Book review: Candide, or L’Optimisme by Voltaire
Is this the best of all possible worlds? questions Voltaire – or should I say he rebutted Leibniz – as only he could when some 60,000 people were killed by the Lisbon earthquake, political demise erupted into the Seven Years’ War, murdering almost 1.5m people among the violence, pillaging, looting and rape across continents. In a scathing and comical ambush of Leibniz’s philosophy of Optimism – whereby the Universe is the best and only possible one that an unerring God could have created, one in which everything happens for the best in this most perfect of worlds – the great mind of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, unfolds the story of Candide, a gullible man of misfortune so ludicrous that it is sidesplitting. Kicked out of the castle and into poverty, Candide’s great love is raped and kidnapped, his friends are disemboweled or enslaved. He is cast off into a world of disasters both natural and bellicose, plagued by the Inquisition, Colonialism, disease, unrest and insatiable greed of those he meets along the way, as well as individuals who have suffered much more than he has. Yet Candide never loses the faith of the teachings of his great philosophy master, Pangloss, who insists that, in spite of everything, this is indeed the best of all worlds and all that happens in it could only be for the best.
For the best, I snarl, as Voltaire most probably did, when considering a myopic vision of optimism. Two-hundred and sixty years later, it is still hard to remain optimistic in a world where the greatest of powers holds refugee children in cages and spends money on walls and wars but not education; where a pandemic threatens lives and the livelihoods across the globe; where men rape and mutilate women, burning them if they dare to accuse them; where war has once again been declared on indigenous peoples who fight to protect their way of life that is inseparable from the land, water and forests around them; a world where there are currently some 40m people enslaved.
It was on one of those darker days of contemplation when I no longer wanted to read any more bad news electronically that I sniffed through my shelves. Voltaire stared back at me. His question, which I had read some twenty years ago, is just as hauntingly valid today as it was in 1759. In fact, it occurred to me that the horrors of the 18th Century were not much different than those that torment us today. I can easily cite contemporary proxies for the great earthquake that destroyed a quarter of Lisbon; the pleasure of religious fanatics to torture and rape; the disgraceful profit inherent in wars, in ignorance, in hypocrisy.
To re-read a book twenty years later is always a curious exercise. The sidesplitting satire was still there, just as I had remembered it, with its concise language of episodic chapters that are so vivid they surprisingly turn Candide’s narrated travel adventure, across Europe to the Americas and back to find his lost love, into a novel. A healthy dollop of sarcasm deconstructs the dissatisfaction of people of all imaginable walks of life, people who Candide encounters along the way, from the rich who are crippled by their own fortune to the most abject of torturers and thieves, as well as their many victims. Twenty years later, however, what struck me on the second reading was the kind of philosophical debate that can only be appreciated after having accumulated just enough successes and failures in life to contemplate Candide’s mysterious and final reply to Pangloss, who had reminded him that all Candide had suffered was necessary to arrive at his moment of peace: “‘Tis well said, but we must cultivate our gardens”.
This finale has been so hotly contested among philosophers until today that I might have little to add to the debate, except I am looking at the story and message through eyes that have only ever studied non-Western thought. From the very little I have read of these debates, there only seems to one consensus: Candide’s final words were cutting. Whether polite or not, his response signaled that he no longer wanted – or needed – to discuss philosophy.
In my limited view, it seems that it was a rare moment in life when a pupil has nothing further to gain from a teacher, similar to when a child becomes an adult and no longer wants the opinion of his parents, politely hushing them as equals. It might even be that moment of reversal, when children in turn take care of their elders, instructing them to take certain actions for the best.
Actions, I repeat.
Candide no longer has a need for the words of Optimism; he has discovered the knowledge in action and the action in knowledge. Through the lens of Vedanta, I see Candide discovering at the end of the story – through the discipline of gardening and the self-observation that occurs when caring for nature, sowing seeds and collecting fruit – that wisdom without action is useless. Knowledge must be expressed through the body and mind in a “cultivation” that we call Yoga. A mere and myopic intellectual optimism that “all is for the best” does not help one when actions must be chosen and their results accepted, regardless of whether or not they are desirable. That said, I must say that I agree with the premise of Leibniz regarding the perfection of this world, as I believe anyone studying Advaita Vedanta, the knowledge of non-duality, would recognize. The great mathematician’s premise of absoluteness, however, does not exempt one from making choices and oscillating in a relative, dualistic world where there is good and evil, night and day, up and down, pessimism and optimism. I like to believe such was the discovery of François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plume as Voltaire, during his exile in Geneva at château “Les Délices”, a place where he discovered gardening, a practice that undoubtedly calmed a mind so brilliant that its insatiable scrutiny had always got him into trouble, be it through the many brawls, exilements and imprisonments he suffered for slapping powerful rivals with vicious wit or outright challenging the injustice of monarchy and the hypocrisy of religion. For Voltaire, I believe, the struggle against inequity must occur through deliberately chosen actions and words in spite of Optimism – not complacent to it. Results in life must be accepted regardless of the past; actions must be chosen for the future. Incessantly deliberating upon what cannot be controlled is futile, and it was thus that Candide debunked his own naivety and politely censured Pangloss with a profound reflection upon his own life.
The Age of Enlightenment could only have evolved by inspecting other forms of thinking from other traditions. I was delighted to discover that Voltaire had apparently commented on the sacred texts of the Hindus, the Vedas, observing that:
“The Veda was the most precious gift for which the West had ever been indebted to the East.”
I believe it is quite impossible to say to what extent the influence of the Vedas had upon Voltaire’s thinking, but Candide’s last words are highly suspicious – whether for correcting the myopia of vision in Pangloss or for resonating the plenitude of self-knowledge that requires no further satisfactions, no further oscillations between optimism and pessimism. A zealous advocate of human rights, it comes as no surprise that Voltaire had purportedly added animal rights to his convictions and was vegetarian. Clearly, the Vedas were convenient to his remorseless criticism of Christianity when claiming that the Hindus’ treatment of animals showed a shaming alternative to the immorality of European imperialists.
Older and unabashed by what others consider good taste, I shamelessly confess that I often find dated what many consider to be classics. Few return trips to the canon, however, have been as fruitful as my recent visit to Voltaire. My Thursday Night News demonstrates my sarcastic [in]discipline of trying to read for comprehension of the atrocities at hand in a rapidly changing world. To rediscover Voltaire had the same problem of reconciling knowledge between action and acceptance in a world just as tenebrous as it is today, centuries later, was enheartening as it was disarming. It is for this reason that I find the timelessness – and timeliness – of Candide nothing less than remarkable.