On Suffering in Voltaire’s Candide

“All is best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Were he alive today, Voltaire would be shocked to find that Candide, an acerbic little satire of Leibnizian optimism, is considered his most widely celebrated work. He wrote the novella over three days in 1759, and published it anonymously in order to dodge further persecution by the French ruling class. Like Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travels before him, Voltaire’s Candide (meaning “fair” or “bright”) is about a silly picaresque hero who encounters an endless string of tragedies –banished from the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh in Westphalia for his perceived romance with the Baron’s daughter Lady Cunégonde (her name is a bawdy French joke). From here, Candide is taken on an absurd adventure that leads him across the known 18th century world. He is brutally tortured, enslaved, and otherwise harangued by troubles from Holland, Venice, and Cadiz to Lisbon, Buenos Aires, and Constantinople. Whereas Don Quixote was limited exclusively to the Spanish lands, and Gulliver was transported to distant imaginative fantastical realms (fictional “remote nations of the world”), Candide visits existing places in the real world (aside from stumbling upon El Dorado). Candide is intended to be a mirror of our ourselves. As he travels across the world, Candide experiences scenes of grave and random suffering, such as the horrid brutality of the Seven Years War and the wanton destruction of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. And everywhere he goes, Candide overhears divergent perspectives on the question of theodicy: if God is beneficent, why does evil persist in the world? Why does a silent heaven stand by as human suffering reigns over the earth? Is God simply not all-good? Is he not all-powerful? If he allows for evil to exist, did he then create evil? If so, to what extent does God contain the seed of evil within himself? What is the distinction between villainy and divinity? These and many other questions are pursued by our soft and gentle hero.

In truth, Candide is a very funny novella. Why do we laugh at such a naive, innocent protagonist as Candide? Do we take pleasure in his suffering? The modern satirical work seems to carry a particular masochistic fascination with tormenting their protagonists who have a childlike, innocent disposition by placing them into a series of vicious trials until they are sufficiently bludgeoned into a cold and disillusioned outlook. Here we point again to the likes of Don Quixote. Similarly, Candide’s earnestness is equally coupled with his unyielding ability to exist as a human punching bag –he is optimistic yet abused. After all he is described as a “youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters. His soul is revealed in his face” (15), yet he is also brutally tortured, robbed, and brought to the point of death in nearly every conceivable fashion. Yet at the same time, Voltaire presents Candide with a certain degree of flippant distance. Candide is a most silly man. Every moment of suffering is immediately coupled with an instant recovery and he is quickly sped away to the next adventure –we rarely pause for a moment to reflect on all the suffering. And this notion of suffering is integral to the theme of the novella.

The other chief character worthy of contemplation is Candide’s tutor, Dr. Pangloss (literally meaning “all talk” or “all speech” or even “windbag”), an oft pontificating philosopher not so subtly based on Gottfried Leibniz, who begins the story as a respected “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigologist” in Westphalia, but is later found starving, homeless, and syphilitic. Nevertheless he continues to propound his philosophy of optimism –that this long-suffering life is actually the “best of all possible worlds” and that the world is the necessary result of a divinely ordained system of cause and effect. Every castle is the best of all possible castles, every earthquake is the best of all possible earthquakes, and even every chaotic, unpredictable tragedy is the best of all possible tragedies. Every new and deranged method of pain inflicted upon humanity is merely in the service not only of the good, but rather of the best, or the greatest good. All is best in the best of all possible worlds. Needless to say a myriad of challenges arise against this optimistic philosophy: from ravaging diseases and destructive natural events, to religious intolerance and public executions, violent rapists and intellectual charlatanry of all forms. However with each new tragedy, Candide begins to doubt Pangloss’s teaching.

Unlike Aristotle who claims that the contemplative life is akin to the good life, Voltaire offers a bleak, pessimistic view of the good life as one without philosophy. Life is tolerable but only without these heavy, truncated, grandiose theories about the nature of good and evil. After wandering far and wide to many places, including a brief respite into the fabled city of El Dorado which is a locale of perfect Enlightenment where science and reason rule the people, Candide eventually finds himself in Constantinople. He meets a Turkish Dervish known as the “best philosopher in Turkey.” When they begin to discuss the problem of evil, the Dervish poses a question to Candide: when the Sultan sends a ship to Egypt does he worry about how comfortable the mice are? In other words, God cares little for humanity and this world can be cruel and cold, so why bother worrying about divine dispensations of goods (or lack thereof)? The best a man can do is look to his own affairs. Instead the Dervish offers his own personal story: he humbly works on a 20-acre farm with his sons which is salvation from life’s three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty. With this in mind, Candide ends the novella amidst echoes of Plato and Herodotus, by turning away from Pangloss’s theories and instead focusing on cultivating his own garden “il faut cultiver notre jardin” (apparently Voltaire revised this ending several times). His perspective no longer has a global horizon. Has he learned anything by the end of the book? Has Candide grown? Is he rejecting philosophy? Notably, in the end Candide is ultimately persuaded by an anonymous Turkish Dervish rather than a Western philosopher. This ending to Candide is the embodiment of the Enlightenment turning against itself as faith in Reason erodes and gives way to the emergence of Romanticism. It is in a sense an anti-progressive book, yet it is also a blistering dethroning of religious and academic authorities –all self-professed theologians in the novella are portrayed as either depraved, conniving, or hypocritical in the extreme. Instead of these high-falutin, pompous, self-aggrandizing spiritual and academic superiors, Voltaire suggests we should refocus on our own ends, a horizon with limits, tending to our own gardens, living in the moment, finding purpose in groundedness, all the while experiencing suffering rather than developing complex metaphysical theories about its divinely orchestrated being in the world.

For this reading I used the paperback Bantam Classics edition of Lowell Bair’s translation of Voltaire’s Candide. Lowell Bair is a translator of various French works like The Count of Monte Cristo and Madame Bovary.

Interestingly enough, not unlike Don Quixote before it, there was an illegitimate sequel to Candide published the following year in 1760 likely written by a French monk named Henri-Joseph Dulaurens.

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