Candide is not a very good novel. This is not to say that it is not entertaining book, funny in parts, diverting. It is just not a very good novel. That’s okay. It was written when the novel was in its early days as a form. Really it’s a satire on various types of Enlightenment thinking, particularly the ‘optimistic’ philosophy of Leibniz, and its probably a bit unfair of me to pick on it for not being a good novel.
The point I want to make in this blog is that I think this kind of book is not a great way to explore ideas about life and how we should live it. The use of caricature in this context glosses over more than it reveals, and fails to be much more than a clever person showing off his wit. At its best the novel can explore ideas about life in a complex way which thrives of apparent contradictions and struggles to resolve them. Voltaire does not engage with the struggle.
I am no philosopher, but my understanding of how Voltaire represents the “Leibnizian” ideas is that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and everything that happens is for the good, because God’s creation cannot be evil or imperfect. I am not going to consider here whether Voltaire is accurate in his representation of Leibniz or similar philosophers, but rather whether the way in which he chooses to engage with those ideas is valuable and interesting.
The other strain in the book is a variety of characters, Martin, the old woman, who basically just think that humans are terrible and the world is a hard place. They have a fair bit of evidence for this position.
Candide shoots these monkeys, who sadly turn out to be the women’s lovers. The world is a crazy place.
The book charts the adventures of Candide, a young man who believes in the best of things, to whom a series of truly terrible things happen. Even worse things happen to people he knows, or observes – burning, body parts cut off, sexual slavery etc. He gets money, then loses money, eventually gets his love but only after she has become ugly and nasty.
So by the concluding chapter Candide is living with his family and associates, strangely discontent with the world. Why is there so much evil? Why has he wound up poor with an ugly wife? He is stuck on his little property, doing nothing. Is man, as Martin claims, born to either disquiet or idleness?
After visiting a rather unhelpful dervish, who in response to their inquiries as to the meaning of evil, the why of human life, responds:
What signifies it whether there is evil or good? When His Highness sends a shop to Egypt does he trouble his head whether the rates in the vessel are at their ease or not?
Which seems to amount to, don’t worry your little heads about the why of it all, we are part of a bigger enterprise.
Then they run into a man lounging under some orange trees. When asked about recent political events, the man replies
…I never inquire what is doing in Constantinople; I am contended with sending thither the produce of my garden, which I cultivate with my own hands.
So Candide decides to work in his garden. The various members of the household focus on their “different talents”.
So can this be posited as a sort of way out of the impasse of optimism and pessimism? This was a recent discussion I had with a friend. I argue that in the form presented in the book, the answer is no, partially because of that formal presentation.
Voltaire sets up his parody of optimism by putting his characters through a series of pretty ridiculous adventures. Voltaire is playing a kind of game of hypotheticals – would you still believe this was the best of all possible worlds if you lost your nose, your ears, were tortured. Yet then at the end, he seems to want to suggest that if you work hard, apply yourself, and ignore the goings on of kings, you can avoid idleness, vice and want- the ‘three great evils’.
But this involves Candide turning away from the evils of the world and focusing, quite literally, on his own backyard.
Given the broad nature of the instruction to work in your garden, it is arguable that Voltaire’s message is directed more towards working to make you own part of the world better, not to succumb to idleness in response to the world’s problems, but nor to pretend that they do not exist. But the structure of the book suggests that this is reading too much into the story.
Most of the book is devoted to showing the evils of the world. And yet we are meant to accept that simply by working hard and accepting his lot Candide can avoid the capricious whims of fate. Merely by being unconcerned with the world of kings, Candide can avoid having anything to do with them. But throughout the earlier parts of the book people are frequently subjected to the whims of the rulers. In fact, the perils of relying on the sense of justice of the aristocracy seems to be another theme of the book.
I’m sure that some of the residents of Lisbon were working in their gardens when this happened.
In order to cut down the optimists, Voltaire has painted a picture of an evil and unjust world, and then seems to want, at the end, to bracket that world to the side when presenting his own philosophy of life.
And this is why this is not a very good novel. One of the values of the novel form as a way of exploring ideas is that through the representation of the lives of characters, ideas can be debated and tested. For example, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is ultimately a novel which supports turning from nihilism back to the Russian Orthodox religion, but in contains one of the greatest anti-religious tracts of all time – “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter. So famous is this chapter and so well does Dostoevsky argue a point he doesn’t agree with is that most people think Dostoevsky is actually a nihilist.
What Voltaire does is subject other people’s ideas to the criticism of the “reality” of the world, but not his own ideas. And his representation of other people’s ideas is in the form of a caricature, particularly the optimist Pangloss. His representation of the world is also a caricature. How easy would it be for someone to point to the book and say that Voltaire has misrepresented their ideas, and the nature of the world?
And while one can interpret working in your garden in a number of ways, in the book itself this is represented as retreating into your family unit, selling what you produce to a city you don’t concern yourself with, and an unconvincing assertion that if you don’t strive to dine with kings they’ll leave you alone.
Voltaire at a number of points seems to deride the notion of philosophising as an activity (Pangloss’s philosophising while Candide is trapped under the rubble of a quake, the dervish saying why bother, Candide’s ultimate rejection of trying to debate about or reflect on the world), and as a result asks the reader to accept a fairly bare bones injunction to work hard and not think too much. But this is a philosophy too, and could equally be subject to criticism in the face of a world which takes even from people or work hard, where the affairs of kings affect even those who try to be unconcerned.
Candide is a witty demolition of the ridiculous extreme of certain philosophies. But it is neither good philosophy nor a good novel. This is the true danger of the philosophical novel.