For years I have heard the name Voltaire and have not had a chance to
locate any of his works. Then the fateful day came when I went into Well Read Books and came across Candide.
As I flew through the first couple of chapters at the Gold Pan, I found the charm of Voltaire’s storytelling is not in his plot but in the philosophies that are dictated by different characters.
In Candide our hero is a teacher named Pangloss who taught such things as, “It is proved that things cannot be other than they are, for since everything was made for a purpose, it follows that everything is made for the best purpose.”
The young Candide adapts Pangloss’ motto as his own.
After Candide has suffered a little we begin to sway back and forth between Pangloss’s teachings and he begins to think for himself. “If this is the best of all possible worlds what can the rest be like?”
Yet after a little break of fortune he is singing praises, “Our excellent Pangloss often proved to me that worldly goods are common to all men, and that everyone has an equal right to them.”
Enter a new man named Martin. When asked about his opinion of moral and physical evil, he replies, “What I really believe is that man was created by the forces of evil and not the forces of good. The devil meddles so much with the affairs of the world, that he may be living inside me, as well as everywhere else.”
Candide asks Marvin what was this world created for? “To drive us mad” is the reply.
“What can you expect? That’s how people here are made. Imagine every possible contradiction and inconsistency, and you will find them in the government, the law-courts, the churches, and in the whole life of this absurd nation.”
The last great character is a man named Pococurante. He speaks with what must be Voltaire’s voice as he chastises some literary giants: “It doesn’t delight me. There was a time when people convinced me that I enjoyed Homer, but that eternal succession of identical combats, those gods who are always busy but to no effect, that Helen of his who gives rise to the war yet plays so little part in the story, that Troy so endlessly besieged without being taken- it bores me to distraction. I have sometimes asked learned men if they found this book as tedious as I do. Those who were sincere all confessed that it dropped from their hands, but that they felt obliged to keep it in their library, like a relic of the past or like rusty coins with no current use.”
Or on Cicero, “I never read him at all. I used to prefer his philosophical works; but when I found that he was in doubt about everything, I decided that I knew as much as he and needed no one’s help to remain ignorant.”
Upon leaving Candide and Martin discuss this Pococurante. Candide believes that there went the happiest man alive, for he is superior to all he possesses. Yet Martin disagrees, “Don’t you see that he is disgusted with everything he possesses? Plato long ago said that the best stomachs are not those that reject food.”
“But isn’t there a pleasure in criticizing everything and discovering faults where other men detect beauties?”
“That is to say that there is a pleasure in not being pleased.”
Candide would sum it up like this, “That’s true enough but we must go and work in the garden.”