JR'S Free Thought Pages
Voltaire’s Candide – or Optimism by A. C. Grayling (The Form of Things: Essays on Life, Ideas and Liberty in the 21st Century, 2007, pp. 186-91)
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
Anyone asked to describe Voltaire's miniature masterpiece Candide would say that it is a satire on optimism, and they would be right - but for the wrong reasons. Yes, Candide wittily, entertainingly, even sometimes bleakly satirizes optimism, which gave Voltaire a chance to attack many of mankind's follies in the process. But does that mean he was a pessimist, convinced that the cause of humanity is hopeless? No; and understanding why not is the same as seeing why most people would be right for the wrong reasons about Candide.
There are four 'isms' at issue in Candide: optimism, meliorism, quietism and pessimism. In eighteenth-century terms, optimism is the view that the world is the best world there can be, which is guaranteed by the fact that it was created by God, and God is both all-good and all-powerful. Meliorism is the view that the world is not perfect - is indeed very far from being so - but it can be made better; 'ameliorated' literally means 'sweetened'. Pessimism means that almost everything, if not indeed everything, is bad, and will never get better.
Quietism belongs to this family of 'isms' in an indirect way. It means accepting things as they are, keeping out of the line of fire, and getting on with life quietly. It therefore combines a bit of pessimism with a relieving garnish of meliorism.
In Candide Dr Pangloss is the high representative of optimism. Actually, he is a high caricature of optimism, for Voltaire deliberately - for artistic and polemical reasons - distorts the views of Dr Pangloss's hero, the philosopher Leibniz, in a rather interesting way. More on this in a moment. The melancholy Martin is Candide's pessimist, and he has an easy time stating his case, because whereas all the accidents and misfortunes which occur to Pangloss and Candide are repeated refutations of Panglossian optimism, nothing - not even episodes of great good fortune - can refute Martin, for he need only gloomily say, 'Wait and see; this could all go wrong.'
Candide himself finishes by being a quietist. When the group of friends end their tumultuous adventures in Constantinople, and acquire a little garden there, Candide is the one who encourages them to tend it in quietness, no longer fretting over questions (still less endeavours) concerning the best and the worst of things.
And Voltaire himself is the meliorist in Candide, where a kind of success, a kind of happiness, a kind of 'best', is at last wrested from the grip of a multiply contrary fate for all the parties. And not only there but in his overall philosophy in life and work beyond Candide he is a meliorist. Had he not been so, he would not have written so much, and argued so long, in hopes of making the world a better place.
This is the respect in which Voltaire is a true Enlightenment figure, despite having savaged optimism so thoroughly in Candide. The Enlightenment is above all a meliorist project, and in Candide Voltaire singles out many of the things - superstition, greed, disloyalty, ignorance, selfishness, illiberalism -which conspire to make the world a bad place. For note one shining fact about Candide. The principal characters in it are all good people: the cheerful, hopeful Dr Pangloss; the delightful, i agenuous Candide; the excellent, faithful Cacambo,- the honest Martin; the charming ever-innocent Paquette; even the much victimize ed and abused Cunegunde - all are examples of what would gladden a meliorist's heart, and even the heart of an optimist, in the proper sense of this term, which must now be explained.
For the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the conclusion that our world is the best of all possible worlds follows, as already mentioned, from the perfections of God's nature. It follows indeed with logical necessity, for it would not be consistent with the beneficence and omnipotence of the deity that he should create anything less than the best possible world. But the best possible world need not be, and perhaps had better not be, a perfect world. On the contrary, said Leibniz, the best possible world might well be one in which the creatures it contains are subjected to the test of miseries and struggles - earthquake, plague, bereavement, injustice, struggle and the like - in the interests of whatever ultimate plan the deity has for them. A perfect world would contain nothing that would test or stretch God's creatures; so a perfect world would not necessarily be the best one for the deity's purposes, and therefore our own ultimate good. By this logic Leibniz was able to make the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God consistent with the fact of the world's profound imperfections and the moral and natural evils that everywhere infect it.
Voltaire did not like this casuistical way out of a problem that challenged the faith of all reflective people. Europe had seen the terrifying earthquake and tsunami that devastated Lisbon in 1755, an event that gave added force to the rejection of traditional religion shared by most of the Age of Reason's greatest thinkers, he among them. That was his reason for caricaturing optimism by misinterpreting the phrase 'best of all possible worlds' as 'perfect world'. This is why Dr Pangloss, for all that he was a votary of the rigorously logical Leibniz, used an array of such illogical arguments as that we have noses so that we can wear spectacles, putatively thereby proving that in this best of all possible worlds, everything is for the best.
In any case, a book that was genuinely pessimistic could not have El Dorado in it. Voltaire's version of Utopia - a place without religious strife and without greed, a place of amity between people because there is no cause for them to betray, cheat, fight and murder each other - is a place in fact of melioration. Candide manages to recreate, imperfectly of course, a miniature El Dorado at the end of the saga, showing where Voltaire's own best hopes lay.
In the summer of 1739 Voltaire and his extraordinary and brilliant mistress, Emilie du Chatelet, made a brief sojourn in Brussels. While there Voltaire styled himself 'the Ambassador of Utopia' on his invitation cards, and found to his amusement that hardly anyone got the joke - they did not know what 'utopia' meant or where it was. Yet in light of Voltaire's lifelong Utopian quest for freedom - of thought, of conscience, of expression, of love, of the individual, of nations, of mankind at large -the title he adopted in jest surely applies to him in earnest.
France in Voltaire's day was an ugly and severely illiberal police state pullulating with what police states invariably produce: informers, schemers, libellers, sneaks, cheats, back-stabbers and the like. Voltaire's outlook, as the herald of Enlightenment not just in France but the eighteenth-century world in general, meant that he had to fight on a number of fronts simultaneously: the Church, the state apparatus of censorship (whose punishments could be very severe), the sneaks and back-stabbers who could make a profit out of getting him into trouble whether by real or imaginary means, and his own not always governable temperament.
Even while he was with the wonderful Emilie du Chatelet - gifted mathematician, scientist, authoress and translator into French of Newton - in their idyll at her chateau at Cirey, he was not safe from his enemies or himself, despite the fact that she attempted to restrain him, and kept his more inflammatory writings under lock and key to protect him from the consequences of their getting into the hands of the thought police in Paris.
But Voltaire was incorrigible. Early in his career he experienced both the Bastille and exile, profiting from the latter by getting to know and admire England and the Netherlands as places that flourished because of their liberty and religious tolerance. The beliefs and principles he acquired early he did not relinquish, even as they continued to get him into trouble. But, as Roger Pearson shows in Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom, they also gave him many opportunities to keep his optimism alive. For a while it seemed that Frederick of Prussia might prove to be a monarch after Enlightenment hearts (the hope did not last very long), and in some of his closest relationships he had the pleasure of being with like-minded others, who not only appreciated his genius - all his contemporary world did as much - but gave him the relief of being able to express it in private.
Interested parties should read Voltaire Almighty, which will come as a revelation, especially if what they associate with the name of Voltaire is chiefly Candide and the Philosophical Dictionary. For Voltaire's first reputation was as a dramatist, with a number of theatrical hits to his name, and as a poet, whose 'Henriade' was the cornerstone of his early fame. But he was also a scientist (he had a laboratory at the chateau in Cirey, where among other experimental endeavours he attempted to weigh fire) and a philosopher. Many witty folk are such that their talents in conversation and social intercourse die with them; Voltaire's satirical humor survives because apart from his writings he burned such bright memories on the minds of those who knew him, whether friends or enemies.
Polemical engagement in the great question of God and man absorbed considerable amounts of Voltaire's energy as he grew to a famous old age in his retreat at Ferney near the Swiss border. He constituted himself 'the high priest of Deism', in Pearson's phrase, and among many other things wrote responses to the views of Baron d'Holbach and Spinoza. But the question of God far from the only one. Satire and verse poured from him, and short alphabetically listed essays forming what amounted to his own version of the Encyclopedie - and all this in the midst of continuing to write drama, engaging in polemic, and living as simultaneously the most famous and notorious man of his age right into his eighties.
His death matched his life. He pushed away the priest who had arrived at his death-bed to ask whether he 'recognized the divinity of Jesus Christ', turned his back, and said, 'Let me die in peace.' His last thought was for the woman who had been the companion of his last twenty years, Marie-Louise Denis, in fact his niece but much more than a nurse and chatelaine. He died rich, but of course not just in money terms, because he left a treasury of works to posterity, and an abiding legacy as an iconic individual.
A C Grayling Bio
Anthony Grayling MA, DPhil (Oxon) FRSL, FRSA is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. He has written and edited many books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are a biography of William Hazlitt and a collection of essays. For several years he wrote the "Last Word" column for the Guardian newspaper and is a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and the Financial Times. He also often writes for the Observer, Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Independent on Sunday and New Statesman, and is a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 4, 3 and the World Service. He is the Editor of Online Review London, Contributing Editor of Prospect magazine. In addition he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British Philosophical Association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and has been involved in UN human rights initiative. Anthony Grayling is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, and a member of its C-100 group on relations between the West and the Islamic world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and in 2003 was a Booker Prize judge.
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