Voltaire’s Candide

Candide is one of the most interesting, and certainly one of the most readable,  little books to come out of the Enlightenment. It is the story of Candide (French for “guileless”), a young man from Westphalia (in Germany), who reveres his teacher Pangloss and yearns for his love Miss Cunegonde. Pangloss (all-tongue) is a metaphysics teacher who believes that this is the best of all possible worlds, that everything happens for a sufficient reason, and that you can prove almost anything you believe from a clever use of a priori principles. Pangloss is a caricature of Leibniz, and the whole book unfolds as an extremely pointed yet somehow equally entertaining refutation of his philosophy.

Candide’s life is a series of dreadful tragedies which he bears only by remembering his teacher’s dictums and hoping to be reunited with his love. Whether he is pressed into the Bulgarian army, whipped by the Inquisition, robbed by Jews (Voltaire does not seem to like Jews very much) or captured by cannibals, Candide struggles to believe in his teacher’s philosophy. At one point, seeing the devastation of an entire city, he cries out, “If this is the best possible world, what are the others like?” Yet, whenever he meets an old friend or is temporarily reunited with Miss Cunegonde, his faith is restored. Except for the occasional helpful person and the lost land of El Dorado – it’s no coincedence that Voltaire picked a mythical city to be the only bastion of goodness in the world – Candide finds that the world is a dirty, dangerous, ugly, terrible place. At the end, he settles down to a comfortable yet dreadfully boring life on a farm with his now-ugly Cunegonde, his teacher Pangloss and a few friends . Pangloss proceeds to tell him how, had all Candide’s misfortunes not happened to him, he wouldn’t be where he is now. “Yes,” Candide replies somewhat dismissively, “but we must tend our garden.” Voltaire’s point is clear: Metaphysical knowledge and a priori demonstrations may or may not be true (although Voltaire of course is a skeptic), but we have a duty to learn a few things about the world and do our part to live as best we can in it. If we manage to eke out a little progress and happiness on the way, we are the lucky ones.

Although Candide is a novel, and quite entertaining, Voltaire did not write it to entertain. It is a work of philosophy from beginning to end. Voltaire’s extremely fast pacing, flat characters and periodic witty line keep the reader from getting too emotionally involved in all the tragic events. Voltaire did not want the reader to cry; rather, he wanted him to become calloused and realistic. Candide, inasmuch as he clings to Pangloss’ teaching in spite of his contradictory life experience, is a picture of the naive European who will not accept the Enlightenment teaching even though the evidence of its truth is all around him.

Although Voltaire was a non-Christian, he did Christians a great, if exaggerated, service in reminding them that there are many evils in the world. Further, this evil cannot be banished from mind by a trite phrase, such as “the best of all possible worlds,” or as we may say today, “God’s sovereign will.” Anything that keeps us from feeling the pain of others and the brokenness of the world is not medicine but a painkiller. Jesus healed the world only through entering fully into it, into its pain, its suffering, its brokenness; He overcame not by ignoring or dismissing fallenness, but by receiving it into Himself and swallowing it up in His infinite grace. The Christian cannot agree with Voltaire that metaphysics is useless and that the only reality is the cold, hard reality that we see around us; but since we have been redeemed so wondrously and given a commission on this Earth, we can agree that whatever the state of the world may be, we must tend our garden.

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 9:57 am  Leave a Comment  

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