A few notes on Candide.


Since I believe I will be presenting on Candide for class (along with the Book of Job), I am going to confine myself here to some simple notes which will help trigger me when it comes to forming the presentation. Once I actually find out for sure if I’ll be presenting, a more formal look at this work will appear here.

Candide is a satire which tells the story of Candide and friends through a fast-paced, sometimes ridiculous series of events traversing the globe from old world to new and back again. Written in response to the philosophical doctrine of optimism (dubbed Panglossianism by Steven J. Gould), Voltaire uses the characters and their adventures to enter the discourse on the nature of human life and relationships. This is classic Enlightenment writing, arguing for reason over the superstition inherent in the “optimism” developed by Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz who argued that “all is for the best because God is a benevolent entity.” This is expressed by Pangloss, the philosopher of the tale as,

It is demonstrable that things cannot be other than as they are: for, since everything is made to serve an end, everything is necessarily for the best of ends. Observe how noses were form to support spectacles, therefore we have spectacles. Legs are clearly devised for the wearing of breeches, therefore we wear breeches.

This doctrine of optimism is one of passivity, in which humans are simply to accept what happens as what is supposed to. Although this pattern of thought has receded in the wake of the Enlightenment, we can certainly see echoes of it today in new age thought as well as fundamentalist creationism – some streams of which encourage extreme passivity in the face of global injustice. Voltaire takes a position against this in Candide, ultimately transforming his characters through self-directed labour by the end of the tale.

In between the Edenic beginning of Candide’s life (in a castle, learning from Pangloss alongside the beautiful Cunegonde) and the end of the story where he finally resolves that a good life is one made by honest intention – Candide and his friends face many of the world’s horrors. There are beatings, lynchings, venereal diseases, shipwrecks, slave mutilations, natural disasters, cannibalistic acts, and the simple ugliness of time’s ravage –  rapidly demonstrated as a refutation to the maxim that all is well. Even when Candide and his manservant Cacambo get to ElDorado (the famed and mythical city of gold in the new world) and are received as equals in opulence without having to work (the pebbles of ElDorado are rubies and emeralds, the street mud is gold dust) – they are quickly bored and so strike out again in an attempt to re-enter their hierarchical society at the top (this does not go as planned of course).

Several observations about human nature and the capacity for good (happy) living are made over the course of the story:

  • People are (almost) never happy, and each person thinks he has a worse lot than anyone else.
  • Simply giving people riches does not change their ability to live well, and ultimately doesn’t make them happier than they were before the riches.
  • Idleness more than anything else provokes discontent.
  • Honours and titles do not bring the comforts that we might imagine they do. There is hypocrisy in all quarters of ruling institutions, the church and the monarchy.
  • It is possible even after a life of calamity to find peace and contentment.
  • Contentment may be found in a community of family and friends labouring together to provide for existence.
  • Attempting to explain life as part of a divine plan is fruitless and leads to passivity rather than action on one’s own behalf.
  • An honest life rather than one of riches or honours is the most satisfying.

From my perspective, it’s hard not to agree with this philosophical stance on the meaningful life, but Voltaire’s jibes at the monarchy and the church throughout this and other works earned him many enemies in his lifetime. He we imprisoned, exiled, and ultimately banned from his home city of Paris in the course of his lifetime, though he did live into his eighties and was much revered by his followers. I have to say – having read Voltaire for the first time when I was  eighteen – he is one of my favourite philosophers. Satire, irreverence and an unwavering commitment to telling the truth no matter how uncomfortable are all hallmarks of Voltaire. His novels Zadig and Candide are enjoyable reads, laden with the arguments of his day – making his philosophy digestable to the average reader. Most of what Voltaire is arguing today sounds a bit – “well, yeah,” because his ideas about the rights of the poor, his anti-slavery stance, and his notion of an honest life – not to mention his refutation of the “enlightened monarch” –  are all ones that today have been adopted by western culture. But in his day, Voltaire was highly controversial and his ideas were being cast on highly contested ground.

Worth checking out – last year was the 250th anniversary of Candide and the New York Public Library put together an interactive online exhibit to celebrate. Check out the reader-annotated Candide wiki and more illustrations like the ones in the video above – developed for the purpose of a new printing of Candide.

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