Saturday, January 2, 2010

Review of Candide

Candide ou l'optimisme (Candide, or Optimism), 1759, by Voltaire, read in French. Glossy's rating: 4 out of 10.

This book's eponymous protagonist is a naive young man who was taught by his teacher, the philosopher Pangloss, that ours is the best possible world and that everything in it always happens for the best. According to Pangloss, misfortunes only ever visit us because they contribute in some way to the general good and "the more private misfortunes there are, the more general good" there is.

Pangloss also dusts off the old chestnuts that all men were created equal and that all property should belong to everyone. Voltaire wrote this novella mainly to refute these ideas, which he attributed to Gottfried Leibniz.

It was hard for me to get excited about this book-length refutation because I don't know anyone who believes that everything in our world always occurs "for the best". Most of us are aware of people who think that private property is evil and that all men were created equal, but unfortunately, those are not the parts of Pangloss's thought that Voltaire spends most of his time refuting. He simply has Candide go through a long series of fantastically cruel misadventures, all just to prove to him that life isn't a piece of cake.

At one point in the novella a character named "the wise man of taste" (oh, the subtlety!) holds forth on literature. Among other things he says that a good writer should always strive for newness without being bizarre. Voltaire clearly failed his own test here - all of Candide is bizarre.

While pretty violent, this book is not at all depressing. This is mostly because Voltaire seems completely uninterested in his characters' inner lives. I can't imagine what a movie based on Candide would look like, in large part because a cartoon would be far more appropriate for it. After being hanged, raped and pierced with swords, the characters invariably dust themselves off to cheerfully continue their arguments about Leibniz's ideas. Their emotional responses to being hanged and raped aren't any more realistic or thought-provoking than the physical ones.

Voltaire made his naive, honest, idealistic protagonist German. After two and a half centuries that stereotype hasn't really changed. Another one has though: in Voltaire's imagination Germany seems to have been a wild, provincial country situated on the far outskirts of civilization. In the 18th century his native France was still the cool kid of nations - a dynamic trend-setter, envied by everybody with a clue. Northern Italy had held that place during the Renaissance, but by Voltaire's time it was already considered a decadent has-been. Voltaire dramatized that feeling here through the character of the Venetian aristocrat Pococurante, who has seen everything and is tired of everything.

The cycle that takes some societies from provincialism to leadership and then, almost invariably, to decline is fascinating. A century after Voltaire's death it was France's turn to become a symbol of decadence in the world's imagination, and Germany's turn to start setting the trends. Then, in the second half of the 20th century, Germany itself joined the rest of Western Europe in the declinist camp, while America and Russia tried their hands at leading.

In his time Voltaire was a notorious liberal, and consequently a very fashionable guy to know. But times change - so much so that some of the stuff in this book would probably get him thrown in jail as a Nazi in modern France. For example: "The northern nations have not that heat in their blood, nor that raging lust for women, so common in Africa." Or this, from one female character's description of how she was raped by a pirate: "He was an abominable negro, and yet believed that he did me a great deal of honor". And this is how the same woman explains the pirates' attraction to her and to her European companions: "...our maids of honor, and even our waiting women, had more charms than are to be found in all Africa..." In a different chapter he describes women from an Indian tribe in Paraguay being amorous with apes, incorrectly stating that such unions are capable of producing offspring.

Through the character of Pococurante Voltaire dismisses all scientists and their work as utterly useless: "...if only one of those rakers of rubbish had shown how to make pins; but in all these volumes there is nothing but chimerical systems, and not a single useful thing."

The Pococurante episode also contains a short review of what people of Voltaire’s age considered great literature. Most of the authors mentioned were unsurprisingly Greek and Roman. Only one English writer is discussed and it is Milton, not Shakespeare. In 1759, when Candide was first published, Shakespeare hadn't become super-important yet.

Voltaire spends a lot of time decrying the horrors of war here. Actually, I've never thought of the first three quarters of the 18th century as having been particularly violent. It's only with the French Revolution, many of whose leaders were inspired by Voltaire, that the quaint little wars and cartoonish despotisms of his age gave way to the megawars and megadespotisms of the Jacobin and Napoleonic types.

Voltaire, a staunch enemy of organized religion, included an auto-da-fe scene here as an example of how violent his clerical foes could be. Of course, the Revolution and its copycats across Europe ended up killing a lot more people than the Inquisition ever could, with most of the Revolutionaries being as anti-clerical as Voltaire. It's important to state here, however, that unlike many modern European critics of Christianity, Voltaire was a consistent secularist - his attitudes towards Islam and Judaism were often negative as well.

As a contrast to the crumminess of the real world, Voltaire included in this book a description of a utopia called Eldorado. Like everything else in "Candide", this utopia is painted in pretty broad, cartoonish brushstrokes, but I'd like to single out one of its aspects nevertheless.

Eldorado is apparently devoid of war, crime and all other forms of human conflict. Let's disregard for a moment the fact that no such society has ever existed. Let's just ask if such a society could ever arise, and if so, what would be the long-term consequences?

I believe that man, like all other animals, is a product of evolution. The competition for survival, essential to evolution, takes many forms, most of them involving conflict in some way. Regardless of whether or not they want to admit it, most people enjoy conflict. I know that Voltaire did because I've just finished a book of his that joyfully attacks the church, Leibniz, a bunch of now-obscure Parisian writers who happened to be his professional rivals and lots of other people besides. If a society was somehow forced, against its will, to abandon all forms of conflict, what would become of that society long-term? Voltaire died long before the rise of political correctness, so he must have been aware of the correct answer to that question, yet he described his utopia as being devoid of conflict anyway. It's no excuse to say here that he couldn't have been aware of the theory of evolution as such. The 18th century was obsessed with the idea of breeding, both human and animal, so he must have known how that system worked even if he wouldn't have used modern terms to describe it.

To me the most likely explanation for the Eldorado episode, as for much else in Candide, is simple intellectual sloppiness.

Last updated on 1/09/19.


  1. I think that Voltaire wrote "Candide" for 2 main reasons: to amuse himself and to demonstrate his own wittiness and intellectual superiority. I think that Voltaire and Bertrand Russell were emotionally disengaged from people, although both had immense cleverness and perhaps justified feelings of intellectual superiority. Writers like that can be entertaining and stimulating but their writings often leave a strange cartoonish and emotionally shallow impression.

  2. I haven't read Candide as an adult, but as a teenager when I was 14. I was in a catholic school in France and we had each to read a classic book and make an essay on it, and read the books the others had to present to discuss them in class (35 classic books at 14 for the most courageous :D).

    I chose Candide randomly and it changed me. You can analyse it with a modern adult brain and speak about weirdness and contradiction in discourse, but when you're young and unexperienced about reality you read it differently. I remember very vividly the stuff about armies praying for the same god before fighting each other. That alone made me an atheist forever ... 3 centuries after the sentence was written :D

    The fact that Leibzig's idea is supposed to be worth discussing is indeed weird nowadays, I've never really cared about that, since as you said nobody think that way for real. But the ending of the book is extremely mysterious. For me who started thinking critically with Candide, seeing him abandon reflection to go on with life in his little protected garden scandalised me :D The biggest point of discussion for me was the last sentence. It contradicted everything the book stood for, and I hate the Candide character for that.

    What he said about slavery moved me (Le nègre de Surinam) and I've never understood the critics of Voltaire's supposed racism. Some people say the times were different, but I felt that even at that time Voltaire was strongly against slavery.

    In Voltaire's society, even for someone like him, nature was fixed. It never changed in the limits they conceived. For them, man was man and had always been man, and cows with bigger mammals were still cows. Breeding is in no way a definite proof of natural selection, millions of years of DNA tinkering, mono cell evolving to complex beings etc, so it's harsh to accuse him of not having said what he should have known. He was against the Church, maybe not against God per se. So well that's his limit for me, he created so many atheist in France, but he never attacked anything else than the Church. He never discussed the existence of God or the fact that even if God existed we should avoid obeying him.

  3. Your points are well taken, but "pour encourager les autres" was a great observation.