Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Voltaire's Candide, or Optimism

George Stade, Consulting Editorial Director of the Barnes & Noble Classics of New York, oversees another edition in the series entitled Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire. This edition, published in 2003, has Gita May working on the notes and the introduction. Candide first comes out in French in 1759 and Henry Morley translates it into English in 1922. Lauren Walsh revises Morley’s translation for some unknown reason. Alan Odle supplies grotesque, surreal, and carnivalesque illustrations for this story.

Candide tells the story of a young man of the same name living at a baron’s castle. Possibly an illegitimate child of the baron’s sister, he grows up in the castle and learns from the castle’s metaphysician, Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss absurdly follows Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophy of deterministic optimism (that “it is impossible but things should be as they are, for everything is for the best”) and teaches “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology” to his pupils (27, 12). Candide falls in love with the baron’s daughter, Miss Cunégonde. After an innocent show of flirtation between the two, the baron kicks Candide out of the castle. This starts the lad’s long journey of witnessing the world’s worst evils. Whatever Candide witnesses in the world, it gives the narrator opportunities to lambast Pangloss’s teachings.

Candide, being a satire, feels like an episode of South Park, but without the profanity. The dark humor plays upon humankind’s tendency to pilfer, vie, lie, and fawn upon a naïve and sweet young man. I have laughed occasionally at the bawdy humor and chicanery that the villains inflict on the ingenuous Candide, but the schadenfreude is cut short because most of the misfortunes are true. The eighteenth century world Voltaire paints is a dog-eats-dog society, and having Pangloss tout that it is the “best possible world” ridicules and minimizes the people suffering from those evils.

I asked my mother’s opinion about deterministic optimism. “Do you believe this is the best of all possible worlds?”

“As compared to what?” she responded.

“That this is the best world God created for us,” I clarified further.

“No,” she concluded.

“Me too,” I concurred. I guess deterministic optimism does not sufficiently account for the need for free will in the world, at least according to Candide. It also conveniently ignores the doctrine that this world has been cursed by Adam’s fall, therefore making it imperfect.

The strange thing about satires is that, with all its bleak and caustic quips, it brings observations of the human condition into sharp focus. There is no better example in the book than when Candide and Pangloss experience an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal. Pangloss, in a heartless, self-righteous, complacent sort of way, reasons away the earthquake’s purpose as “for the very best end” (27). It is a kind of optimism that does not console the victims of the disaster. A better type of optimism is to say, “Good thing I am here, because I can help,” and get to work. But Pangloss does not consider this until the end when Candide says, “we must cultivate our garden” (130). Gita May concludes that the real purpose of Candide is “that there [is] no satisfactory theological or philosophical explanations to justify or account for the horrors that so persistently dog humankind” (xx).

This book is not for everyone, just like South Park is not for everyone. Some philosophical insight can be gained from reading this book, but I would not feel comfortable having children read it. This book could be suitable for high school students.


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