Although the latest Mission: Impossible sequel has been lauded as ‘one of the best action movies ever made’, even positive reviews have remarked on the risible, mechanical plot and compared Tom Cruise’s character to an ‘invincible robot’. This begs the questions: if it is not only Ethan Hunt who is a robot, but in fact all of us, can any action be freely willed? If there is a God, how is free will possible, and how is the existence of evil compatible with a benevolent and omnipotent creator? The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued that this is the best of all possible worlds (each of which is a ‘compossible’ collection of substances which do not contradict each other), but such a world would still contain evil as the privation of good (in that even the best of all possible worlds is not perfect).
Voltaire, of course, famously lampooned Leibniz’s argument–or at least vulgarized versions of it, as in the work of Noël-Antoine Pluche (who argued that all of nature is designed by God for humanity; for example, cows were created for human beings to milk)–in his satirical novel Candide. While the character of Pangloss asserts a Leibnizian-Pluchian philosophy in the face of unremitting evils and suffering, the eponymous protagonist concludes instead at the the end of the novel that Il faut cultiver notre jardin: ‘we must cultivate our garden’. Much ink has been spilled in deciphering this phrase, e.g., in terms of working in the world despite the unresolvable mysteries of free will and providence, but Isabelle Mayault provides a more literal explanation in this recent London Review of Books blog post. At his château at Ferney, where he lived from 1760 to his death in 1778, the exiled philosophe diligently cultivated his garden and sold his produce in nearby Geneva. Like the mini-community at the end of the novel, Mayault writes, Voltaire ‘drained swamps, planted potatoes, bought a seed drill and boasted to his Parisian friends of ploughing the fields himself. In his letters, he enjoyed referring to himself as a “farmer” or “rural philosopher”.’ His estate became a society where Catholics and Protestants could live together in harmony while they worked on the land and even made clocks (sold throughout Europe and even to Catherine the Great, to whom he oversold and then complained about her insufficient payment). Given this vision of public labour and religious tolerance, it is unsurprising that during these years in Ferney, Voltaire vigorously defended the French Protestant Jean Calas from false accusations from Catholics that he had killed his own son in the Treatise on Tolerance. He also housed members of Calas’ family after Jean Calas was executed.
Early Modern Times has been informed by the researchers at its Department of Voltairean Afflictions that Voltaire’s life there was far from idyllic. Among other oddities, he owned a perpetually shedding cat with an insatiable thirst which would only accept fluids administered by the aging philosophe himself, and only in genuflection: hence Voltaire’s frequent provision of ‘chat-eau’ led him to have a ‘fur-knee’. Furthermore, he was plagued by insects of unusual height which were given to leaving frozen eggs in the buttock area of his denim trousers, and could only be destroyed by being crushed, mixed with bark, fermented, and brewed in caffeinated beverages. In other words, Voltaire created ‘tree teas of taller ants’ due to the case of ‘jeans cold-ass’.
But to return to the theme of whether we are all God’s (or nature’s) puppets, this recent article shows how puppets helped preserve the Czech language in the seventeenth century. Attentive readers of Early Modern Times will recall my Krumlov-letter on how the Bohemian revolt was crushed in Prague, thus ending the first phase of the Thirty Years War. The Habsburgs not only imposed the Catholic religion on Bohemia, but also forced the inhabitants to speak German instead of their native Czech. But local wood-carvers created marionettes as a form of cultural resistance, as puppets were allowed to speak Czech in public places. The Czech language would make a resurgence with the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century, while puppets are still very much part of Czech culture, as any visitor to Prague can see.
This item prompted Early Modern Times to consider other ways in which early modern themes are part of the popular culture surrounding puppets and their automaton kin. Punch & Judith: this lesser-known variant on the Punch & Judy puppet shows (in turn inspired by Venetian commedia dell’arte) features Mr. Punch as a Babylonian general lusting after the beautiful widow Judith, who responds to his plea that his passions have enslaved his will by beheading him. PinoccOhio: The beloved tale of a marionette brought to life by a fairy but proceeds to get into trouble is an allegory of American imperialism in the Ohio Valley, in which the nose of the wooden empire-builder grows longer every time he declares to the indigenous inhabitants that he was compelled by his creator Geppetto to take their lands. Ex Machiavellia: Alicia Vikander shines as a robot who resolves the questions of whether free will or Fortuna governs our actions by killing her creator, putting on human skin, manipulating her way to become the ruler of Florence, and liberating Italy from the barbarians. The Determin-actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger showed his metaphysical chops in this thriller about a cybernetic philosophy undergraduate caught between Hobbesian determinism and Kantian free will, and then sent back to 1984 to kill his own grandfather as research for his upcoming and overdue essay on time-travel paradoxes. Bastille-guard Galicia: This neglected spinoff of the popular science-fiction franchise chronicles a group of Cylon survivors who flee their human attackers in a spaceship headed to the planet Earth in the eighteenth century, settle in northwestern Spain, and are then employed as robot sentries at the most notorious prison in Paris. I, Rou-bot (aka I, Rue-bot): Isaac Asimov’s classic story is adapted to the big screen starring Will Smith, who plays a computer hacker obsessed with Rousseau’s Confessions and designs malicious software which forces users to wax nostalgic about their unhappy childhoods as well as rail against imaginary enemies.
Early Modern Times will return on September 8-9!
Director, Early Modern Compossible Studies Program