I have a vague memory of reading Candide back in high school. Similar to many of my high school reading experiences, very little comes to mind. I remember it was funny and also a tad risque. Unfortunately, the rest gets lost in that jumble of forced readings. Picking it up as an adult with way more experiences under his belt was a much more rewarding time. Published in 1759 as a satire on certain religious and philosophical theories, I can’t remember the last time a classic made me laugh but also contemplate my role in human existence. I also found that the work is still relevant in today’s tragicomic world.
The story centers on Candide, the bastard nephew of a powerful Baron in Westphalia, a region in Germany. Candide lives a life of luxury in the Baron’s castle along with his tutor Pangloss who teaches his students that “everything is for the best” and that they “live in the best of all possible worlds.” Candide is a simpleton who believes in this optimistic philosophy with all his being. He is also romantically in love with the Baron’s daughter. When the two are caught showing their love for each other, Candide is immediately ostracized from the castle which begins a comedy series of misadventures. During his travels around the world, Candide witnesses all manners of the world’s cruelty such as illness, torture, wars, religious intolerance, an earthquake, and death. Over the course of time, Candide begins to question the blind optimism of Pangloss. Voltaire manages to keep the mood light in this book by filling it with ridiculous characters and several humorous moments. Never since Jonathan Swift, have I seen satire done so well.
First, I think it is so awesome that the writer Francois-Marie Arouet changed his name to “Voltaire.” He truly was the rock star of the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire detested the overly optimistic philosophy of Leibniz and had no issues with criticizing it throughout the story. Although written as a novel, it does read more like several philosophical conversations. On the one side, we have Pangloss who argues that we should just accept the world as it is and remain optimistic. Then there is a philosopher named Martin who Candide meets during his adventures. Martin who believes the world was created “to drive us mad.” In between, we have Candide whose “face was the true index of his mind.” Although he grows and changes by the end of the book, the one factor that kept Candide going was the thought of reuniting with his beloved. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say it is funny yet endearing at the same time.
After meeting an old farmer, Candide’s final advice is that we must “cultivate our garden.” Throughout Candide, there were numerous gardens serving as religious motifs. As I closed the book, I thought a lot about what this final statement meant. Although the world has changed a lot since the time of Voltaire, in many ways it’s still the same. There is hatred and cruelty everywhere we go. Simply turn on the news and within five minutes, you’ve heard about three deaths, or a rape, or another act of violence. Often, there is negativity and heartache everywhere you look. When all of this is happening, it makes it difficult to continue looking for the fairy tale. My take on Voltaire is that he didn’t want us to just turn a blind eye to the darkness whenever we encounter it in all its forms, but to try and create the best life possible for ourselves. Optimism is an essential element, now more than ever, to survive this insane world. It doesn’t mean we should just be positive and let fate dictate our paths in life. We work hard to build the best possible world we can. It is also essential to truly believe in ourselves. A friend once told me that rather than exalt others, I should put myself on a pedestal. These wise words will always resonate with me in whatever path I pursue in life.
“It is love; love, the comfort of the human species, the preserver of the universe, the soul of all sentient beings, love, tender love.”