Voltaire’s Candide is the hero we need
Voltaire’s philosophical novel, Candide, was published in 1759 and translated into English almost immediately.
It is a wonderfully paradoxical work that sees the eponymous hero travel the globe, observing horror after horror and taking them in jaunty stride. The plot unrolls at breakneck speed, the vaudevillian action over in barely 15,000 words and thirty short chapters.
I have a copy of this book that I have carried pretty much everywhere with me over the past decade.
Over time, and with each reading, the need to be a little more like Candide has grown. (For those who have not read Candide, I have included a plot synopsis at the end of this article.)
The novel’s satire targets a very narrow view of Gottfried Leibniz’s doctrine of Optimism, usually summarized in the aphorism, ‘Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’
This was an attempt to explain why there can be so much evil in a world ruled by a single, benevolent deity. Voltaire views this as a convenient vehicle to excuse cruelty, rather than address it. Such foolishness is embodied in the character of Doctor Pangloss, who espouses Optimism at all costs. He acts as a philosophical guide for Candide, albeit a very ineffectual one.
Optimism is only one of Voltaire’s focal points; in fact, it is far from his prime concern in this novel.
Candide is a notoriously subversive work, written against a backdrop of aimless persecution and war.
The Seven Years’ War was at its height, Damiens had just attempted to assassinate Louis XV, and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake had shaken Europe to its core. The growing availability of mass print media made all of this seem immediate and real, no longer distant and easy to ignore. In fact, it magnified the atrocities, with some newspapers even exaggerating the death toll in Lisbon by 50,000 people for extra impact.
Where is the order in such a world? Even nature is wreaking havoc on society, so how can we believe in the goodness of God? These are the questions that puzzled Voltaire — and spurred him into action.
To Voltaire’s despair, many continued to believe that all will be as it will be; it’s the best we’ve got, after all.
Voltaire seized the opportunity to critique those who had chosen to hide behind blind faith, contributing to the meaningless maelstrom of destruction in the name of religion. In essence, Candide was his cry of outrage and incomprehension.
Although the novel is told in a tone of gaiety, that does not undermine the importance of its message.
In fact, it allows Voltaire to tell the truth and make it bearable.
No religion is spared in his panoramic take on faith used as a cloak for simple cruelty, either. Candide encounters Christians, Jews and Muslims on his travels; all use religion to explain away their misdeeds. For example, in Lisbon the response to the earthquake is to hold an auto-da-fé in an attempt to prevent further natural disasters.
At the center of this picaresque novel of love lost and wickedness exposed, we find Candide.
Candide approaches each new senseless disaster as a blank canvas. He is naivete personified, an impressionable young man willing to take a chance by believing in the inherent goodness of his fellow man. This blank canvas remains so throughout, only occasionally dropping his guard when the very worst of misfortunes befall him.
Upon re-reading the novel this week, I was struck by just how vivid and poignant Candide’s sufferings remain. He is, of course, portrayed as a one-dimensional character, sympathetic mainly for his lack of street smarts and his hope against all odds.
There is more to Candide, however.
Voltaire is not suggesting a new form of society in this book and does not hold up Candide as a paragon of virtue. His protagonist never finds true happiness and the ultimate message (“We must cultivate our own garden”), can be read as a slightly pessimistic resolution. In the end, we can’t change humanity, but we can control what we do as individuals. That belief is behind much of Voltaire’s (and the Enlightenment’s) thought, as the importance of individual civil liberties were brought to the fore.
What makes Candide a hero for our times is his capacity to view atrocities with a compassionate and open mind. His disbelief is not discriminatory; wherever he travels, he remains perplexed by the abuses of power he sees. He does not allow his innate character to be drawn down into world-weary cynicism or an unfeeling perspective on what is an endlessly cruel world.
In 2017, we can view this novel with a sense of intellectual and moral superiority. The very notion of philosophical optimism seems naive, and perhaps time has not been so kind to Voltaire in this sense. What was very much in vogue then has now passed to the annals of history.
Nonetheless, we approach liberal democracy and globalization with a similar lens. They’re the best solutions we have right now, so we accept them.
If anything, we are wearier than we have ever been, worn down by the cyclical nature of events which only seem to become more damaging.
Furthermore, the true targets of Voltaire’s venom are fanatical religiousness and the abuse of power by hypocritical despots. Would anyone argue that these targets have been toppled altogether?
Although satire rarely contains solutions, it carries out a vital role by pointing out huge problems. Candide’s satire and wit are unsparing; anyone is seen as fair game. Voltaire’s concern is with tolerance and individual rights, not with the inherent supremacy of any one system of belief.
Candide is timeless precisely because it skewers a paradox at the heart of our existence; all around us there is disorder, yet we yearn for something concrete. So, we create it. We create order in our minds and in our societies, against all evidence to the contrary. Any challenges to this system are very unwelcome.
We could all take a lesson from pure, simple Candide. His eyes are open, at least. He may not be particularly perceptive, but he at least views the stimuli all around him with a modicum of humanity.
We need his spirit as much today as the people of Europe did in the 18th Century. Perhaps, we need it more.
- Candide is living in a castle in Westphalia under the tutelage of the philosopher, Pangloss, who espouses the view that “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
- Candide is kicked out of the castle for kissing Cunegonde, with whom he is madly in love.
- Candide is taken into the army by the Bulgars and is brutally flogged after being wrongfully identified as a deserter.
- Candide escapes and runs to Amsterdam, where he re-encounters Pangloss, who has by now contracted syphillis. Pangloss explains that Cunegonde has been killed.
- Candide runs to Lisbon with Pangloss, where he discovers the horrors of the 1755 earthquake.
- Pangloss is hanged as a heretic by the Inquisition. Candide is flogged again,, but realizes the woman tending his wounds is Cunegonde. (Narrative consistency was absolutely not Voltaire’s aim.)
- Candide and Cunegonde flee to the New World, arriving first in Buenos Aires. They acquire a valet named Cacambo.
- They keep running, as the Inquisitors from Portugal are on their trail, stopping off next in Paraguay. Here. they meet the Jesuits, who are planning a revolt against Spain. Cunegonde’s brother is the Jesuit commander and insists his sister will not marry a commoner like Candide.
- Candide and Cacambo travel for days and eventually arrive in El Dorado, a Utopian land of science and tolerance, where there is plentiful gold and an absence of priests.
- Candide leaves El Dorado in the hope of re-finding Cunegonde. His newly acquired wealth from El Dorado is stolen from him and he sets sail for Europe. Along the way, he rediscovers some riches, procured from a sunken Spanish ship.
- In Paris, his riches are stolen from him again by the corrupt elite.
- Candide finds out that Cunegonde is in Constantinople, where he meets Pangloss again. The latter retains that all is still for the best, although he is now part of a Turkish chain gang.
- Candide purchases Cunegonde’s freedom and finds that she has grown old and ugly. They are married and move into a farm house together.
- Soon, Candide grows bored of this life. He meets a farmer who works all day and is too tired at night for any philosophical speculation.
- Candide follows suit, taking on a simple pastoral life filled with work and bereft of vice. The novel ends with the famous, Epicurean motto, “We must cultivate our own garden.”