Candide by Voltaire
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 8:34 am on Saturday, May 15, 2010

From the publisher:
“Brought up in the household of a German Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that ‘all is for the best’. But when his love for the Baron’s rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own fortune. As he and his various companions roam over the world, an outrageous series of disasters befall them—earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder—sorely testing the young hero’s optimism. In Candide, Voltaire threw down an audacious challenge to the philosophical views of his time, to create on of the most glorious satires of the eighteenth century.”

My thoughts:
This book was written in the eighteenth century, at the peak of the Enlightenment, yet we’re still faced with the monstrous conclusions of the optimist philosophy, which is really just a fatalism of the worst kind. Instead of Leibniz and his stand-in, Pangloss, we have The Secret (and all of its kin) on the one side and the “fine-tuned universe” proponents on the other. But the funny thing is, if one believes in an omnipotent, benevolent deity, Leibniz’s answer must logically be correct.*

It goes like this. First, assume there is a god. Then consider these three statements: God is all-powerful; God is all-good; there is evil in the world. Pick two. If God is omnipotent and there is evil in the world, God must not be benevolent. If God is benevolent and there is evil in the world, God must be impotent (or at least evenly matched by a non-benevolent god or force). If there is only one god who is both omnipotent and benevolent, then evil must not exist. Therefore, suffering is either illusory or it is necessary. In the case of either of these two alternatives, evil must be part of God’s plan (i.e. “everything happens for a reason”). Leibniz goes at it from another direction. Again, assume there is a god. God is perfect, therefore, nothing that God does or creates can be imperfect, wanting, or evil. God’s creation must be perfect, suffering must be part of God’s plan (i.e. “everything happens for the best”).

Now a logical mind says “I have evidence of suffering, but no evidence for a god that is omnipotent, perfect, benevolent. Therefore, the likely answer is that god, if one exists at all, must have a flaw.”* But if you start with the false premises left to us by Christian theologians, the same logic will lead you straight into Panglossianism.

Voltaire shows us how absurd adoption of such a philosophy is, as Candide and the people he encounters are subjected to lives of cruel misery. How could being the victim of slavery and rape and natural disasters be the result of existing in the best possible world? So then, what can we do? We can’t live as the Eldoradans do, without care or trouble or pain—Eldorado doesn’t exist for most (any?) of us.

Martin, the representative of pessimism, says that we’re left to spend our lives “either in convulsions of misery or in the lethargy of boredom.” Ultimately, Candide and his companions find some kind of contentment in honest labour for the benefit of the household. But is cultivating one’s garden enough when there is injustice and misery going on right outside the garden walls? And what of new invaders? In the end Candide’s problem isn’t really resolved at all…

*Let’s leave aside, for the sake of brevity other possible solutions to this conundrum (e.g. multiple gods, degrading emanation, and the Christian favourite: attribution of all suffering to The Fall)

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