Candide by Voltaire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? “Candide” attempts to wrestle with this question. The protagonist, Candide, is taught by his tutor – the renowned philosopher, Pangloss – that their’s is the best possible world. However, as the story unfolds as one bad turn of events after the next, it becomes harder to argue that there couldn’t be a better world.
Candide is forced to flee from his love (Cunegonda,) is conscripted into wartime military service, is arrested for heresy, becomes a serial killer, acquires and subsequently loses a fortune, is robbed, finds himself in the middle of war and other conflicts, and stumbles into and then flees what might be the closest his world has to a utopia, el Dorado. And, it could be argued, Candide gets off relatively easy. Cunegonda is raped, sliced open, and enslaved. Her brother, the Baron, is run through and is also enslaved. Pangloss gets syphilis, is hung, is partially dissected, and is enslaved, as well.
And yet, to the end, Pangloss retains his (and Liebniz’s) belief that they live in the best of all possible worlds. Candide (kind of) does as well, though at the book’s end he’s fatigued by the question and just wants to distract himself from it with some gardening. The degree to which Candide sticks to his guns is impressive, not only because of everything that goes wrong, but also because he gets a new mentor / friend, Martin, a mentor diametrically opposed to the views of Pangloss. Like Pangloss, Martin is also a philosopher, but Martin’s worldview is much less optimistic, but it also reflects the crucial idea that how bad or good the world is has more to do with one’s perception of it than the events that one experiences. (When Candide asks Martin who has it worse: one of the deposed kings they met or Candide, himself, Martin said he couldn’t know without experiencing what’s in the mind of each.)
Despite the steady flow of negative happenings, the book doesn’t definitively answer the thematic question. How could it? The most it can say is that we don’t live in the best of all imaginable worlds, but we can’t know whether those worlds we imagine are possible. For one thing, we are forced to recognize that humans are flawed and that nature is indifferent, and these factors might play a role in the variation between best imagined world and the world we know. For another thing, maybe we couldn’t handle a more perfect world. The old lady character asks the group whether all the trials they’ve collectively suffered are worse, or better, than sitting around doing nothing – as they happened to be [not] doing at that moment.
This book provides a thought-provoking journey, and it’s well worth reading.
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