Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tending one's garden

Voltaire’s Candide is conventionally treated as a philosophical fable, an assault upon Leibnitz and his insistence that this world is the best of all possible worlds. That idea Voltaire labled «optimism, » and laid into it with an engagingly-told series of misadventures and misfortunes suffered by a guileless young optimist.

But of course Candide doesn’t really answer Leibnitz at all, any more than Dr. Johnson’s kicking a rock refuted Berkeley. And, insofar as the best of all possible worlds could still be an awful one, Votaire’s tour of a cruel, irrational, and chaotic landscape doesn’t so much refute Leibnitz as suggest that Leibnitz’s thesis amounts much more to pessimism than optimism: if this is the best of all possible worlds, we are indeed in trouble.

But philosophy is not absent. What, for example does Voltaire mean by his famous conclusion? The parade of horribles ends with his hero relatively happy, having been advised by a simple Muslim fruit vendor that, « le travail éloigne de nous trois grands maux, l’ennui, le vice, et le besoin.» This praise of work is then echoed by Pangloss, the disciple of Leibnitz, who appeals to the second chapter of Genesis :

Je sais aussi, dit Candide, qu’il faut cultiver notre jardin. — Vous avez raison, dit Pangloss ; car, quand l’homme fut mis dans le jardin d’Éden, il y fut mis ut operaretur eum, pour qu’il travaillât ; ce qui prouve que l’homme n’est pas né pour le repos.

It’s always difficult to know when Voltaire means us to take him seriously. But this conclusion seems straightforward: We are not born for repose, and by work we avoid boredom, vice and need. This has little to do with Leibnitz, but it is surely a simple philosophy of life that is consonant with reason and divine law.

And consider Candide’s optimism, his persistent cheerfulness, his sympathy and kindness. Votaire undoubtedly considers the pessimism of Martin more correct, more in line with reality. But it is the naïve Candide who ransoms his friends from slavery, who persists in the face of one catastrophe after another. I’m not sure if Voltaire meant it this way, but it is certainly arguable that Candide’s illusions keep him steady in a way that a steel-eyed realism might not—a moriae encomium indeed.

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