Candide (“C”), a triumph of satire and alternately comedy and tragedy so brutal as to defy credulity, was written by Marie Louis Arouet, known to the world by his nome de plume, Voltaire, who was France’s greatest philosopher, the dominant force in The Age of Enlightenment, who was also an accomplished playwright, novelist, investor and who is likely the most admired Frenchman who ever lived and among a handful of the most quoted writers in recorded history. This novel, almost short enough to be dubbed a novelette, was written in the tradition of Boccaccio’s Decamaron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with a touch of Cervantes Don Quixote stirred into the mix – the misadventures of a kindly and naive traveler.
It is the story of Candide (the optimist) was schooled by Pangloss, who taught that there is no cause without an effect, that everything happens for a reason, that everything that happens is for the best, and that this is the best of all possible worlds…Keep moving, because, even if you don’t find something agreeable, you will find something new…All material things perish eventually, and, in the end, the only thing of lasting value is virtue. In other words, Pangloss preached Christianity or classic ethics, in a manner of speaking.
Then, Candide’s troubles began. He suffered Job-like travails, including being thrown out of the castle in which he was born for a trivial display of admiration for the Baron’s daughter; then beaten and conscripted into the Bulgarian Army, where he suffered the pains of a soldier, violating his principles by killing to avoid being killed; then being on a ship in a hurricane and later in an earthquake; losing the love of his life, who was raped endless by invaders who destroyed her castle and everyone in it; then he was flagellated publicly for not disagreeing voluntarily with the ideas of his teacher and mentor, Pangloss. After being preached too, beaten and subsequently absolved, he was released, but, wherever Candide’s travels took him, he found war, murder, torture, imprisonment or cannibalism. In the army, C was instructed that war is “heroic butchery…rape a natural necessity of army heroes…and burning a village to the ground is a law of war.” (These sentiments are brilliantly articulated in Heller’s 1929 masterpiece, Catch 22.) Then, there was the scholar, who was robbed by his wife, beaten by his son, forsaken by his daughter and persecuted by the clergy. Whereupon, Candide wondered “What can be the sufficing reason for these tragedies?” Candide, no surprise, began to question his optimism, as everything did not seem to happen for the best.
Voltaire, ever the devil’s advocate, muses that the will to live is like caressing a serpent that would devour us…The law of Nature tells us to kill our neighbors and this is practiced all over the world. Life, on balance, he reveals, is comprised of randomly occurring tragedies; life is not fair. Pangloss was wrong about that. Candide finally stumbled upon El Dorado, a mythical place in Peru where things were made of gold, silver and precious stones, a place without prisons, torture, war or conflict of any kind, a utopia. From this he learned that material things perish and that there is nothing substantial save virtue. At least in that, Pangloss was correct.
Critics remain divided over Voltaire’s message. Voltaire enjoyed being somewhat obscure, but this reader concluded that Voltaire was spoofing those who hold that “All that happens is for the best…That it was intended by some Supernatural Force…And that we should accept it happily and gratefully and move on.” Voltaire, possibly the greatest of all essay-writers, was a fatalist. In died, among his last words were these: “I die loving my friends, not hating my enemies but detesting superstition.” Yet, he observed, “Laughter saves us from insanity,” and his life’s motto was, “Laugh and make laugh.” What better advice can we be given? On balance, the prose flow lightly; the adventures are interesting, if alternately comic and brutal; still, this novelette must be read, if for no other reason than the fact that all readers of the classics discuss it, and to miss Voltaire is to deprive yourself of one of the greatest minds who ever lived.