The Philosophy of Voltaire's "Candide" by William Dudley Foulke 1912
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IN the same year that "Rasselas" appeared (1759), Voltaire published his "Candide." While the coarseness and irreverent merriment of the French philosopher are quite unlike the ponderous Sunday-school didacticism of Dr. Samuel Johnson, still there are points of remarkable resemblance in these two works, written as they were by the two literary autocrats of that generation. The Happy Valley of Abyssinia finds its counterpart in El Dorado, and the object of each book was to illustrate the same truths — the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life and the vanity of human wishes, although the moral drawn from these truths is very different in the two cases.
Saintsbury considers "Candide" "from a literary point of view unsurpassable," while some of Voltaire's critics and commentators seem to regard it as scarcely worthy of notice. The truth lies somewhere between these estimates. "Candide" can hardly be classed as a novel, for it is in no sense a just portraiture of life or of human nature. It is essentially a burlesque written in ridicule of philosophic optimism, and of the orthodox contention that all which happens is the result of a wise and beneficent design. It is a work thoroughly characteristic of Voltaire, and
sparkles everywhere with his wit and laughing mockery.
Candide, the hero, is brought up in the castle of the Baron of Thunder-Ten-Tronckh, where Master Pangloss, the instructor who teaches metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-ingology, is the oracle of the family. "It is demonstrable," says this great philosopher, "that things cannot be otherwise than they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles; therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings; accordingly we wear stockings," etc. The book is a commentary on this text. Candide is kicked out of the castle for falling in love with the baron's daughter. After sad wanderings, he is impressed by the Bulgarians, flogged nearly to death, takes part in the war with the Abares, in which some thirty thousand souls are massacred, escapes to Holland, meets the sage Pangloss, who is dying of a loathsome disease and who tells him that the castle has been destroyed and its inmates put to death. But Pangloss recovers and they start for Portugal, encountering a tempest, a shipwreck, the earthquake of Lisbon (where 30,000 people were destroyed,) and finally the Inquisition and an auto-da-fe, where Candide receives a hundred lashes and Pangloss is hanged. Here Candide finds that his inamorata Cunegund is alive, having escaped the slaughter at Thunder-Ten-Tronckh, though she has encountered calamities equal to his own, and though at that time the Grand Inquisitor and one Issachar, a Jew, are holding her as their prisoner and slave. Candide slays them one after the other, and escapes with his Cunegund to Cadiz, whence they set sail for Buenos Aires. But here things are as bad as in Europe. Cunegund is again torn from her lover, who, with his servant, Cacambo, wanders through Paraguay; fights with her brother the baron, who has turned Jesuit and become one of the rulers of that country; escapes again, and discovers the hitherto inaccessible and unknown country of El Dorado in the heart of the mountains, where the clay is yellow gold, the pebbles are precious stones, where there are no priests, nor monks, nor courts, nor prisons, and where the people lead lives of innocence and ideal happiness. Upon his departure he takes with him a flock of sheep laden with treasure, but as soon as he reaches the haunts of men the wickedness of the world begins again. His treasure is stolen and he returns to Europe, meeting with marvellous adventures in France, in England, in Venice, and finally in Turkey, where he again encounters his Cunegund, ransoms her from slavery, and weds her, after she has become a hideous and ill-favored scold. The sage Pangloss, although he has been hanged, dissected, enslaved and flogged, turns up again, still maintaining that everything goes on as well as possible, because as a philosopher it would be unbecoming in him to retract!
At every turn of the kaleidoscope some new scene of fraud, lust, rapine, slaughter, sacrilege, or inevitable calamity, comes into view, generally linked with some ridiculous accessory such as only the mind of Voltaire could conceive, and yet with each grotesque apparition there comes also a sort of conviction that the author has not greatly overdrawn the picture, but has merely grouped together in startling juxtaposition the things which actually happen in the world.
At last Candide settles in a small farm in the Propontis, and from a neighbor, an old man, quite ignorant of philosophy and public affairs, he learns the real secret of happiness,— to cultivate his little patch of land, and by labor to keep off the three great evils, idleness, vice, and want. The moral is thus expressed in the concluding sentences:
"'There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund, had you not been put into the Inquisition, had you not traveled over America on foot, had you not run the baron through the body, and had you not lost all your sheep which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.' 'Excellently observed,' answered Candide, 'but let us take care of our garden.'"
While the story as a whole is a wild phantasmagoria, calling to mind the works of Rabelais by its grossness and inextricable confusion, it contains also, like "Gargantua," passages of exquisite irony and masterly satire. For instance, the Venetian senator Pococurante, who by despising and condemning the great works of art and literature proved his superiority to all and passed for a prodigious genius, is vividly drawn, and it makes us wonder whether Voltaire's own great reputation had not a source which was essentially the same as that of his Pococurante.
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