A review, from 2011.
‘If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?’
François-Marie Arouet (1694-1788) better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment historian, philosopher and writer, famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and free trade. Voltaire was a prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form including plays, poetry, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. As a satirical polemicist, Voltaire frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma and the French institutions of his day. It seems likely that Voltaire was inspired to write’ Candide’ as a consequence of several deadly historical events (the Seven Years War and the consequences of 1755 Lisbon earthquake). The earthquake in particular had a large effect on the contemporary doctrine of optimism – based on the theodicy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – that says that all is for the best because God is a benevolent deity.
‘Candide’ was first published in 1759, and was almost immediately banned. The story follows the adventures of Candide, a young man raised in the household of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh, a member of the minor nobility in Westphalia. Candide is educated by Pangloss:
‘Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolonigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this the best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.’
Alas, Candide falls in love with Cunégonde, the Baron’s daughter, and the Baron catches him kissing her hand. As a consequence, Candide is evicted from the castle, and his adventures commence. Candide lives through a series of absurdly dreadful events as he seeks to be reunited with Cunégonde. From Candide’s time in the Bulgarian army to his visit to El Dorado, the story grows more far-fetched. Each exaggeration has its own purpose in this story and the contrast of great (and frequent) tragedy with comedy is the main satirical method used in ‘Candide’. Voltaire’s wit and his parody of the classic adventure-romance plot challenges any complacency readers might have in their own world view.
‘What! Have you no monks who teach, who dispute, who govern, who cabal, and who burn people that are not of their opinion?’
Candide continues to be optimistic as he travels, despite being confronted with frequent horrible events. These events become improbably humorous because they are described in such painstaking detail and because there are so many of them. Over the course of ‘Candide’ all members of the Baron’s household experience significant changes (good and bad) in their circumstances. And who, amongst the characters, has the worst luck? This is frequently discussed. But ultimately, the question Voltaire leaves us with is how do we achieve happiness? What matters, and why?
‘All that is very well’, answered Candide, ’but let us cultivate our garden.’
I enjoyed ‘Candide’, and will be rereading it again at some stage. It is possible to read and be amused by the satire, but the chaos and suffering in Candide’s world invites reflection about cause and effect, and an exploration (for those inclined) for a deeper meaning.
‘All is well, all will be well, all goes as well as possible.’