By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Voltaire
Narrated by: Jack Davenport
Naiveté has become synonymous with Voltaire’s Candide. Candide accepts a philosophy of life taught by a fool. Voltaire creates Pangloss, a tutor and mentor to Candide. To Pangloss, there is no evil in the world because God created the world and what happens to God’s creation only reflects “the best of all possible worlds”. Not even Thomas Aquinas’s argument that man has free-will carries any moral or religious weight in Voltaire’s eyes. Voltaire attacks Aquinas’s free-will dicta with stories of unprovoked rape, human enslavement, and ministerial perfidy.
Voltaire is not denying the existence of a Supreme Being or free-will in Candide but objects to intellectualization of evil by creating a story filled with ironic, tragi-comic human events. Women are raped, and forced into prostitution. Both men and women are enslaved. Clergy use their office to despoil women. Voltaire implies life’s outcomes, whether good or bad, are not spiritually compensated by heaven or hell. The inference is that living is a struggle for all human beings and that human’s nature largely revolves around self-interest.
No human being is saintly in Voltaire’s world. Human beings are naturally good and bad. The characters in Candide illustrate extremes of humankind. There is Martin who is highly intelligent but wholly pessimistic, and there is Candide who is gullible and wholly optimistic. Everyone in Martin’s world is dishonest and untrustworthy. Though Martin is shown to be frequently right in his predictions of bad behavior of others, he is also wrong in arguing humans act only out of perceived self-interest.
Voltaire creates Cacambo, who appears as intelligent as Martin, but shows himself to be trustworthy and honest in his dealings with the naïve and gullible Candide. Cacambo represents an eternal optimist who acts as representative for saving Candide’s lady love, a woman broken and abused who suffers the ravages of age beyond her years. Though Candide’s lady love has lost her looks, he feels honor bound to marry and remain her husband.
At first, it appears Voltaire suggests life is a consequence of pessimism and optimism. However, by the end of Voltaire’s satire, one understands pessimism and optimism are only turns of human nature’s roulette wheel. The life of a single human being is like the momentum of a ball circling a roulette wheel. The ball arbitrarily drops into a slot that affects one’s life.
In the end, Voltaire implies neither pessimism nor optimism perfectly captures life. His last words on the subject come from Candide’s comment about “tending one’s own garden”. It seems pessimism and optimism are of no consequence to the person that tends their own garden. “Nose to the grindstone” is Voltaire’s prescription for a life well spent. It is “tending one’s own garden” that gives meaning to life.