During his exile here from absolutist France some years ago, Voltaire was pleased to declare that, like the English, he thinks what he likes and says what he thinks. This advocacy of free expression seemed to wane one night round at Colley Cibber’s though, when he bore with very ill grace my suggestion that Frederick the Great was more of a Galba than a Trajan. To say truth, matters got warm, and I was forced to reduce him to order with a James Figg joint-lock; but I took into the accompt. his Gallicity, and the case of brandy he had in his locker, and it’s all water under the bridge now.
Voltaire is justly celebrated for his defiance of the French state, which continues to silence its dissentients with tortures, imprisonment, and death. When Candide, the eponymous innocent of this new work, leaves France in chapter twenty-two, we are told that he feels “like a man delivered from hell.” The judgement seems harsh; however it is not a judgement upon France alone, but the world, Voltaire’s assertion being that hell is everywhere around us. And while Candide merrily throws bombs at despotism, it is firstly and chiefly concerned with a deeper theme, this being how to comprehend the world, and live in it.
Candide is an artless youth, raised in the philosophy of Leibniz, which teaches that God is both all-powerful and benign, and that his creation must therefore be the best of all possible worlds. He finds this an easy creed to swallow in his ambrosial boyhood, but when he is visited by torture, war, and the deaths of his loved ones, his faith flags. Crossing the earth and the oceans, suffering appalling horrors and witnessing yet more, he meets only with victims. Typical of these is the old woman who has endured the most wicked abuses, who reviles her own existence, who a hundred times has wanted to end herself, but who is somehow “still in love with life.” Time and again Candide’s companions are lost for dead and then resurrected; but only that they may suffer more. Or perhaps, like the old woman, they simply believe that hell is better than nothing, and refuse to give up the ghost.
At the midpoint of his journey, in South America, Candide stumbles upon the fabled Eldorado, a land of wealth and concord. There is no conflict in this paradise because “Everyone here is of the same mind.” Candide finds this insufferable. He can not wait to be on his travels again, to get back to his own world, with its strife and restlessness and aspiration; which ought not surprise us, him being European withal, and thus civilised.
Although Candide learns to doubt the goodness of his world, he never despairs of it, being sustained by three things: his native cheer; his incessant philosophising; and the hope of union with his love, Cunégonde. But at the end of his travails, he learns that only the first of these is of any value, the other two being merely the chasing of ideas: Philosophy, it turns out, is a poor substitute for getting on with a life; while the object of Candide’s love existed mainly in his own head.
Voltaire leaves us with this dictum: “We must cultivate our garden,” and Candide perceives it to contain more wisdom than all the works of Leibniz he was raised on. For if the world really is the best it can be, then it can not be made better, and man is condemned to paralysis, or at best, sitting around scratching his head for proofs of unknowable origins: a philosophy which, to Candide, has shown itself worthless. And even if God did create the world, he has left us alone in it now, so rather than crave his leading strings, we must get on with the business of living, with tending the plot, which is all we have; or, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said to the Abbé Petit that time round at Baron d’Holbach’s salon, “Priest, your play is worthless.”
Candide is printed anonymously consequent to Bourbon oppression and will cost you a quick course in French.