Candide

Candide is a classic novel by Voltaire, and features the misadventures of the title character, his girlfriend Cunégonde, his pessimistic companion Martin and his tutor, Professor Pangloss, as they navigate a chaotic world while pondering the meaning of the greater issues of Life. Pangloss’ favorite saying is “We live in the best of all possible worlds,” and Candide keeps trying to apply the truth of this maxim in the midst of incredibly horrible situations.

After a lot of irrational misadventures and suffering, Martin begins the end of the novel this way:

“We must work without arguing,” said Martin: “that is the only way to make life bearable.”

The entire household agreed to this admirable plan, and each began to excercize his talents. Small as the estate was, it bore heavy crops. There was no denying that Cunégonde was decidedly ugly, but she soon made excellent pastry. Pacquete was clever at embroidery, and the old woman took care of the linen. No one refused to work, not even Brother Giroflée, who was a good carpenter, and thus became an honest man. From time to time Pangloss would say to Candide:

“There is a chain of events in this best of all possible worlds; for if you had not been turned out of a beautiful mansion at the point of a jackboot for love of Lady Cunégonde, and if you had not been involved in the Inquisition, and had no wandered over America on foot, and had not struck the Baron with your sword, and lost all those sheep you brought from Eldorado, you would not be here eating candied fruit and pistachio nuts.”

“That’s true enough,” said Candide: “but we must go and work in the garden.”

Certainly, Pangloss’ view of the world is unacceptable, and I would say a lot of things in the world just happen without regard to how people are affected. Community building is important, as is finding how to use basic talents for the common good and learning to work together in peace. Not getting lost in useless speculation is also important. Tending our own garden is an important part of Life: no question about that. There’s a lot of different ways of thinking about that, and I’m not going to endorse one here and now (although I do have a preference).

One feeling I have is that the end of this novel has been taken as a norm of thought, an ideal for living. All we need do is make our own garden grow and not worry about anything else, mind our own business and no one else’s. I think that’s Ayn Rand’s world, how to make your own garden grow without caring about anyone else’s is dogma. Many people don’t want to consider big issues in their lives, but live day to day, without questioning what’s going on around them or what they can do about. They are happy just making their gardens grow; the rest of the world can go to perdition.

However, as J.R.R. Tolkein observed in the Lord of the Rings, we can fence ourselves in, but we can’t fence the world out. If a violent storm sweeps through, whether nature made or cause by human agency, we have to deal with the damage. If the place we live in is dangerous and the Law can’t or won’t protect us, we have to deal with the danger personally. We lose track of our immediate surroundings at our own peril.

Similarly, I think losing track of the larger issues of Life is something we do at our own peril as well. We are part of communities, so the welfare of those around us is important to our well being. We are part of the Universe, so the well being of the Universe is important to us as well, even though we don’t have as much affect on it. We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, but finding the meaning in this one is important as well.  Taking responsibility for making the world a better place is ours as well, even though it will never be perfect.

Last week I talked about the dangers of wielding a spiritual flamethrower against every insult, and this is the opposite extreme. There are issues where we should rise up against injustice, and that requires a lot of soul searching, conversation and organization. Essential for doing this is having a sense of the larger picture, what’s going on in the world around us, and what principles are worth advocating. For all Candide’s misadventures, he was never neighbor of a place like Auschwitz.

Voltaire himself wasn’t passive about injustice in the world: he was in constant trouble with authority for his criticism of the French Monarchy and intolerance in general, promoted the British system of government as an ideal for the world, spent time in the Bastille, and intervened in individual cases where he thought someone was unjustly imprisoned. The purpose of much of his writing was to call his society to become more just. Candide is an illustration of a problem without presenting a solution itself, other than advocating tolerance between people who need to live together.

Without a larger vision of life, we can get swallowed up in immediate sensations, lost in a surface reality. It’s said that most men aren’t as interested in Miss Right as they are in Miss Right Now, but without a stable commitment to frame your life, it’s hard to see the big picture or plan ahead. Seeing the big picture and our place in it isn’t just true of a lifetime partnership, it’s true of an outlook on life, and a comprehensive look at life means sorting out the big issues. These give us a compass to find our way, even if we aren’t chasing big dreams.

Candide spent his time pursuing ideals that weren’t worth the effort: an idealized lover and material wealth. The standards instilled in him by Pangloss were useless to him. To say that pursuing larger ideals or abandoning all standards beyond those relevant to here and now is to allow Evil a chance to prosper. How many injustices fester because most of the people in the world are unaware of them?

We may not take what goes on around us as personal insult or injustice, we may not invent our personal happiness in currents of events beyond our control, but we ignore everything beyond our fences at our peril.  Life isn’t about just personal happiness and the well being of those we care about.

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