.
Keep on tending on.
 The best places to find Voltaire’s serious efforts in philosophy are his Philosophical Letters (also called Letters on England), his Philosophical Dictionary, and his essay “We Must Take Sides, or, the Principle of Action.” Most can be found here.
 See Patrick Henry, “Voltaire as Moralist.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol 38, No. 1, pp 141-146.
Teaser photo credit: 1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames and a tsunami overwhelming the ships in the harbor By Unknown author – The Earthquake Engineering Online Archive – Jan Kozak Collection: KZ128, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9869