Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"Candide" by Voltaire

I started to read the book "Candide" by Voltaire.  Half way through it, however, I got so frustrated with Candide's naive ignorance that I had to stop.  The calamities that befell him in his life were both self-created and expected.  Since the book mostly details the events surrounding Candide's life, it's hard not to feel like Voltaire was trying to make some negative statement regarding Candide's philosophical teacher Pangloss' belief that "everything is right in the world".  But having skipped to the last chapter, rather than continue to read all of the trials and tribulations that occurs, it's interesting to see what I think is Voltaire's (if not subtle) conclusion to the story.

Candide was taught by his philosopher teacher Pangloss that everything in the world is as it was meant to be, and therefore it is perfect.  Nothing occurs without it's reason, and therefore cause and effect is expected and right.  Because of this philosophy, Candide viewed the world as being a perfect world with everyone and everything also acting in perfection.  But this was soon to be questioned by Candide's life adventure.

From my perspective, though, the idea that "everything is perfect" and "everything is as it was meant to be" is true.  What Candide does not understand, and Pangloss also failed to see, is that the hardships of their life does not negate the philosophy.  It is only because they themselves are enduring something so opposite of the idea of "perfection" that they question perfection itself.  I think Voltaire is stating through the life of Candide, that it's too easy to say "the world is perfect" when you are living in a state of perfection, but once you leave that world of perfection, it's harder to believe in those words.  But this doesn't mean everything isn't as it should be.  Rather, perfection is what results from the events in life, not that the events themselves are perfect.  Life's events are meant to give a different perspective to a person in order to gain new insights into their world-view.  It's easy for a person who lives with no troubles to be ignorant and judge another who is "bad" or "evil" to behave "lest ye be judged by God".  In fact, many of Candide's troubles come at the hands of the religious, which I think Voltaire purposefully highlighted.

It's easy to judge someone when you are not being judged, and feel justified.  But when the tables are turned, it's harder to see the good in people when you feel there is injustice being done to you.  In Candide's situation, he was naively viewing the world literally as being perfect, rather than the fact that everything that happens was for a reason.  From my perspective, as the story goes, each cause and effect is detailed to demonstrate how that effect was "for the good" of all (obviously, the idea of "good" is relative).  If not for the chain of events that occurs, the conclusion would not be the way it is.  But then again, it could be argued that if none of the events occurred, each would remain in the condition that they were in, some better off, others not so much.  I think the point of the conclusion is that nothing is as it seems at the time, and with time, everything changes.  So our ideas about the world must change also.  We cannot be so rigid in our beliefs that we remain stuck in a pattern.  The events in Candide's life was not without benefit, since there were so many helped by his adventure.  What started out as something so innocent, actually helped to save a few.

Even as Candide's ignorance of the world allowed him to be taken advantage of time and again, he never seems to learn from such encounters, and instead held fast to his naive belief while questioning it under the same breath.  He proclaims men's freedom of will, and yet curses the men who rob him acting out of that same free will.  He viewed men as having only one type of free will (the best kind), but his life adventures showed him that free will leads to all kinds of acts.  I don't know if Voltaire was trying to judge the negative acts as having negative consequences, but he does seem to convey the idea that all acts of free will is the cause to an effect.

The main cast at the end reflects upon their trials and tribulations, trying to understand why they suffered so much and what gain was to be had.  It wasn't until they spoke to the Turks who lived in the region that they had some realization that it isn't about the past events, or about second guessing everything.  Instead, it was to live the moment and to pursue happiness the best they could.  It was neither about being idle nor being adventuresome.  Everything that occurs was for a reason, and that reason is "perfect".

If I were to guess at Voltaire's point for "Candide", I think he was trying to say that everything has a reason, but if you cannot see the big picture, you'll only see the positive or negative aspects of life.  It's our naivet√© (or more likely, ignorance) that leads people to view the world in their own imbalanced, limited ideological ways.  Candide viewed the world initially in the best of light, while Martin, his philosopher friend, viewed the world negatively as a source of pain and suffering.  In the end, I think Voltaire tries to point out that it's meaningless to look at the world in such extremes and instead we should focus on the moment.  Don't despair over the past, and don't fret over the future.

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