Literature, Philosophy and the Absurd: Voltaire's Candide
At the age of sixty-five, Voltaire, who had already established a name for himself as a philosopher, satirist and playwright, published his most famous work, Candide. The fictional work is a farce on the popular romances written at the time. Like most romances, there is a central love story, epic journeys, tremendous losses and spectacular reunions. Unlike most romances, however, but much like Voltaire’s earlier works, almost every facet of Candide is riddled with satirical presentations of the church, the monarchy, and popular philosophy of his time. By today’s standards, a literary work that accomplished what Candide did at its time would most likely be a cartoon that turns the traditional “Disney” fairytale on its head while also criticizing corporations, the government, and many of the failed economic and social ideas that abound within our current society. My point in saying this is to remind us of the achievement Candide was within its own time and culture, something that can easily be lost on readers like ourselves who encounter the work hundreds of years later.
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The lasting success of Candide is due, in large part, to Voltaire’s satirical wit which becomes the loom that spins the fabric of the novel. Every character either represents a person, political or religious institution, or other popular idea from the 18th century Europe that Voltaire had already become infamous for satirizing throughout his career. Voltaire uses what happens to characters who act in good faith upon their world view to reveal what he sees as the weaknesses of the philosophies, the crimes of monarchs, and the injustices of critics and religion in the world around him. In other words, the characters in Candide come to ends that ironically reduce their real-world idea, individual or institution they represent to absurdity. This reductio ad absurdam is the defining element of Voltaire’s satire, and perhaps the most significant literary theme in the otherwise philosophically—and at times even personally—charged fabric of the work.
Furthermore, the text of Candide gives numerous footnotes to illuminate specific religious sects, monarchs, philosophers and critics being satirized. For example, Pangloss and his “best of all possible worlds” philosophy is, according to the text, an attack on philosophers Leibniz and Pope (466). Martin, on the other hand, espouses the exact opposite philosophy: pessimism. Still, Cacambo has yet a different philosophy, a “new world” or frontier belief that, as long as you keep moving, “if [you] don’t find anything nice, at least [you’ll] find something new” (492). Even the main plot, which is that of the love story and Candide’s endless search for Cunegonde, mocks the genre of work itself: the romance. Instead of “happily ever after,” by the time Candide finally finds the Cunegonde he longs for, his search has become pointless. Cunegonde is no longer a girl of beauty, but a tired woman who has lost her beauty to rape and years of slavery. This ending directly contradicts and undermines the very foundation of the romance.
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In a similar fashion, Voltaire reduces Pangloss’ “best of all possible worlds” argument to an absurdity as well. In a moment of gratitude born of the charity of an Anabaptist, Candide confesses, “Maitre Pangloss was quite right when he told me that everything in the world is for the best,” (471). The very next paragraph describes Pangloss himself as, “a beggar all covered in sores…end of his nose was eaten away…his teeth black…racked by a violent cough and spat out a tooth with every spasm,” (471). One cannot fail to see the idealistic foolishness of such optimism in the state of such misery and disease. The philosophy of the character is mocked by what happens to him in the course of the story. Voltaire is inferring that those who ascribe to these ideas have not thought them through and are therefore fools who end up as fools do, looking foolish.
In contrast, there are a couple of notable exceptions to the otherwise universally harsh circumstances dealt upon characters. Perhaps it should not be so surprising to find these few exceptions espousing the same philosophy. For example, the King of Eldorado comments, “when one is reasonably content in a place, one ought to stay there” (496). Also, at the end of the story, the Turk with only twenty acres of land tells Candide in response to his inquiries about things that were not his direct concern, “I have no idea…I never inquire what’s going on in Constantinople…I am content to send my fruit for sale there from the garden I cultivate” (525). The link between these two characters, besides their tranquil existence in a mad novel, is their acceptance of the concept of contentment.
Learning contentment in the work of our hands is obviously a message Voltaire intended by ending with the line on the concept that Candide learned from the Turk with only twenty acres of land, “we must cultivate our garden” (526). Unlike the other characters, Voltaire does not satirize the philosophy espoused by the King of Eldorado and the Turk. In fact, he is up to something more subtle than simple satire. Examining more deeply the characters Voltaire chooses to embody this philosophy reveals that they are at opposite ends of the class system that dominated 18th century Europe: one a king, the other a simple gardener. Even though Candide observers that “[the Turk] seems to have made a life for himself which is much preferable to that of those six Kings with whom we had the honor of having supper,” it would be wrong to assume Voltaire’s point is that being poor is the key to contentment. By giving a King this same insight, his point becomes more subtle; contentment is something to be found completely independently of wealth, class, religion, philosophy, and power. It can be found in something as simple as the work of one’s hands.
Furthermore, wealth, power, class, religion, these things may distract a King, so that such a man might require more wisdom than a simple gardner to perceive the value of contentment. Within this fact lies another lesson, our lot in life often obscures our vision of the truth. Think for a moment of another thing the King of Eldorado and the Turk share, not only do they not want to know anything of the outside world, they really don't know anything about it at all. Does this mean ignorance is bliss? If the King of Eldorado were a wicked or simple man, it might, but he is not. He is the best example of a King we have in the novel, and therefore, one of the most, if not the most, wise. Though where his wisdom comes from is not a concern of the novel, it obviously is derived from his involvement with and understanding of the people he governs. Voltaire, knowing how man aspires to better himself, wisely chose to end with the Story of the Turk so that less careful readers would not focus on the King of Eldorado as the parting vision even though they share the same message. Using the Turk as the final spokesperson for the philosophy leaves the reader with a far more concrete goal in mind: engaging in simple work with their hands.
This simplicity is the silk hem of the fabric Voltaire’s wit from which Candide is woven. It is here with the Turk in the garden, as we stated, that Voltaire chooses to end his chaotic satire and endless wit. It is with simple contentment after all the folly of man, one that accepts the limits of one’s existence with grace. It is with this display and balance of ferocity, hilarity and ultimately subtlety that Candide has rightfully earned its place in the literary canon. The fact that Voltaire’s themes and complaints about the world he lived in can still speak to us today means that we still need Voltaire in that cannon as well.
Other Works by Voltaire
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