I’ve recently picked up several of the Barnes & Noble classic paperbacks (which are wonderfully cheap) to throw into the ever-growing bin of stuff to read this summer. I started with Thoreau’s Walden/Civil Disobedience, Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Voltaire’s Candide. I had just finished my last book, and am pretty bored with the current book I’m laboring through, so I took a break and started with the short, fast-paced Candide.
Most Christians stayed as far away from the French philosopher as they could (many today would do the same). Voltaire was a deist, despised organized religion, and wrote voluminously. Candide was written toward the end of his long career. It is a scathing satire of the philosophical view that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds.
Candide is raised in an idealic setting, and falls in love with the daughter of the baron he is staying with. He’s kicked out of the house, forced to join the army, travels all over the globe (sometimes willingly), suffers all kinds of physical torture and pain, and somehow maintains the view taught by his mentor Pangloss that everything works to the best possible end. Candide’s goal is always the same–to find and marry his true love. He finds himself in the mythical city of El Dorado, and actually wants to leave. The king gives him twelve red sheep loaded down with money–and he promptly loses ten of them. Along the way, Candide loses his friends, finds them again, and his view that we live in the best of all possible worlds slowly erodes. Candide finally finds his true love, and she’s now “ugly”–a sunburned, wrinkled slave whose hardships have aged her… and yet, no one has told her she’s now “ugly.” Having spent his fortune to find his love, Candide no longer wants to marry her, but does so anyway. He spend the rest of his days bored to death on a tiny farm having philosophical discussions with all of his friends, all of them wishing they were going through all the tortures that befell them in the past instead of boring themselves to death on the farm. Candide constantly reminds his friends that they must cultivate their garden, as it is a primary source of income. The last paragraph of the book shows Pangloss telling Candide that in the best of all possible worlds, events are linked–if he hadn’t gone through all those tragedies, he would be sitting their eating pistachio-nuts. Candide agrees, but says, “we must cultivate our garden.” The meaning of the statement has been debated for two hundred years (I think he means, “We make the best of our world, because it sucks.”).
I found Candide to be a wonderful read. Fast-paced, with nothing to bog down the plot. I appreciate Voltaire’s effort to tear down the “best of all worlds” view of the universe, and even his skewering of organized religion (the only religious character in the book that was cast in a favorable light was James the Anabaptist, and he died–Catholics and Protestants, when not fighting each other, would both have turned on the Anabaptists in Voltaire’s time). I didn’t, however, agree with the premise of the book that we live in a terrible world and have to make the best of it. Those who say we do not live in the best possible world cite the atrocities taking place every day. If “best” means the absence of suffering, then we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. But what makes this the best of all possible worlds is our ability to choose–free will (apologies to all my Reformed theology friends). Does that come with a price tag? Absolutely. People do choose evil over good. People do suffer. But there is also much beauty in the world–in nature and from our ability to create and love which stems from being created in the image of God.
The B&N Classics Candide retails for $4.95.