Candide — Voltaire

This is a classic I some how missed in my youth.  What with all the raping and pillaging and murdering you’d think it would be a bigger draw for HS students.

I am not pretending to be some learned philosopher, nor am I presuming to believe that my perceptions of this work accurately represent the author’s intentions.  The one thing I believe whole-heartedly is that Voltaire’s desire was  for his audience to think about those things he so fervently skewers.  As a satire this is filled with back-handed insults to many powerful members of society.  As was the style of the time, his  narrative is overblown in order to stress the nature of Candide’s optimism.

Candide is a naive simpleton when it comes to matters of the world.  You cannot blame him for this state of affairs at the outset, he’s been raised in an idyllic setting and taught that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  This is the crux of the matter. Candide’s belief system has the cart before the horse.  There is war because war is necessary for this to be the best of all possible worlds. Whatever is, is because it’s always been that way, and it is the necessity of these things that makes this the best of all possible worlds.  (An example that is more revealing is this:  Our faces are made the way they are because it is what’s needed for spectacles to fit.  Our legs are designed to hold pants.)

Being thrust into the cold, cruel world for feeling up the Baron’s daughter, should have been the beginning of a much different education. The lessons were there but Candide proves to be a slow learner.  After being kicked out, he is conscripted by the Bulgar army, escapes, finds his tutor Pangloss who is now a syphilitic, learns his family has been slaughtered by the Bulgars.  He acquires a friend Jaques who nurses Pangloss back to health, and then is lost at sea. Candide manages to survive an earthquake, tidal wave, and fire, but is arrested as a heretic. He loses Pangloss (again) to the Inquisition, escapes and finds his one true love, kills two men to avenge her honor,  and has to escape to Argentina.

This is only the beginning, his misfortunes only get worse from here.  Does he learn from this? No. In some way he manages to see that all of this is for the best, that there is always a reason for the things that happen, and that reason is always for the good. Well, actually for the best.  He is almost like Job.   He continues to believe that this must be the way it is for this to be the best of all possible worlds.

He befriends a man named Martin who is much more pragmatic if not cynical about the world and tries to enlighten and protect Candide at the same time.  At this point, Candide is cash heavy and just about every opportunist in Paris can see him coming, and quickly divest him of most of his recent wealth.

In all of this, he has lost his one true love again, lost a couple of very faithful and devoted companions, all his money, but none of his optimism.  With Martin at hand he has the opportunity to speak with an extremely wealthy Italian nobleman who finds no happiness in anything. (This is not a poor choice of grammar.  To say the man finds happiness in nothing, implies he finds happiness and this is not the case.)  Everything Candide asks about his replies are disparaging, negative and disdainful.  As they return to their quarters, Candide expresses appreciation for a man such that he needs nothing as he is clearly satisfied and happy to be above it all.  Martin points out that quite to the contrary the nobleman has no ability to be happy because nothing meets his criteria of goodness.

Candide once again finds his companion from Argentina who brings him to his true love and her servant, he finds Pangloss, and the handmaid that gave Pangloss syphilis, Martin remains.  They spend their days discussing what the best of all possible worlds actually means.  In the end Candide and his companions realize that happiness is derived only from being productive and contributing something to the greater good.  But you’ll need to find out how they got there.