Tag Archives: Voltaire


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.

Candide Readalong Pt. 3 – Three Days late

Can’t decide what to think about this book any longer.  In the beginning I ignored the fact that Candide is a dope because he wasn’t instructed in the ways of the world, but the damn fool never learns a thing.   Okay, you want to leave El Dorado to find Cunegonde, not smart, but I can sympathize with being foolish for love.   Wanting to be richer than everyone and unsatisfied with everyone being rich (in El Dorado) stupid, but human.   But the idea that somehow they would manage to hold on to 12 sheep worth of treasure and get it back to Europe without being robbed of it — well, they haven’t learned a thing since being kicked out of the castle in chapter 1.   No street smarts.   No protection for the wealth.   Flashes it around makes it obvious.   At this point, Candide, you deserve what you get.  

And at this point I have trouble understanding what Voltaire is getting at.   He’s made his point that this world is full of people and events that seem to be non-optimal.   Did people still believe in El Dorado or places like that when Voltaire was writing?  Is the point that humans aren’t even satisfied with paradise?    That could be true, although presumably the El Doradans are human, too.   I did like when he was reunited with his sheep.   

Candide Readalong c. 9-16

I think I’m getting more into the spirit of the thing, but how this can be viewed as philosophically applicable in real life, I’m not sure. Candide and crew go from one absurdly horrific situation to another with moments of absurdly great situations thrown in.   No question Voltaire is wryly pointing out the wealth of the church vs. the suffering of the poor they’re supposed to be helping, etc., but there’s absolutely no benefit to being good or punishment for doing harm.   People are indiscriminately rewarded and punished for things beyond their control constantly.   There is no apparent justice anywhere.   And while that does bear some resemblance to life, it’s not quite so bad as that.   In Candide’s world, there’s absolutely no reason to try to behave well, as you’ll just as likely be hanged in an auto-da-fé or pushed off a boat as to suddenly get rich and live in a palace.   But 16 chapters in I just feel – okay, what’s next?

Candide Readalong Part 1

I’m inclined to think I had to read this in my not-misspent-enough youth, and I got the general idea, but I believe all the humor was lost on me.   Moments like Cunegonde peering through the bushes at her teacher Dr. Pangloss “giving a lesson in experimental natural philosophy to her mother’s chamber-maid”  and became “greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the desire to be learned; dreaming that she might well be a sufficient reason for young Candide and he for her” missed completely.  


It isn’t exactly subtle, but then I suppose battling what appeared to be the complete idiocy of the Optimistic philosophy perhaps Voltaire thought a sledge-hammer was necessary.   How can this possibly be the best of all possible worlds when such terrible things happen?   I’ve sometimes wondered if we could either have the world as it is with all the horrible things or make it vanish, how many of us would choose to eradicate it?  Not many, I think.   And an earthquake in particular seems like it could easily be an unavoidable result of the structure of the planet.  A structure which might be required to support life at all.   I don’t know geology and whether we could have a planet in which life like us could live without tectonic plates.   In other words, it’s an unsatisfactory argument to me.   This is not the best of all possible – and we put the emphasis on possible – worlds because earthquakes happen.   How people behave towards one another seems a much better argument.   It does seem like it ought to be possible to have a world without war, rape, autos-da-fé, etc.   All the man-made ills seem strictly optional.   

Pangloss says everything must be as it is and yet we have free will.   It seems to me you can have it one way or the other, but not both.   If what happens is ordained and nothing else could possibly have happened, there’s no free will. But then Pangloss isn’t exactly a great philosopher as much as a straw man.   It’s been a long time since I read any Leibniz, but he wasn’t an idiot.  He independently came up with calculus, for Pete’s sake.  Granted people can be very smart about some things and idiotic about others.   And I really don’t think I’m up to reading Leibniz to argue on his behalf, but it seems to me mockery is not necessarily a refutation.   People mocked the guy who first said the continents drift and the guy who said we should all wash our hands.   Leibniz was trying to solve the problem of evil in a world created by a just God and maybe he didn’t do it, but it’s an extremely difficult problem philosophically and I’m not sure he deserved Candide in response.   But then it’s only part one.   Stay tuned.