This was my 24th short story in my 2013 Reading Project.
The year is 1749, and the Frenchman Voltaire, who “for over half a century dominated the intellectual and artistic life of Europe” is cranking out stories full of satire. One such story is “Memnon the Philosopher,” a cautionary tale that tries to protect us from getting too full of ourselves or too confident in our intellectual capabilities.
The story (the full title of which is “Memnon the Philosopher, or Human Wisdom”) begins with Memnon resolving to himself to become a great philosopher. That’s philosopher not in the often current sense of the word as one who takes philosophy is college and studies Plato and Descartes, but in its original sense of a seeker of wisdom or enlightenment, a literal lover of knowledge – as the etymology of the word indicates. He believes this will be a easy task, all he has to do is “divest himself entirely of passions.” Oh, well, if that’s all. What!?
He is quickly divested, all right, but of all the things he holds dear. One is reminded of the adage “the best laid plans of mice and men…” here. At the nadir of his downswing, he encounters an angel-like being, who claims to be from “a little star near Sirius” (!) (What? This was written in 1749 and features a extra-terrestrial?! Better call the folks at “Ancient Aliens”). This being claims to be of a race whose duty it is to “watch over other worlds that are entrusted to us.” He advises Memnon that he “…you may be sufficiently happy if you never again take it into your head to be a perfect philosopher.” Memnon then muses that earth must be the “madhouse” of all those worlds. “Not quite, but very nearly…” is the reply.
Here is a reading of this story that I found on YouTube if you’d like to give it a listen. The language of its translation is more modern and might be somewhat easier to follow than the version I read. The full text can also be found for free in many places online if you just care to google…
(below: François-Marie Arouet, a.k.a. “Voltaire” 1694-1778)
Have you read any of Voltaire’s work? I have to admit my only exposure before this morning had been when I read “Candide” in college.
I have also lately been re-reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin recently too, and was re-learning of his early efforts to acquire books and form a subscription library. As a relative contemporary of Voltaire, I’m sure the honorable Franklin was well acquainted with the works of this literary giant of his age. I should read more by him too…