I am an insomniac. While this sucks, it gives me a chance to read things that I wouldn't normally read. Usually, I’m hoping the text just puts me to sleep. But sometimes, it doesn't. This is how I came to read Candide by Voltaire.
I am not familiar with Voltaire’s work. I know he was writing in the eighteenth century and associated with Enlightenment philosophy. I assumed Candide would be a work of philosophy. It isn't. It’s a short novel written by somebody who was clearly fatigued with elaborate philosophical arguments. It’s a drunken rant.
Candide is the name of a man. Candide was born into minor nobility and enjoyed a fine childhood. He had the comforts of castle-life, including the tutelage of Pangloss, a professor of “metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology.” Pangloss explained to Candide that God is perfect. Thus, the world is perfect, and is as it must be. In fact, this is “the best of all possible worlds.”
The philosophy of Pangloss reflects beliefs in an omnipotent and wholly benevolent god that existed in the eighteenth century and still do today. Pangloss’ philosophy is rekindled every time one utters the phrase, ‘God has a plan,’ or, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’
Modern philosophers have pretty much concluded that nothing happens for a reason. There is no metaphysical logic to the universe. If God has a plan, it is often a really shitty plan.
Back in Voltaire’s day, there actually were learned and reputable men who argued extensively that humans live in the most perfect of all possible worlds under a all-knowing, all powerful, and perfect God. After the Reformation, it became possible to question religion without immediately being executed. A few brave souls experimented with asking questions such as, ‘if God is powerful and good, why does evil exist in the world?’ Those, like Pangloss, who subscribed to this belief, reasoned that there must be evil in the world to allow humans to exercise free will. It’s a little more complicated than that, but it really doesn't matter. Anyway, plenty of people still hold such beliefs.
Voltaire clearly disagreed.
Voltaire’s Candide was banished from the castle after innocently feeling-up the 17-year-old princess. He was forcibly conscribed into the Bulgarian army. Not wanting to be in the army, Candide expressed a wish to exercise his God-given free will to not go to war. The army did not consider this a valid use of free will. Candide was tortured and beaten within an inch of his life. An official execution was arranged to take the final inch. Moments before Candide was to be shot,
“The King of the Bulgarians passed at this moment and ascertained the nature of the crime. As he had great talent, he understood from all that he learnt of Candide that he was a young metaphysician, extremely ignorant of the things of this world, and he accorded him his pardon with a clemency which will bring him praise in all the journals, and throughout all ages.”
Candide was patched up and put back on his feet to be marched into battle. In battle, Candide “trembled like a philosopher [and] hid himself as well as he could during this butchery.” He slinked away after both armies had effectively killed each other off.
By chance (or design), Candide met his former professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. Pangloss was ridden with syphilis and begging on the street. He reported that the castle and been sacked in the war, and the royal family murdered (including Candide’s beloved princess). In due time they experienced a great earthquake that convinced them that end-times had come. It did not. Though death was all about, it was not the coming of the Kingdom of God, it was simply life on Earth. For all these misfortunes of disease and war and natural disaster, Pangloss retained his optimism, saying, “for private misfortunes make the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are the greater is the general good.” God has a plan.
To make a short story shorter, the cast of characters are subsequently made to withstand and witness horrors unimaginable. Voltaire describes the most vulgar and wretched acts (most of which are historically accurate) with clinical detachment. People who have lost wealth and standing are portrayed as particularly pitiful. Voltaire seems to believe that a loss of riches and social status is among the most depressing situations in life.
The story ends happily, with Candide living peacefully with Pangloss and a small group of friends on a subsistence farm. The characters come to realize that there is no grand design. God is not testing us. Life is random and often terrible. Life is made more terrible by greed and deceit. The path to happiness is to be humble and kind. Though Voltaire has no respect for God, this is a very Christian message.