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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Goodness Is Seldom Rewarded

The titular Zadig is depicted as an unambiguously good character. In his work, his relationships, and his travels, he helps a great number of people, yet he is constantly betrayed. His first wife proves unfaithful, the people he helps turn against him, and for most of his life he faces ill fortune. Through the story of Zadig, Voltaire argues that goodness does not necessarily produce happiness.

Zadig's life has two very happy chapters: when he is first invited to serve in the king's court in Babylon, and when he eventually becomes king himself. The first one seems to be largely a matter of chance; the king happens to think highly of Zadig's actions. Zadig's goodness is a factor, but throughout the book his goodness tends not to benefit him. In this case, however, the king notices it and chooses to reward him. When Zadig becomes king, his ascension is framed as a matter of divine providence. Thus, overall, Voltaire suggests that goodness may be rewarded by an external actor, but there is no reason that goodness will necessarily be rewarded. Throughout his journeys, Zadig struggles to be happy. He spends much of the tale in love with women who do not love him or striving to find happiness by changing his position in life.

Goodness Is Worth Pursuing, Even Without Reward

Voltaire doesn't suggest that Zadig's positive pursuits are meaningless, but he does frame them as difficult and unreliable paths to happiness. All of this foreshadows the conclusion that Voltaire eventually reached in his later, similarly philosophical novel, Candide: happiness is found through learning to be satisfied with the world as it is. Further, being and doing good produces intrinsic benefits, even though good may be seldom rewarded.

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