Review by Jason Cabitac, 2018
Candide. By Voltaire. Translated and Edited by Shane Weller. Dover Publications, 1993. 167 pp. $9.95.
The degree to which Voltaire’s Candide can be categorized as a comedy is determined in part by the perspective of each unique reader. The fine line between mockery and satire, between tragedy and comedy, depends on the position each of us holds regarding the central question of the book: is this the best of all possible worlds? If our convictions accord with Candide and Professor Pangloss in affirming that this is indeed the best possible world, the book may read as a pro-longed and tortuous trial, if not an outright tragedy when Candide begins to lose hope. From this perspective, each new calamity is a trial, an ordeal that tests our own faith by forcing us to remain hopeful for a teleological explanation for the momentary yet momentous suffering of the charac-ters in the book. On the other hand, if we agree with a character like Martin, who has resigned himself to expect chaos and indifference in nature and selfishness in human affairs, the book may read as an affirmation, a bitter comedy that unravels as Candide finds himself constantly upend-ed in spite of his naïve optimism. Our reactions to the book likely betray our fundamental convic-tions toward its central questions.
The challenge for each perspective is to fully account for the radical evil, the apathy of nature, and the tender moments of companionship and love that are depicted throughout the book. It is easy to say along with Pangloss that all is well and that all suffering leads toward the greatest good. At the same time, it is also easy to say that the world is purely evil or chaotic. Both positions exclude important exceptions and each is theologically laden with a significant interpretation of reality. I believe that Voltaire argues against both one-sided positions in this book, though his emphasis surely rests on dismantling any naïve optimism toward the concepts of goodness or rational harmony in nature and human affairs. We will return to this later as we con-sider the surprising end to the book and its emphasis on labor and cultivation. But for now it is important to consider the precise theological argument that Voltaire stylistically renders absurd through the adventures of Candide.
The argument that this world is the best of all possible worlds is a position that is attribut-ed to Leibniz at several junctures in the text and is caricatured on numerous occasions. Note an early lecture by Pangloss: “It is demonstrated… that things cannot be otherwise; for, since every-thing was made for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Note well that noses were made to wear spectacles; thus we have spectacles. Legs were obviously created to be breeched, and thus we have breeches. Stone were formed to be cut and made into country houses” (7) and so on. Pangloss’ argument here depends on a worldview that understands each detail of existence to subsist due to strict rational necessity within a corresponding teleology of perfection. Leibniz’s argument is actually more complicated than Voltaire portrays, yet rests on several premises that are important to explore. Leibniz proposes in The Monadology that God is the sufficient or ulti-mate reason in which the diversity of changes is immanent and has its source. To Leibniz, change can only occur through a substrate that does not change, and since all “existents” are observed in a constant state of multiplicity, diversity, and fluctuation, God functions as the self-dependent ground for changes. Because of this, God is considered to be perfect—meaning unbounded, un-limited, and absolutely infinite. God, as the primitive unity and most simple, that is undifferenti-ated, substance, creates all other substances, which Leibniz calls monads or contingent beings. These created beings, contingent upon the perfect unity of God, are considered by Leibniz to be products or derivations of the primal substance which is God. Therefore, if God is perfect as de-fined above, nothing which God creates can be imperfect in essence. This is where the dilemma of evil and human freedom become fundamental issues for Leibniz. If everything created is a self-emanation, product, or derivation of perfection, then how do we explain evil in the world? In numerous letters Leibniz is seen to struggle with this problem. In the text Dialogue on Human Freedom and the Origin of Evil (1695), Leibniz suggests that God creates figures and continuous quantities instead of numbers or discrete quantities; that is to say the essence of a thing is not static and uniform perfection but consists of choosing and changing over time. In other words, God creates creatures to be perfect in regards to their essence, yet free in regards to their wills. Evil is the result of human will and sin is considered by Leibniz to be something accidental or contingent—that is something separate from the essence or substantial form of a thing. In this way, Leibniz preserves the goodness and perfection of God while relegating evil to be a conse-quence of human freedom.
Returning to The Monadology, Leibniz argues that God perpetually creates, guided by his infinite wisdom, to procure the best possible outcome despite the evil that results from our free choices. In this way God functions as the regulator of the whole. Consequently, the perfection of God, the reality of human choice, and the fact of human evil are all preserved in Leibniz’s sys-tem. From these conclusions, Leibniz is able to suggest that this is the best possible world, be-cause it is created from perfection and is continually regulated or corrected toward the infinite ideal of perfected goodness, in spite of incalculable deviations along the way.
This long detour has been somewhat a defense of Leibniz from the overly simplistic cari-cature provided by Voltaire. At the same time, it is important to bring to light the specifics of the argument at hand in order to discern what is at stake in Voltaire’s challenge to Leibniz’s conclu-sions. What is at stake is the reputation of God. If Leibniz is right, God can still be thought of in the scholastic sense as omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipresent, and so forth. However, if Vol-taire is right in representing this thesis as absurd when tested against the atrocities and indiffer-ence of human and natural life, then God must either be defined otherwise or else abdicate god-self as an irrelevant and irrational hypothesis. In this situation, three possibilities adhere: 1) God is the source of evil and indifference and is therefore evil and indifferent in constitution, 2) God is totally uninvolved in human and natural affairs and functions solely as the explanatory postu-late for the consistency of natural law, or 3) God is non-existent. One could hold out for Leib-niz’s eternal regulation toward the good; however, such a position would be insufficient to ap-propriately reconcile with the immediacy and existential reality of human suffering and evil. Needless to say, we have on our hands a profound theological dilemma.
The evil, hypocritical, and self-contradictory nature of human actions is clearly highlight-ed throughout Candide, and I think is easily observable throughout history, our times included. Important scenes in the book include the several battles: Christians waging war on Christians yet pausing to pray to the same God; Muslims fighting Muslims yet breaking simultaneously to fulfill their obligations to pray. When considering the violent scenes of rape, murder, betrayal, and theft, humans are portrayed, I think correctly, as capable of the most atrocious and merciless crimes.
One of Voltaire’s corollary arguments to the facticity of human evil is the aforementioned apathy of nature. This is best illustrated in Voltaire’s depiction of the Lisbon earthquake that dec-imated part of Portugal in 1755. Death estimates by contemporary historians suggest that any-where between 10,000 and 100,000 casualties ensued. This catastrophe gripped Europe and is one of the primary inspirations for the discussion of theodicy in European philosophy and theol-ogy at the time. Immanuel Kant is famous for collecting as much information about the event as possible, publishing three separate texts on the earthquake, and instigating the first scientific, non-supernatural studies of geology. This earthquake revealed a natural order that seemed either malevolent, or at least indifferent or inhospitable, to human affairs.
Voltaire’s Candide uses tragic humor to show the absurdity of overlaying rational and logical understandings of God onto a world that seems fundamentally irrational, indifferent, and violent. In many ways, his argument is an argument of negation—challenging Candide, Pangloss, Leibniz, and the reader, to see how long they can hold out believing that both God and the world are reflections of perfected goodness. There are several sections, including the chapters at El Do-rado and several side comments about the significance of science, when Voltaire seems to favor a blend of humanism, deism, and scientific inquiry as viable alternatives to such naïve theological optimism. It is important also to remember that the book does depict times of resilient good-ness—most notably the faithful trust, loyalty, and companionship between Candide and his friends Martin and Cacambo. The most profound alternative worldview, however, comes abrupt-ly at the end of the book after everyone has relocated to a type of farm commune. It is significant to me that Pangloss in his incessant disembodied speculation is told to “be silent” by the dervish they encounter. Of course, Pangloss doesn’t listen and returns to Candide to explain how the tragedies and misfortunes of the prior chapters were necessary events to arrive at the relative peace of the farm. “That is well said,” replies Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.” With this statement the book ends. I will conclude by noting that the monumental shift that occurs in this passage is the movement from passive metaphysical speculation to active labor, cultivation, and engagement. We may return to the original question from this perspective: Is this the best of all possible worlds? It could be.
Review by Josh Hasler, 2009
Candide. By Voltaire. Translated and Edited by Shane Weller. Dover Publications, 1993. 167 pp. $9.95.
The style of Voltaire’s Candide falls between the genres of comedy, satire and didactic folktale. First published in 1759, the scope of the book is the widest possible range of human suffering but also includes several personal jabs at rivals, critics and publishers, as well as some fairly historically specific events and figures. However, the story’s arc remains close enough to an observation of the human condition to avoid confusion over these specific cases. In keeping with his comic genre Voltaire dispenses with finely tuned religion and philosophy in favor of their surface appearance. Their function as caricatures serves to reduce metaphysical theodicy to absurd conclusions: that life is, as Thomas Hobbes said a hundred years prior, “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” but necessarily so and better for that fact. Candide emerges from an empirical thesis rather than a logical one. In his introduction to the work, Shane Weller acknowledges that while Voltaire’s parody of Leibniz’s philosophical optimism seems successful, he writes without an argument, much less a thoroughgoing presentation of Leibniz’s system. Rather, Weller suggests, Voltaire’s comic vehemence should be read as directed toward Leibniz’s interpreters, themselves over-simplifiers of theodicy and optimism.
In writing the story Voltaire assumes the voice of one Dr. Ralph who recounts the misadventures of the hero Candide. Candide himself is apparently dubiously descended from a Westphalian baroness and a lesser noble. He grows up serving in the house of his possible mother’s brother: the Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronckh. Under the tutelage of Pangloss, the cartoon portrait of a Leibnizian philosophical optimist who touts that “everything is at its best” (5) in this best of all possible worlds, Candide grows up in the knowledge of the necessary goodness of all that is. Candide repeats this mantra throughout the story as he struggles to reconcile necessity with the perdition he haplessly endures. These trials begin when Candide innocently kisses the baron’s daughter, Cunégonde—the object of his love throughout the story—and is ejected from the estate, as are so many characters in this tale, “with great kicks to his backside”(7). Penniless and starving, Candide unwittingly joins the same Bulgarian army that will later rape and plunder his former home, killing everyone he had previously known. Having been beaten nearly to death for desertion (actually a misinterpreted stroll) he is rescued by the conveniently passing king of the Bulgarians, a fellow metaphysician, who takes an interest in the young philosopher. Candide eventually escapes the Bulgarians during battle when, Dr. Ralph tells us, he “decided to go elsewhere to reason effects and causes…[,] passed over heaps of dying men and arrived first at a neighboring village.…that the Bulgarians had burned in accordance with international law” (13). This is the same law, doubtless, of universal necessity given by Pangloss, who managed to survive the Bulgarian attack on their home and meets Candide on the road. Reunited with the now syphilitic philosopher—who is promptly hanged in a religious ceremony while Candide is again flogged—he again reassures Candide that “all’s well”(147) and then shares news about the rape and disembowelment of his love Cunégonde by Candide’s Bulgarian army. She, however, also survives, witnesses Pangloss’ hanging and Candide’s flogging and sends her servant (a pope’s daughter with a sad story of her own) to fetch the near-dead hero. In the course of the story Candide is forced to murder a Portuguese inquisitor, flees to South America, loses Cunégonde again, and murders a Jesuit—Cunégonde’s brother who survives both the Bulgarian attack and this murder. Candide and his servant Cacambo are then captured and nearly eaten by South Americans. All of this Voltaire, via Dr. Ralph, describes in grisly detail. The heroes manage to escape and stumble upon the paradise of El Dorado. There, gold is simply mud and jewels pebbles and the two enjoy perfect, free hospitality from the native people. However, even in paradise, Cunégonde’s absence and the temptation to bring El Dorado’s inconceivable wealth back to Europe ultimately outweigh their bliss. It is unsurprising to find that even with wealth (which the Eldoradans were happy to supply them) Candide also suffers tremendously. During his journey he hires Martin the Manichean for philosophical company, whose belief in the real substance of evil begins to wear through Candide’s optimism.
Despite the gruesome events that befall his characters, Voltaire allows only a few peripheral characters to actually die. When Cunégonde’s servant “the old woman” shares her story she best encapsulates the desperation of each tragic character:
I still loved life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most baneful inclinations: for is there anything more foolish than to wish to carry continually a burden that one can always throw down? to abhor one’s existence, and yet cling to that existence? in short, to cherish the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our heart? (53).
But Voltaire, like the world, denies them any escape from their suffering. Hence, his existence again proving intractable, Pangloss returns alive once again to discuss metaphysics with Candide and Martin, his philosophical contrast. It is not necessary to rehearse the additional calamities that befall Candide and his friends. However, three events are worth detailing further: The abandonment of paradise, the boredom of the Venetian nobleman and the ugliness of Cunégonde. With each of these events, rather than marking yet another calamity, Voltaire shows us that even at its best, the world dissatisfies its inhabitants. Time disintegrates beauty and happiness even when the world is at relative peace. In Voltaire’s world life tends to get subtly worse just when it is supposedly better. Only a subtle discontent drives Candide and Cocambo away from the Eden of El Dorado. Later, Candide observes to Martin the Manichean about the bored and apathetic Venetian noble, Lord Pococurante: “he is the most fortunate of all men, for he is superior to all he possesses” (139). Martin points out that his constant state of disgust actually makes him doubly miserable. The nobleman is a slave to nothing, unmoved by anything. But he cannot recognize beauty just as the El Doradans could not recognize their wealth. Candide then tells us: “No one is happy except me, when I see Miss Cunégonde again” (139) a statement he retracts when, on their final meeting, he finds her horrifically ugly. In fact, once Voltaire reunites the victims of the story in a peaceful home they are mostly miserable together. He gives them some reprieve only when, finally, they encounter a Turkish philosopher who suggests that they cease reflecting on the problem of evil and suffering. The group is only happy when “metaphysics” is ignored.
Various brands of Christianity receive parodic blows throughout the story and Islam fares only slightly better. Interestingly, Voltaire’s rancor tends to be directed more toward religious institutions than at poor, naïve individuals seeking religious consolation for their suffering. Voltaire’s parody more pointedly critiques any philosophy or system that claims a god’s-eye-view of a universal whole. Hence Pangloss, a name which Weller notes in his introduction to be an amalgam of the Greek pan and glossa: all and tongue, is an embodied mockery of hubristic, speculative philosophy. The end of the tale reinforces this, when the surviving characters finally cease to philosophize and work with the admission than no answer will satisfy the conditions their experiences have placed on the question of evil. Convinced of this Pangloss declares: “’man was not born for repose’” at which Martin seconds: “Let’s work without reasoning….it’s the only way to make life bearable” (165).
Candide’s humor is dark and enjoyable as such. Its light and straightforward tone compounds its morbid comedy, even if its simplistic style is likely fun at the expense of the innocent narrator Dr. Ralph. Voltaire nearly manages to produce a subtle polyvalence of meaning in the story but stops well short of a complex narrative. He writes with, Weller tells us in his introduction, “a series of one-liners delivered with the consummate artistry of an accomplished stand-up comedian.” Indeed, the story could be read as a simple succession of abuses heaped upon those with whom Voltaire disagreed and be none the worse for that. However, Voltaire’s choice of genre naturally begs the question of fairness. Overstatements abound, of course, as he mocks love and self-sacrifice along with theodicy and dogmatic philosophy. Unabashed satire tends to produce straw men and parody even more so. However, self-consciously creating them in the uncanny image of their intended subjects produces a dark humor that demands a certain amount of reflection from its reader. What Voltaire accomplishes in the story is a humorous bludgeoning rather than a treatise, which in a literary evaluation likely verges on the thoughtfully uncharitable. The charm of the final product lies in its capacity to lay all suffering at the feet of theodicy and ignore its futile answers.