Friday, December 25, 2015

Voltaire's Candide

At last, a few days ago I could finish reading Voltaire’s “Candide”. Like many other classics in my personal library, “Candide” had long been queuing up in my reading list, and it remained there patiently for quite some time without much movement. 

“Candide” is a convoluted story of adventures of a young man, Candide, as his fate takes him to distant lands. Candide comes from almost a royal family except that he is an illegitimate child. He is taught by his tutor, Pangloss, who is a philosopher shaped mainly by ideas of Leibniz. Leibniz believed that all that has just happened is not merely result of some  grand and divine design but is also something that is the best under the given circumstances. Nothing could have been wiser or better for human beings than the situation obtaining here.  “Candide” denounces and negates this philosophy mercilessly and loudly! No wonder “Candide” is a classic that ushers in new European thinking of enlightenment and of human triumph that seeks to  accord central place to man. 
“Candide” is a short work, of only about 150 pages, full of adventures and fantasy stories we normally find in adventure books. But this story of adventure though fascinating, is not entirely enjoyable.  It’s funny as also dark. It is this contrast between the hilarity and the crudity, light and the darkness, hope and despair that is a source of troubled thought for the reader.   The contrast continues as more  adventures continue to pour in, sometimes to complicate the story and at other times to simplify it. The entire series of adventure is designed to test  Leibniz's idea that whatever happens, happens for the best and that the situation that is obtained is the best possible one in the world.   The characters (except the hero, Candide) simply go ahead with events as if they are acting according to a script   written for them.  Everything is accepted uncritically, everything is justified and rationalized. How can it be otherwise for this world is the creation of the God himself? And how would God create something that is not perfect? Pangloss and Candide keep on arguing tediously as the train of adventure moves on.  The trouble in the mind of the reader is that he senses a medieval world that is at loggerheads with the spirit of enlightenment! 

 Voltaire’s Candide is thus a biting satire and a mordant travesty of Leibniz's philosophy  that justifies everything that comes to the lot of man.  Candide moves out of his protected environment and tests the philosophy he has been nurtured in; and he finds something shockingly different. He finds that the world outside is not merely cruel but continues to be   inhumane to the hapless players who experience hierarchies of cruelty, violence, indignity and inequity of every kind. As one reads and follows Candide’s and his colleagues’ adventures and their tryst with their misfortunes one   wonders what good is there in this world! Violation of human beings and its acceptance   without a finger being raised against such acts of cruelty by the victims of religious, social, political and economic realities   forms the core of Voltaire’s Candide.  At the end of the novel Candide gets thoroughly disillusioned by the philosophy that seeks to justify this world and decides in the end that gardening perhaps is the best activity for human beings. In this work, Voltaire excoriates   contemporary philosophers, politicians, statesmen and religious and social leaders for continuing to peddle the philosophy that leaves little volition, freedom and dignity to human beings. 

Candide, though a satire, presents a pessimistic view of the world and makes a gloomy reading.  It is full of violence against human beings, with the basest violation and worst indignities reserved for women. At once dark and funny “Candide” is a great work of criticism against a world order that thrives on the annihilation of the spirit of the weak.

In the end Candide, thoroughly disillusioned with the philosophy of his mentor, concludes that the best activity that human beings can do is to nurture and develop “Garden”. Gardening here may signify a simple and positive activity that supports life; it may also mean tending with love and affection all human activities. It may also mean confronting the world and bringing about great forces that are life enhancing and life perpetuating.  It also means an attempt to demystify philosophies in the face of robust life and live it in simple ways.

Though “Candide” was written in 1750s it is still a modern work for it creates and endorses a tradition of asking fundamental questions about existence of human beings.  I find Voltaire’s “Gardening” a good solution to the troubled mind and to the troubled world beset by the exasperation of choosing between complex options.   For it supports and enhances life. It is the simplest available philosophy that needs perhaps no justification through first principles.