Candide—“Cultivating our Garden”
After publishing these philosophical letters, Voltaire was condemned by the Parliament of Paris as offensive to politics and religion. When he returned to France, Voltaire spent the next 15 years living on the estate of his wealthy patron and mistress, studying and writing extensively. After her death in 1749, Voltaire lived at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia until 1752. Only when he was in his late 50s did Voltaire finally purchase property of his own outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Voltaire spent the last 20 years of his life in Geneva at his estate, where he wrote essays, participated in politics and corresponded with royalty, philosophers and actors.
With their progressive views, especially the concept of religious tolerance and rational inquiry, these writers inevitably challenged the political, religious and philosophical establishments. Voltaire’s work spans across the spectrum of literary genres and style, from drama to history and philosophy. He believed that experience in the material world could be categorized and thus controlled through the intellect.
Though Voltaire considered his best work to be his tragedies, he is remembered now mostly for his satirical works like Candide. Candide was published anonymously in 1759 and distributed illegally. It enjoyed instant success, even though those who were the objects of this satire naturally condemned it as scandalous and indecent.
The police were ordered to seize all copies of Candide that could be found, but the controversy only served to fuel the book’s popularity, and by the end of the year at least 17 editions of the work had been published. Religious officials pronounced the book full of dangerous principles concerning religion and encouraging moral deprivation.
Candide voices outrage against the capacity of man to brutalize his fellowmen and spares no one in his attacks. Voltaire attacks the aristocrats, military and religious power structures that work together to create a world of cruelty and inequality because it supports their own vices—greed, decadence, hypocrisy and egotism. Voltaire’s ridiculously contrived plots, impossible coincidences and people resurrected from the dead, mocks the gullibility of readers of fiction who mistake the imaginary for actual events.
The dark comedy of the misadventures of Candide and his companions is a mockery of a belief in a rational and just plan for the universe without providing much comfort and optimism for the future. Voltaire satirizes, in particular, the optimistic philosophy of Leibniz. Voltaire reduces Leibniz’ philosophy to an unfairly simplistic formula: Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
According to Leibniz, God is omnipotent and, therefore, could have made any kind of world, but he is also benevolent, and so He would necessarily have made the best possible world so that what may strike us as problematic, or evil, or difficult in the creation is really there to provide some greater good which would have been lost had the apparent evil not been part of the plan. To take a very simplistic example, if we fall off a ladder and break a leg, or an expensive vase falls and breaks into a hundred pieces, we might see gravity as a destructive part of the universe we live in. Since God could have made any kind of world, He could have made one without gravity. The logic of this argument would say, gravity keeps everything in its place and keeps us from flying off into space, and so the benefits of gravity outweigh its detriments. The best of all possible worlds, therefore, will necessarily have gravity in it.
This argument applies to everything in our world. It is true for earthquakes, floods, famines and disease. All of which are necessary if we could simply see the larger picture to understand what greater good comes from these apparent evils.
This theory can be a comfort in times of disaster. If something really terrible happens to us, we may be able to feel slightly better about it if we can understand that it is serving some larger good. But it can also lead to apathy to make the world better, since if all pain and suffering in the world serve some larger purpose; there is no reason to try to minimize it because it is there to provide some greater good.
Voltaire himself was an optimist early in his life. It was the trendy idea of the age, and it could be reconciled with Deism, which was the religion of the intelligentsia, which saw God as a cosmic watch maker who had created the universe, wound it up, and then left it to run by its own natural laws. As Voltaire grew older, though, he found it harder to justify the sheer amount of misery and calamity in the world with confidence that it was leading to some greater good. A turning point for him was the Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755. On the Catholic calendar, November 1st is All Saints’ Day, so many of the inhabitants of Lisbon were in church when the earthquake struck. It leveled the city and it killed between 30,000 and 40,000 people. In a letter that Voltaire wrote shortly after the Lisbon earthquake he said:
People will be hard put to explain how the laws of motion bring about such frightful disasters in the best of all possible worlds; a hundred thousand ants, our neighbors, wiped out at one stroke in this single ant-hill, and half of them perishing no doubt in indescribable agonies amid ruins from which they could not be dragged; families ruined at the ends of Europe, the fortunes of a hundred traders…buried in the ruins of Lisbon—what a terrible gamble is the game of human life!…If the Pope had been at Lisbon, would he have dared to say, All is well?…There is a terrible argument against optimism.
The full response of Voltaire to the Lisbon earthquake and to his abandoning the whole idea of Optimism came four years later in Candide, which is subtitled Optimism. Everything that happens to the little group of protagonists Voltaire brings together in this book has happened to somebody in the course of history, and some of the events in the book are based on actual historical events.
Reading Candide is like watching a Roadrunner cartoon in which Wile E. Coyotes is killed about ten times in five minutes, and every time he bounces back to skim through his Acme catalogue to come up with his next plan for catching the Roadrunner. Every episode or adventure leads to the next without there being necessarily a causal connection between them. Candide is a satire on human efforts to comprehend life and the universe.
Candide is about the misadventures of Candide, Voltaire’s naïve hero, whose name suggests both his directness, his honest—he is candid—but also in its Latin form means “white.” Candide adheres steadfastly to the tenets of optimism, as taught to him by his childhood mentor, Pangloss: “Pan,” which means “all,” and “gloss,” which means “language” or “talk.” Pangloss preaches Leibniz’ philosophy, that all is good in the world, despite any evidence to the contrary.
Pangloss gives lessons on “metaphysico-theological-comolonigology,” whatever the heck that is. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the best of all castles, and his wife the best of all possible baronesses.
‘It is clear,” said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe. Noses were made to support spectacles. Hence, we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be shaped and build castles with, thus my lord has a fine castle; for the greatest baron in the province should have the finest house. And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round. Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.’
Pangloss is all talk and is incapable of judging reality, which is, on the evidence of what happens to him and Candide, pretty amazing. Cunegonde is Candide’s love interest and his search for her is the plot of this novel. Cunegonde is also a student of Pangloss, but life’s hardships lead her to become ambivalent about his optimistic teachings and thus suggest that women’s more pragmatic approach to reality might be, in the end, more productive than merely philosophizing about life.
Half way through Candide’s journeys, he meets Martin, who remains the hero’s travel companion throughout the rest of the story. Martin is a pessimist, a self-described Manichean—that is, one who sees the universe as a battlefield between good and evil and who predictably sees the world contrary to Pangloss.
In the first half of the novel, Candide’s journey is determined by chance rather than by his own free will. In the second half, Candide actively pursues his own choices, although it does not seem to offer him any advantage in dealing with the world.
In chapter 1, Candide is exiled from his native Wesphalia, an earthly paradise, when his protector discovers his daughter, the Baroness Cunegonde, kissing Candide. Candide innocently believes that life at the Baron’s chateau is “the best of all possible worlds,” as Pangloss has taught him and thus he accepts being exiled from what he believes to be paradise. Candide’s education about the real nature of the world begins as soon as he leaves Wesphalia and finds himself ultimately fleeing violence or persecution and being saved by the goodness of strangers.
In chapter 2, for example, he is duped into joining the Bulgarian army, but deserts his unit when he experiences the atrocities of war. Atrocities committed first by one side and then in revenge by the other, but all in accordance with law. When he flees to Holland, he escapes these horrors and is reunited with Dr. Pangloss, who is at first unrecognizable because he is suffering the ravages of syphilis:
Despite his condition, Pangloss insists that syphilis is a necessary ingredient, and indispensable part of the best of all possible worlds, since his private misfortune generates the need for public welfare. His condition gives others the opportunity to practice charity.
Pangloss and Candide then travel to Lisbon, just in time to be injured in the terrible earthquake that devastated the city in 1755. Pangloss appears to die at the hands of the Inquisition, while Candide narrowly escapes death and is reunited with Cunegonde who miraculously recovers from the rape and disemboweling committed on her body by Bulgarian soldiers. By chance, Candide kills her lover, the Grand Inquisitor and then flees with her to the New World, where Candide once again loses Cunegonde to a lascivious colonial governor in Buenos Aires. Candide once again escapes death by vengeful natives in Paraguay, and his companion, Cacambo concludes, “This hemisphere is no better than the other.”
Giving themselves over entirely to fate, Candide and Cacambo take a small boat down the river in Paraguay where they discover the mythical city of El Dorado, where the streets are paved in gold, people are good-natured, healthy and free of ambition and everyone is equal and equally enlightened.
Candide’s departure from El Dorado suggests that even if Pangloss were right, even if there were a place where all was for the best and the best of all possible worlds, it is in man’s nature to reject it and see a more varied happiness, one that is more desirable, precisely because it is more uncertain.
In the second half of the narrative, Candide decides his own fate by choosing an itinerary with the goal of finding Cunegonde. Returning to the real world from El Dorado is thwarted and prolonged by villains.
Cunegonde, our hero’s only hope of happiness, remains elusive until late in the novel, when Candide and his associates rescue her. But this only brings disillusionment as she is not longer as Candide remembers her.
The tender lover Candide, sees his lovely Cunegonde with her skin weathered, her eyes bloodshot, her breast fallen, her cheeks seamed, her arms red and scaly, recoiled three steps in horror, and then advance, only out of politeness.
In the last chapter, Candide, Cunegonde, Cacambo, Martin, Old Woman and Pangloss settle together on a small plot of land in Turkey. When not arguing with each other, they inevitably encounter the last of human vices, boredom.
‘I should like to know,’ says the Old Woman, “Which is worse, being raped 100 times by Negro pirates, having a buttock cut off, running the gauntlet in the Bulgur army, being flogged and hanged, being dissected, and rowing in the galley, experiencing, in a word, all the miseries though which we have passed, or else just setting here, doing nothing?’
They attempt to rejoin humanity but consult some locals first. One tells them not to concern themselves with God’s intentions; an old farmer tells them not to concern themselves with public affairs and just work their land, which will spare them from the three evils: boredom, vice, and need. The whole group take this advice and cultivate their garden and find a certain degree of peace and happiness—though it is an imperfect happiness.
Dr. Pangloss’ philosophizing provides no solution to the problem of evil in the world. Pangloss’ optimism is worse than the mere absence of the solution because it justifies passivity and indifference to the cruelties in this world. Thus, like other defenses against evil, such as the Christian belief in the value of suffering and a heavenly reward, or the romanticized violence of medieval conquests, Pangloss’ optimism does nothing to resist evil or change the world for the better.
Voltaire wishes to challenge the philosophy of optimism in order to argue for the presence of free will in man. According to Voltaire, Leibniz asserts that God made only one world, “the best of all possible worlds,” which necessarily includes original sin. Leibniz thus sustains a central claim of the religious establishment, that man is born evil and must depend on the Church for spiritual reform.
Voltaire argues that man is born free to choose between good and evil. The many instances of vice and corruption encountered in Candide are not part of God’s master plan; rather, these evils are the product of man’s failure to choose good and resist evil.
In El Dorado, a world that exists outside of both the New and Old World—in other words, a utopian space. Candide suggests tentatively:
This is probably the country where everything is for the best, for it’s absolutely necessary that such a country should exist somewhere; and whatever master Pangloss said of the matter, I have often had occasion to notice that things went very badly in Westphalia.
One of the most disturbing episodes in this story happens when Candide tries to hire a passage on a boat from Surinam to Italy, along with a couple of rare sheep he still has left over from El Dorado. The Dutch merchant with whom he is trying to book a passage sets a fee; Candide agrees to pay it. But the ease with which Candide has decided that he will pay that fee suggests to the merchant that he is dealing with a rich man, so he goes away and comes back a little later. He says, “I’m going to have to double that fee.” Candide say, “Okay.” So the merchant leaves again and comes back a little bit later and he raises the fee again. Candide says, “Alright, I’ll pay that.” Then the merchant takes the sheep and all of Candide’s luggage aboard and then sets sail without Candide. Candide immediately rushes to the house of a Dutch magistrate and there he knocks very loudly on the door. He is, after all upset after having lost a great fortune to the merchant.
In telling his story, he perhaps speaks a little louder than he usually does and the magistrate fines him a large amount for disturbing the peace. After paying the fine the magistrate says, “Okay, now, if you talk quietly, I’ll listen to the rest of your story.” Candide tells him the whole story of what the merchant did to him. The magistrate charges him another exorbitant fee for listening to the story, promises to look into it, and then that is the end of the matter. Nothing ever comes of it. Candide, in reflecting back on this, says that, while he has endured a lot more painful experiences, this one really affected him the most. He says that the sheer treachery of the merchant and the mechanical, complacent, coldness of the magistrate make him dwell on what he calls the “malice of men in all its ugliness” and this puts him into a very deep melancholy.
And so it goes throughout the course of this book. Just outside Surinam, Candide and his traveling companion come up upon a black man who is missing a right hand and a left leg. He tells them that he works in a sugar mill as a slave. Once he caught his finger in the machinery and the punishment for catching your finger in the machinery is to have your hand cut off. Once he tried to run away and the punishment for trying to run away is to have your leg cut off. Candide tells his companion he thinks he is going to have to give up on the theory of Optimism. When his companion says, “What is Optimism?” Candide says, “It’s a mania for saying that all is well when one is in Hell.” Despite his pity for the Negro, Candide’s belief that even this injustice must serve a useful purpose shows his passivity in the face of evil.
The question about all of this is where does human nature come from? Why are humans the way they are? Candide asks Martin:
Do you believe that men have always massacred one another as they do today? That they have always been liars, traitors, ingrates, thieves, weaklings, sneaks, cowards, backbiters, gluttons, drunkards, misers, climbers, killers, calumniators, sensualists, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?
And Martin says, “What do you think? Do you think hawks have always eaten pigeons when they could find them? For Martin, human nature is as fixed as hawk nature. The overwhelming theme in Candide is that people are corrupt, even if they were not born that way. This is a very pessimistic view of the world, but even Martin, the pessimist, admits that it is always good to have hope. This book offers the only hope for happiness in a largely corrupt world through the exercise of a collective free will, that is, “cultivating our gardens” or creating a greater social good.
The whole little group entered into this laudable scheme. Each one began to exercise his talents. The little plot yielded fine crops. Cunegonde was, to tell the truth, remarkably ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook. Old Woman did the laundry. Everyone did something useful. Pangloss sometimes used to say to Candide, ‘All events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds, for, after all, if you had not been driven from a fine castle by being kicked in the backside for love of Miss Cunegonde, if you hadn’t been sent before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t traveled across America on foot, if you hadn’t given a good sword thrust to the Baron, if you hadn’t lost all of your sheep from the good land of El Dorado, you wouldn’t be sitting here eating candied citron and pistachios.
‘That is very well put,’ said Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.’
There are lots of ways we can interpret cultivation of our garden. Voltaire uses a metaphor about “mice in the galleys.” This metaphor suggests that the universe was not made for our specifications any more than the ship was made for mice. Like the mice, we are accidental tourists on this planet. Speculations about good and evil, about the purposes of creation, are as foolish as mice speculating on the nature of the ship.
The Turkish farmers says that work keeps us, individually from boredom, vice and poverty. That is, if we stay busy, we will be less likely to be entangled in pointless speculations like the mice on the galley. Martin says, “Let’s work without speculating, it’s the only way of rendering life bearable.”
Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.
Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.
Is there anyone so wise as to learn by the experience of others?
It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.
No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.
When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.
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