Introduction To Zadig The Babylonian


_A work (says the author) which performs more than it promises._

Voltaire never heard of a "detective story"; and yet he wrote the first

in modern literature, so clever as to be a model for all the others

that followed.

He describes his hero Zadig thus: "His chief talent consisted in

discovering the truth,"--in making swift, yet marvelous deductions,

worthy of Sherlock Holmes o
any other of the ingenious modern

"thinking machines."

But no one would be more surprised than Voltaire to behold the part

that Zadig now "performs." The amusing Babylonian, now regarded as the

aristocratic ancestor of modern story-detectives, was created as a

chief mocker in a satire on eighteenth-century manners, morals, and


Voltaire breathed his dazzling brilliance into "Zadig" as he did into a

hundred other characters--for a political purpose. Their veiled and

bitter satire was to make Europe think--to sting reason into action--to

ridicule out of existence a humbugging System of special privileges. It

did, _via_ the French Revolution and the resulting upheavals. His prose

romances are the most perfect of Voltaire's manifold expressions to

this end, which mark him the most powerful literary man of the century.

But the arch-wit of his age outdid his brilliant self in "Zadig." So

surpassingly sharp and quick was this finished sleuth that his methods

far outlived his satirical mission. His razor-mind was reincarnated a

century later as the fascinator of nations--M. Dupin. And from Poe's

wizard up to Sherlock Holmes, no one of the thousand "detectives,"

drawn in a myriad scenes that thrill the world of readers, but owes his

outlines, at least, to "Zadig."

"Don't use your reason--act like your friends--respect conventionalities

--otherwise the world will absolutely refuse to let you be happy." This

sums up the theory of life that Zadig satires. His comical troubles

proceed entirely from his use of independent reason as opposed to the

customs of his times.

The satire fitted ancient Babylonia--it fitted eighteenth-century

France--and perhaps the reader of these volumes can find some points of

contact with his own surroundings.

It is still piquant, however, to remember Zadig's original _raison

d'etre_. He happened to be cast in the part of what we now know as "a

detective," merely because Voltaire had been reading stories in the

"Arabian Nights" whose heroes get out of scrapes by marvelous

deductions from simple signs. (See Vol. VI.)

Voltaire must have grinned at the delicious human interest, the subtle

irony to pierce complacent humbugs, that lurked behind these Oriental

situations. He made the most of his chance for a quaint parable,

applicable to the courts, the church and science of Europe. As the

story runs on, midst many and sudden adventures, the Babylonian reads

causes from events in guileless fashion, enthusiastic as Sherlock

Holmes, and no less efficient--and all the while, behind this innocent

mask, Voltaire is insinuating a comparison between the practical

results of Zadig's common sense and the futile mental cobwebs spun by

the alleged thought of the time.

Especially did "Zadig" caricature orthodox science, and the metaphysicians,

whose solemn searches after final causes, after the reality behind the

appearance of things, mostly wandered into hopeless tangles, and thus

formed a great weapon of political oppression, by postponing the age

of reason and independent thought. Zadig "did not employ himself in

calculating how many inches of water flow in a second of time under the

arches of a bridge, or whether there fell a cube line of rain in the

month of the Mouse more than in the month of the Sheep. He never

dreamed of making silk of cobwebs, or porcelain of broken bottles; but

he chiefly studied the properties of plants and animals; and soon

acquired a sagacity that made him _discover a thousand differences

where other men see nothing but uniformity_."