In Denis Diderot’s “Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage,” two contrasting viewpoints of religion and morals clash: a European chaplain stands in favor of civilized religion and morals, and a Tahitian opposes them. The European was a chaplain accompanying his crew’s voyage to the foreign land, and Orou was the chaplain’s host during his stay. To start, the two men held completely different opinions. Toward the end of their discussion, however, the chaplain had learned to understand the Tahitian’s point of view. Furthermore, it is likely that Diderot sides with the Tahitian, based on his intentional choice to make the chaplain appear unskilled in debate, and also the commentary between “A” and “B” that concludes this piece.
The whole debate begins after Orou and his family finishes eating supper with the chaplain: “When he was about to go to bed, Orou. . . presented to him his wife and three girls—all naked as Eve” (194). Diderot’s choice of the verb “presented” indicates that Orou views his wife and children more as objects to present to a guest as a gift; since the women are naked, one can assume that the gift is sexual. Orou then offers the chaplain his pick of the four as a gesture of hospitality, but also requests that the chaplain might choose his youngest, childless daughter as a favor. After the chaplain declines the offer, Orou begins a long rant that bashes religion: “I don’t know what this thing is that you call ‘religion,’ but I can only have a low opinion of it because it forbids you to partake of an innocent pleasure to which Nature, the sovereign mistress of us all, invites everybody” (195). Right from the outset, the Tahitian’s opinion is clear. His hedonistic logic is that when people have any physical desires, they should gratify them. If someone desires to have sex, it must be right, since the desires are part of Nature. Subsequently, if any system of belief denies its believers the free exchange of sex, which is a natural urge, it must be wrong.
The chaplain, on the other hand, displays his belief in the opposite view when he declines Orou’s wife and daughters: “The chaplain replied that his religion his holy orders, his moral standards and his sense of decency all prevented him from accepting Orou’s invitation.” His logic is not based on physical desire, like Orou’s, but on his belief that his God would not want him to have sex with the women out of wedlock. Nevertheless, despite his belief in his “holy orders,” the chaplain eventually obliges Orou’s request. In giving in to temptation, the chaplain has essentially proven himself a hypocrite and, therefore, lost the argument. He has proven Orou’s point that Nature is greater than religion by showing that his desire for sex surpassed his belief in holiness and decency.
Not long after the holy man is seduced, Orou proves his point even more strongly by essentially making the chaplain admit that no one lives up to the standards of his religion. The chaplain confesses that married men and women have sex with partners other than their spouses frequently in Europe: “Nothing happens more often” (201). He admits that monks do not remain faithful to their vows of abstinence. He even tells Orou on page 212 that monks do not do any work. It is extremely unlikely that a real-life monk would say that, even if it were true, which betrays Diderot’s prejudice against religion and his preference for the Tahitian view.
The monk’s unrealistically low opinion of his profession and his admission that nothing happens more frequently than spouses cheating on each other show that Diderot believes in Orou’s view of sex and religion over the chaplain’s. He has systematically struck down Christian conceptions of sex and morals by authoring a hypothetical debate between a fictional Tahitian and chaplain.
Another choice of Diderot’s that indicates his preference is that Orou is the only major character in the whole piece that receives a name. Not even his dual narrators receive real names. The fact that Orou has a name makes him a more realistic character—one with whom Diderot symphathizes. The chaplain is merely a stock character created by Diderot’s perception of men in the ministry, which is why he receives no name besides his profession. Futhermore, Diderot purposefully wrote this work in a way that gives Orou lengthy speeches to prove his point while the chaplain never has a long block of text to state his case. The effect is that the chaplain seems to have nothing to say to back his opinions, so he ends the argument a loser.
Even the ending discussion of “A” and “B” confirm Diderot’s position on the matter, as both narrators come to the consensus that the standard civilized way of thought is flawed: “If you want to become a tyrant, civilize [people]; poison [them] as best you can with a system of morality that is contrary to nature.” Here narrator B makes the same assertion that Orou had before, that morals are worthless unless they conform to natural law. If Diderot wanted to be subtle, he could have let the debate with Orou and the chaplain stand by itself. Instead, he decided to make his message to readers blatant, so he included narrators to erase any doubt of his story’s intended meaning.
College Essays >