The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The philosophes

BEFORE

1721 Persian Letters, by Montesquieu, satirizes French society through the eyes of two Persian visitors, who compare Christianity with Islam and undermine Catholic doctrine.

1751–72 Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot produce the great collective enterprise of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie, to “change the way people think”.

AFTER

1779 Nathan the Wise, a play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing set during the Third Crusade, offers an aspirational vision of religious tolerance.

1796 Diderot’s philosophical novel Jacques the Fatalist, presenting a determinist world view, has among its characters two men who cannot stop duelling.

A diverse group of writers and intellectuals who lived in France in the 18th century came to be known as the philosophes (“philosophers”); their work nevertheless extended beyond philosophy into social, cultural, ethical, and political realms. The philosophes – who included Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and Montesquieu – were part of the widespread intellectual shift in Europe that was known as the Enlightenment: the assault on superstition, intolerance, and injustice in the name of reason and intellectual freedom that lasted from the late 17th century to the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, the Revolution was inspired by the ideas of philosophers and scientists, together with the prevailing spirit of rationalism and political liberalism.

"Man was born to live either in the convulsions of misery, or in the lethargy of boredom."


Candide

Supreme optimism

Candide (originally titled Candide, ou l’Optimisme, and translated into English as Candide: or, All for the Best) is a conte philosophique, a philosophical fable in which Voltaire gave narrative expression to Enlightenment values. He turned his ferocious satirical scrutiny in particular on the ideas expressed by the German Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in his philosophy of optimism, which held that because God is a benevolent deity, this world must be the best possible (optimal) world.

Leibniz’s ideas are echoed in the novel by the philosopher Dr Pangloss, who utters his mantra “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” even in the face of repeated disaster. In a way that challenges this rosy metaphysics, the young hero, Candide, suffers a series of ordeals, including expulsion from a baronial home, numerous violent misadventures, and an eventual reunion with his lost love, Cunégonde, only to find that he no longer desires her. Yet the misfortunes come so thick and fast and are related in so matter-of-fact a tone that the overall effect is comic. Women are violated by men; armies destroy each other; people are robbed and enslaved. Reversals of all kinds make life, health, and happiness precarious. In a world of greed, lust, and brutality (often in the name of religion), good deeds are scarce. Measured against the heartlessness of reality, Panglossian optimism is patently naive.

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Gullible and naive, Candide is incapable of forming his own opinions on life: his vision of the world – his ideas on determinism, optimism, and free will, for example – is constructed by the views of the people around him.

Personal influences

Although vibrant with melodramatic incident, Candide is a tale of ideas, albeit with autobiographical roots. Voltaire had known personal misfortune, including abuse by Jesuit teachers, loss of favour in the French court, and expulsion from Prussia. In addition, two public catastrophes worked on his imagination and profoundly affected his views on God and free will: the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755, and the start of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), which unleashed destruction in Europe. Both events feature in Candide in fictionalized form.

Within the book, a narrative of intertwining personal stories becomes a thread that connects depictions of contrasting social systems. The first community we encounter is the feudal castle from which the hero gets expelled. There is a utopian interlude in Eldorado, an egalitarian nation of natural plenty. Finally, Candide, now living on a farm in Turkey, visits a family farm dedicated to cooperative work, where the people are happy. The ending, with Candide saying “We must go and cultivate our garden”, indicates that it is possible to be happy – by means of hard work, and an absence of philosophy.

VOLTAIRE

Son of a notary, François-Marie Arouet was born in Paris, France, in 1694. A dramatist and poet, he adopted “Voltaire” as a nom de plume. His satirical verse earned him a spell in the Bastille prison, Paris, in 1717–18. After two years in England (a country that he found more tolerant and rational than France), his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733) was suppressed in his homeland; it was seen as a critique of the government.

A study of Louis XIV restored him to favour at Versailles, where he became royal historiographer in 1745. Later, in Berlin, he become close friends with the Prussian king, Frederick the Great. He wrote his philosophical tales at his estate at Ferney, France, when in his 60s – including Candide. He also worked for agricultural reform as well as for greater justice for wronged individuals. He died in Paris in 1778, aged 84.

Other key works

1718 Oedipus

1733 Philosophic Letters

1747 Zadig

1752 Micromégas (short story)

See also: Gulliver’s Travels • Jacques the Fatalist