Voltaire. Candide. Trans. Lowell Bair. Classic ed. New York: Bantam, 1951. 122 pp.
A book review essay by David Bell
The Bantam Classic edition of Candide is a straightforward presentation of the work translated into English. The text is divided into thirty chapters, each with a description of what happens therein, and interspersed with illustrations. It includes two useful sources of information about the author’s life. Before the title page is a brief factual description of Voltaire, describing his life from his education among the Jesuits, the imprisonments and banishments he suffered for his outspokenness, his residence at Ferney where he lived with his niece and wrote Candide, to his final return to acclaim in Paris. The appreciation by André Maurois immediately preceding the text is a much more enthusiastic take on Voltaire, sometimes approaching the hyperbolic by, for example, comparing his other works to “the perfection of Candide.” The one-sided acclaim aside, the appreciation provides a useful insight into Voltaire’s works and philosophy. Footnotes at the end of the book fill in some of the missing connections that only contemporary readers would have picked up on.
Voltaire was primarily concerned with rooting out and abolishing superstition and irrationality. The contemporary philosophy of optimism, the belief that everything in the world happens for the best, struck Voltaire as silly and wishful thinking, and Candide is a scathing satire that demonstrates the absurdity of such a belief. He was more inclined to believe that the world merely is what it is, filled with suffering, but he was optimistic enough to believe that people can work to improve their life and gain some shelter from misfortune. A true product of the Enlightenment, he believed in the ideal of reason over dogma, of natural philosophy over superstition.
As a satirist, Voltaire held little back in Candide. His primary target was Leibniz, a popular German philosopher of the time who believed that God, at the time of creation, had considered all possible worlds that could have been, and obviously chose the best of them. To Voltaire, this idea was ridiculous, and the vicious deconstruction of it forms the bulk of the book. But all figures of authority were fair game to his wit. The Church, nobility, Jews, soldiers, and especially intellectuals are each harshly portrayed. And when the opportunity presented itself, he was not above sneaking in disparaging comments directed as his critics.
The plot itself is by necessity rather weak. To further the purposes of the satire, the titular character is placed into ridiculous and unbelievable situations from the very first chapters to the conclusion of the story. However, these very things that would make bad drama allow Voltaire to get his message across very quickly. Dr. Pangloss is a mere caricature, but this allows Voltaire to establish the Optimism philosophy in a single phrase, “all is for the best,” and hold it up against the evils of the world to show that it is not true. The country of Eldorado lets him show a Utopian society where scientific thought leads to perfect peace and happiness, without looking too closely at how the standard of living there is supported.
Religion suffers as one of the primary victims of Voltaire’s acid. Jews are portrayed as slavers and usurers, yet Issachar is no worse than the Catholic Inquisitor is as far as depravity. In Holland, men espousing charity and compassion turn on Candide for not declaring the Pope to be the Antichrist. The Jesuits are indirectly shown to be such enemies of the Americas that Candide is set free by cannibals just for not being a Jesuit himself. In fact, the only religious men that are not portrayed as butchers, lechers, or at least uncharitable people are the vaguely Deistic Eldoradans—mouthpieces for Voltaire’s personal beliefs—and the virtuous Anabaptist who, as reward for helping Candide when no one else would, is pushed off a ship and drowned.
The modern penchant for sex and violence in entertainment is nothing new, and Voltaire knew very well what sells. Scenes of rape and murder are described quite cheerfully, and intentionally so, since the point is that to an optimist these atrocities are for the best. As early as the third chapter, he describes a viscerally disturbing scene of war and the aftermath of battle as “heroic,” even in the same breath that mentions the disemboweled rape victims of the soldiers. By these means, Voltaire both appeals to the base urges of his readers, and ties a sense of outrage to what he is lambasting.
The greatest danger of satire is that it often tears down without offering any suggestions for improvement. Voltaire, at least, was not content to deride what he did not approve of; he offered examples of a better way to think and act. Despite his name, Candide’s optimism is not the optimistic philosophy that Voltaire scorns. He is more moderate and willing to face the realities of the world than is Dr. Pangloss, despite his naiveté. Despite how often the pessimist Martin is proven to be right, Candide still believes that even if the world is not all for the best, at least a part of it can be made better. While Eldorado may stand as Voltaire’s example of what an ideal society would be like, he is pragmatic enough to admit that realistically it could never be, so the next best thing is for each of use to “cultivate our own garden.”
As a piece of literature, Candide is not perfectly timeless, but it does hold up well to the changes since the time of Voltaire. While modern readers may not understand the excesses of the clergy and nobility that he draws attention to, or care what the Journal de Trévoux would say, the fundamental conflict between optimism and pessimism remains. The power of religious superstition to govern our lives would outrage Voltaire just as badly if he lived in our time as it did then.
Most reviewers agree that the key to appreciating Candide fully is to understand the time he lived in, especially the popular philosophy of Leibniz. Voltaire’s strengths are also his weaknesses to his critics; what some consider witty and clever, others find smirking. It is true that a work such as this does not provoke a sense of merriment, but even if the reader is merely outraged and uncomfortable, Voltaire would have been satisfied so long as the reader was also thoughtful.
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