Voltaire, Candide or Optimism (Utopias and Dystopias #4)

Most works in the utopia genre – and almost all utopias are philosophical – are political. They ask about the sort of society to which we wish to aspire or avoid. Voltaire’s Candide or Optimism uses utopian motifs for quite different purposes: to ridicule the view of optimists who insist the world is ultimately how it should be and (possibly) to reject political society altogether.
Candideis a comic Job and a sequel of sorts to the lugubrious Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne). How can one reconcile a reportedly omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent God with evil? As David Hume asked in The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, “EPICURUS’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (Philo to Cleanthes, Part X)

Or as Voltaire asks: How could this God cause or permit the destruction of Lisbon and the deaths of perhaps tens of thousands of people?
But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves,
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!
Mais comment concevoir un Dieu, la bonté même,
Qui prodigua ses biens à ses enfants qu’il aime,
Et qui versa sur eux les maux à pleines mains?
Quel oeil peut pénétrer dans ses profonds desseins?
De l’Être tout parfait le mal ne pouvait naître;
Il ne vient point d’autrui , puisque Dieu seul est maître:
Il existe pourtant. O tristes vérités!
The poem recites the standard responses to evil – suffering is a test that will be rewarded in the afterlife, that what is, is right (Alexander Pope), that this is in fact the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz). The idea that this is the best of all possible worlds goes at least back to the Stoics. Epictetus tells us that the universe is perfect with everything in its proper place in the design so that “nothing bad by nature happens in the world” (Handbook 27). This metaphysics grounds an ethics that tells us that “When you see someone weeping in grief at the departure of his child or the loss of his property, take care not to be carried away by the appearance that the externals he is involved in are bad, and be read to say immediately, ‘What weighs down on this man is not what has happened (since it does not weigh down on someone else), but his judgment about it.’” (Handbook 16)
Voltaire finds this optimism and its insistence on accepting evil and inaction ridiculous and offensive.

Candide is a more successful than the Poem on the Lisbon Disaster in its rebuttal to optimism, the view – in the words of Dr. Pangloss – “that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end.” To quibble that Voltaire does not confront the intricacies of Leibniz’s Theodicy  misses the point. Sometimes the right tactic isn’t to refute a position but to change the question. Other times the best tactic is to laugh.

In some respects, Candide echoes the Book of Job, uncovering its comic undertones. The Book of Job recounts the Lord’s bet with Satan to test Job, the perfect and upright man from the land of Uz. Satan – with God’s permission – takes away Job’s possessions, murders his servants and children, and smites him with boils. His neighbors turn away from and condemn him and his wife advises him to “curse God and die”. Job curses the day he was born, but never condemns the Lord.

Why does the Lord allow Job’s torments? A curious feature of the Book of Job is that at the end God answers Job from out of a whirlwind, proclaiming his omnipotence and Job’s inability to question his decisions:

Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?
Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him? [chapter 40: 8-9]).

But he never attempts to justify Job’s torments.
In the end, the Lord restores Job to his former position, doubling his livestock to fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she asses and giving him seven new sons and daughter.
If we forget that the Book of Job is scripture, overlook the hymn to wisdom (chapter 28), and do not allow us to be overcome by the rhythm and brilliance of the poetry, it is possible to see the whole episode as absurd, albeit brutal, practical joke, something not unlike Samuel Beckett’s trilogy.
Candide, disciple of Dr. Pangloss’s optimistic metaphysico-theologico-cosmoloonigology, is hardly a perfect and upright man, but he is an innocent. The atrocities he and his friends suffer and witness could easy be transposed to the works of the Marquis de Sade. Candide makes for uneasy reading today: torture, slavery, slaughter, auto-da-fés, the rending of limbs, cannibalism, and rape. Worse, it is funny. As Erich Auberbach notes in Mimesis, “Misfortune follows upon misfortune, and again and again they are interpreted as necessary, proceeding from sound causes, reasonable, and worth of the best of all possible worlds—which is obviously absurd.” (quoted from the Norton Critical Edition of Candide, p.139) Adam Gopnik aptly compares the tone to a Monty Python movie.
What sort of world is the world of Candide? It is not reality. The brutality of Candide is part of our world of course, but it is too unrelenting and too casual. The best of all possible worlds is a dystopia in which God not only permits evil, but presides over every atrocity and wills it as necessary. Unlike most dystopias which condemn aspects of our society, Candide condemns a philosophical doctrine by pretending to hold up to it the mirror of reality. The stoicism of Candide and his companions induce uncomfortable laughter and calls into question the complacency of the ancient school.
Then there is Eldorado, the legendary South American city of gold, surrounded by mountains. Eldorado is indeed a utopia, but Voltaire does not tarry to describe or recommend its customs except to briefly advocate deism and ridicule priests. Eldorado is not a city to aspire to and Candide quickly tires of paradise:
the castle where I was born does not compare with the land where we now are; but Miss Cunégonde is not here, and you doubtless have a mistress somewhere in Europe. If we stay here, we shall be just like everybody else, whereas if we go back to our world, taking with us just a dozen sheep loaded with Eldorado pebbles [gold nuggets and jewels], we shall be richer than all the kinds put together, we shall have no more inquisitors to fear, and we shall easily be able to retake Miss Cunégonde. (Chapter 18, Robert M. Adams translation from Norton Critical Edition)

Candide and his servant Cacambo leave Eldora with thirty sheep carrying gold and jewels. The misadventures continue.

He is reunited near Constantinople with Dr. Pangloss who survived hanging by the Holy Inquisition (“the executor of the Holy Inquisition, who was a subdeacon, burned people marvelously well, but he was not in the way of hanging them” [Chapter 28]) and Cunégonde, who has become a servant and whose hardships have effaced her beauty.
It ends with a philosophical discussion. Martin, a scholar who had joined Candide in his journeys,
concluded that man was bound to live either in convulsions of misery or in the lethargy of boredom. Candide did not agree, but expressed no positive opinion. Pangloss asserted that he had always suffered horribly; but having once declared that everything was marvelously well, he continued to repeat the opinion and didn’t believe a word of it (Chapter 30).
Some wisdom has been gained. They meet a man who works the land with his family removed from public affairs. The work keeps them “from three great evils, boredom, vice, and poverty.” (Chapter 30) Candide concludes that “we must cultivate our garden” and the group buys a little plot and sets to work.
The philosophical conversations do not end, but the philosophy does. Pangloss asserts:
All events are linked together in the best of possible worlds; for, after all, if you had not been driven from a fine castle by being kicked in the backside for love of Miss Cunégonde, if you hadn’t been sent before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t traveled across America on foot, if you hadn’t given a good sword thrust to the baron, if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be sitting here eating candied citron and pistachios.
–That is very well put, said Candide, but we must cultivate our garden (Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin). (Chapter 30).

What does it mean to cultivate one’s garden? Candide and his friends retreat from society, having seen what the world does to Barons, kings, princesses, and priests. At the same time, to cultivate a garden demands action and attention to the health and beauty of the crops. Candide acknowledges Pangloss’s philosophy which the good philosopher no longer believes by gently dismissing it. It may be very well put, but metaphysics does not dissolve boredom, vice, and poverty. All that can do so is attentive care to the commonplace.


Related posts in Utopias and Dystopias:
Why Utopia 
Invisible Cities 
Evil Adored 
Train to the Promised Land

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