I really fell down on the job in March. I was supposed to finish this for the readalong on the 31st. I also didn’t get far in The Warden. But all this may be subject to correction. Fortunately no one’s grading me any more. Or if you are, just keep it to yourself.
Candide. What to say about Candide? As a philosophical document, it’s pants. Purporting to be a refutation of Optimism, it includes a section in the utopian El Dorado, which isn’t good enough for our heroes. Our heroes are dopes. Is that the gist? Man is too stupid to recognize paradise? It doesn’t seem to be because while Candide loses most of his money he winds up somewhat happy on a farm cultivating his garden. As a philosophy, I think this lacks a whole lot of essentials. If everyone stayed put cultivating their gardens, we would presumably have no war, we would also have no art. No vaccines. No internet. And while there is no doubt there are a lot of downsides to all the things mankind has invented/developed, there are marvels, too. If everyone cultivated their garden, there would still be earthquakes, floods, fires — all of which we’ve made some strides toward mitigating the damage from these things. Earthquake resistant buildings, fire fighting equipment, etc. None of which would exist if we all just stay home and grow whatever our yards can produce.
I don’t completely dismiss this philosophy either. There’s something to be said for not trying to be rich or famous or marrying the most beautiful person, for accepting life as it comes and working at what’s in front of you. It just seems to be only part of the answer and a part that really shouldn’t have taken them that long to figure out except that Candide is one dumb bunny. I found it hard to believe he had supposedly read all those great authors and yet, learned nothing. The book makes occasional digs which hit their targets – early on the descriptions of warfare seem fairly apt, but a lot of the time I think it just over simplifies. If this is not the best of all possible worlds, and certainly I wouldn’t argue that it is, then don’t we have some duty to try to improve it? Granted that there isn’t much ordinary people can do, political horribleness and wars and so on will continue unless humanity learns to be a heck of a lot better than it is, but does that mean attempts shouldn’t be made? That we should just live in blissful ignorance? I believe we’ve made some progress since Voltaire’s time and I believe that progress is owing to people who stood up and worked hard to bring about changes they saw as necessary. People who did not just stick their heads in the sand and say, I have no idea who was beheaded yesterday.
Optimism, at least as expressed by Pangloss, seems beyond absurd, and yet Voltaire seems to be advocating behaving exactly as if it were the best of all possible worlds and all we need to do is cultivate our gardens. Was he serious? I don’t know enough about him or his philosophy to know if this was supposed to be accepted at face value or argued with and holes punched in it. Presumably I should read more Voltaire, but I can’t say I feel inclined to do so.
This counts as a French book and a translated book.