Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What Is Voltaire Saying?

What is Voltaire trying to say in Candide? I really don’t know. But let me say up front that I like the book all that much better for not knowing what it means. If the Enlightenment philosopher had made his little satirical tale a tract for some obvious point, it probably would have died with most Enlightnment tracts.

OK, I know that the book pokes fun at Leibniz and his (or at least Voltaire’s version of his) theory that ours is the best of all possible worlds. According to Candide’s tutor, Pangloss, the theory says that any evil or suffering in this world results from a greater good. Now he doesn’t mean the trade-offs we all make for ourselves every day. My muscles ache today because I wanted to fix my own toilet and save the cost of a plumber’s visit. I chose the pain as an acceptable cost for the benefit. According to Pangloss, the cost, benefit, and choice don’t always belong to the same person. In one of his funniest moments, he explains that the loss of his nose due to venereal disease is an acceptable evil, since Columbus brought VD to Europe along with chocolate. If the theory of the best of all possible worlds says that a world without syphilis wouldn’t be better because it would also lack chocolate, then by all means make fun of it. I’ll laugh.

But in spite of the ridiculous details of the book’s version of the theory, does Voltaire think this is the best of all possible worlds? Does he think people can make the best of all possible worlds? Does he think we want the best of all possible worlds? Does he think a best of all possible worlds is possible? I don’t know.

In one episode, Candide, visiting South America, discovers an isolated society of people who get along. They don’t fight. They don’t argue about theology. No one kills anyone else for disagreeing. Candide calls the place the best of all possible worlds once, but does he really believe it? Whatever other pleasures this Andean paradise might have, it doesn’t have the girl Candide is trying to find, so he leaves South America. And surely Voltaire, the author of so many philosophical works, couldn’t have thought an earthly Utopia would have no place for argument.

The story ends with Candide determined to work in his garden in order to defeat “those three great evils, boredom, vice, and poverty.” Does Voltaire think these are the three greatest evils? Does he think honest labor totally eradicates these problems? Does he accept the sufferings of a life of labor as acceptable costs? Did he mean to poke fun at the story of Eden with this reference to working in the garden, or to honor it? I don’t know what he meant. But I know that I agree on the importance of the issues and that reading Candide forced me to think about them in new ways. And I know that I liked thinking about them.

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