Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I’d like to think that Voltaire would be shocked to learn that the merits of vaccination remain up for debate, or rather are up for debate once again, nearly three centuries after he wrote extolling the practice.
From 1726 to 1729, the great Enlightenment Philosophe lived in England. Drawing on experiences from these years, in 1733 he published a volume of essays now known as Letters on the English or Letters on the English Nation. Letters, because each essay was written as though a letter addressed to his fellow French. Covering a wide range of topics from Westminster parliamentarianism to Isaac Newton to Alexander Pope, the Letters generally presented the British in a favorable light in contrast to the French. They were, in a way, well-intentioned propaganda to goad the French into catching up with their rivals across the Channel wherever, in Voltaire’s view, they had fallen behind.
And in Letter XI, Voltaire addressed the practice of inoculation or vaccination. In his telling, Lady Wortley Montague, wife of an ambassador to the Sublime Porte of Ottoman Turkey, brought knowledge of smallpox inoculation back with her to Britain, where the practice was now widespread.
But much to Voltaire’s consternation, the French had until then declined to accept the obvious benefits of vaccination. “Twenty thousand persons whom the small-pox swept away at Paris in 1723 would have been alive at this time,” he wrote, had the French only accepted vaccination. “But are not the French fond of life?” he asked of his compatriots. “It must be confessed that we are an odd kind of people. Perhaps our nation will imitate ten years hence this practice of the English, if the clergy and the physicians will but give them leave to do it.”
As though contrasting merely with the British were not enough, Voltaire went on to cite China as one more comparison: “I am informed that the Chinese have practised inoculation these hundred years, a circumstance that argues very much in its favour, since they are thought to be the wisest and best governed people in the world.”
To my mind, Voltaire’s Letter on Inoculation is timely in this political season for two reasons. First, are we seriously still debating vaccination?
Second and no less important, although it is a time-honored rhetorical tradition not only in America but world over to hold up a foreign country as contrast to one’s own in order to make a polemical point, this tactic almost never captures an accurate picture of the foreign country and often backfires.
In Voltaire’s case, although he was correct that smallpox inoculation had become widespread in China by the late 16th century, his admiring attitude toward China would soon become passé in French society as Europeans learned more about the East and grew dismissive of it. Therein lies the danger: The general populace never has a deep and nuanced understanding about any foreign country, and its opinion with respect to any country held up by the rhetorician can change like the wind.
Today Democrats, notably Bernie Sanders, often speak admiringly of the Scandinavia states. Trump on the other hand, at the first presidential debate, repeatedly pointed to China as at once an object of fear (“what they're doing to us is a very, very sad thing”) and of admiration (“you come in from China, you see these incredible airports, and you land — we've become a third world country”).
But of course none of these simplistic, categorical pronouncements, on either side, can capture the nuanced reality of whether Denmark or China. Every country has its own set of issues.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."