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On Candide: or, Optimism, the novel by Voltaire (1759).
Is life good? Popular Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz argued that it's good by definition. God is perfectly good and all-powerful, so whatever he created must have been as good as it can be; we live in the best of all possible worlds.
Voltaire loads this satirical adventure story up with horrific violence to demonstrate that Leibniz's position is just silly. Life is filled with suffering, and human nature is such that even in peace and prosperity, we're basically miserable. Yet we still love life despite this. Voltaire's solution is to "tend your garden," which means something like engaging in meaningful work, whether personal or political.
This is a very special episode for us, as it's our first with all of us recording in the same room, as part of a weekend of fun and frolic in Madison, WI. Read more about the topic and get the book.
End song: "Woe Is Me," from Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio (1998). Download the album for free.
Yannick Kilberger says
There is a small error in the text above, Leibniz was German. You made me doubt myself for a moment!
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks for the catch… “A German philosopher popular in Voltaire’s France” was my thought.
this was a fun episode. I read Candide my freshman year of high school, and I’ve always considered it one of my favorite books, even though I haven’t read it since. listening to this made me want to pick it up again. I’d forgotten just how many great witty one-liners are in there (“experimental natural philosophy” – ha!).
Fredbo a.k.a. Christopher M. Frederick says
Just a quick few words… This “tend your garden” theme, I believe, makes reference to the idea that we should mind our own business first; to work on own person, our own household, before meddling in others’ affairs. We must start small in our endeavor and perhaps stay small in our work. We need and deserve to be the Kings and Queens of ourselves, but though there were, and still are in a sense, kingdoms with all-powerful regents, there is no real grounding that those rulers DESERVE the power over others that they, by mere circumstance, may hold….
Good show gentlemen. Looking forward to the next installment!
the turn here from grand theories of everything, great chains of Being, to focusing on the practices/demands of particular daily lives is a pivotal one I think, not unlike the shift after Hegel by folks like Marx and especially Dewey, but there is a sort of middle path where one can engage the anthropology/actor-networks of the people working thru the large scale questions:
Rémy Fortin says
What a good surprise for me coming back to the podcast after a summer away!
I was really excited to see that you guys would be tackling Voltaire, and since it had been a while since I read Candide I was curious to see how your discussion would influence my memory and comprehension of it. I had but a very superficial knowledge of Leibniz and his positions at the time (okay, I still do), but your presentation of the particular point of his philosophy that Voltaire is criticizing was so well done that my understanding of the central point of Candide was already much ameliorated in the first five minutes of the show.
This somehow led me to a reflection on Camus and The Myth of Sysiphus, even though there is an obvious distance here both in terms of time and philosophical currents. Somehow, though, the conclusions reached by both authors seem to be similar enough that it warrants discussion. Indeed, the ideas of ‘cultivating our garden’ and that ‘we have to imagine Sysiphus happy’ both in a certain way lead to the position that bearing the burden without resentment of our condition is the only way to truly cope with the nature of our existence. Where the two diverge is that, in Candide, as you pointed out in the show, it is not unwarrented to interpret Voltaire as saying that it is by evacuating the will to reflect that we attain a degree of acceptance, whereas for Camus it appears that the most worthy solution is that we steel ourselves and continue to reflect, especially in light of the absurdity of it all.
I would be curious to know what Camus thought of Candide, and whether he could be classified truly as an ‘absurd hero’, or if he thought that Voltaire cops out in the end with the implication that only in stopping the reflection can we truly come to terms with our condition. I would argue that Voltaire in fact might not have been suggesting a complete withdrawal from conscious thought, but rather that by lowering our aim in a material sense we might be able to better distance ourselves from the impact of this effort on our daily lives, and thus be truly free to pursue our reflections.
But then, I have this strong suspicion that I might be reading too much into this and I should just get back to work. :p
In any case, thanks again for a very enlightening experience!
Anh-vu Doan says
I wanna see the pictures your wife took!
Wes Alwan says
Bear Mathun says
While Candide is funny, there were quite a few things that were not mentioned in discussing Voltaire.
Whenever I read Voltaire, I am reminded of a line in Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of being Earnest: “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” Voltaire was born into a bourgeois family – his mother coming from the minor nobility. He was kept as an aristocratic pet, and after failing to get into Society, he turned upon it.
Since he was naturally witty, he used this approach to argumentation – and one of the reasons he dislike Philosophers and reasoning so much was that he was not very good at the formal arguments. Besides, if you can mock something, then you do not have to take it seriously or consider that it may have any validity. It takes so much less effort and is much more satisfying.
Also, there was an entire literature that Voltaire was trying to mock – not just Leibniz. A very popular book at the time was Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s “L’abandon à la providence divine” (The Abandonment to Divine Providence), which is mocked in Candide, in particular by Candide’s passivity.
To say that Voltaire was one of the first people to oppose slavery is incorrect. There movement against slavery was at least 200 years old by that time. Bartolmé de las Casas, a 16th century Dominican friar stopped the Spanish from enslaving the Indians in the Americas, and protecting the Indians from exploitation by the colonizers.
One has to also question Voltaire’s opposition to slavery, since he kept company and was friends with owners of many slaves, such as Benjamin Franklin.
As final thing about Voltaire, he was also shockingly anti-Semitic, even by comparison to those around him.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Juan Pablo González says
This might be a bit late to reply to, but, just a correction on Bartolomé de las Casas; Yes, he was against slavery, but only for the amerindians. He opted to bring slaves from Africa. He wasn’t against slavery, just against slavery for the amerindians.
Kyle H says
Surprised you did Candide, glad you guys did. A dandy of a laugh out loud fiction.
Candide the character reminds me of another laugh out loud character in Toole’s ‘Confederacy of Dunces’. Just as Candide relies on practical recommendations per Pangloss, Ignatius J. Reily resorts to Boethious ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ for pragmatic guidance.
Particularly Liked the analysis of falling into nihilism when idealizations are unobtainable, however Candide does seem to avoid this descent. Nihilism can however be a utility to combat a disillusionment of something (like unfettered capitalism, like you guys eluded to)
John Shelby says
I’d just like to put a plug out for John Barth’s great epic The Sot-Weed Factor, a book that owes a lot to Candide.
I think you missed the subtlety of the word “optimism” – for Voltaire, it doesn’t mean what it does for us. Modern optimism is the belief that things will turn out well, or at least will improve. Pangloss’s optimism is the belief that the world is optimised – that it is as good as it can be. A lot of the humour in the book is Pangloss and Candide getting into grotesquely awful situations and having to say that things couldn’t be better. A modern optimist in a concentration camp would hope to be rescued (for his situation to improve), while a Panglossian optimist in a concentration camp would have to think the world would be a worse place if he wasn’t being starved and beaten to death.
Pour ceux que cela intéresse, j’ai créé un site qui résume Candide de Voltaire, chapitre par chapitre avec à chaque fois des citations.
N’hésitez pas à faire un tour : http://www.candide-voltaire.com