David Lentz's Reviews > Candide
David Lentz's review
Sep 15, 2011
"Candide" is an accessible masterpiece which demonstrated to the world Volatire's genius as a satirist. The eponymous Candide is a young man tutored by an optimist who is convinced according to the cause and effect philosophy of Leibniz and perhaps is best summarized in Voltaire's leitmotif that human beings live in the "best of all possible worlds." Alexander Pope rather laughably made the same outrageous claim in his "Essay on Man" in which he writes, "Everything that is is right." How can this be so, you may well ask? Here is the nut of the problem: it seems that a perfect God has created a highly imperfect world. How can a good, omnipotent, loving God create a world in which so much catastrophic evil exists and which is so often allowed even to thrive? It is a question for the ages. Theologians argue that God created mankind with free will and without it they would simply be puppets without the freedom to make choices. Theologians also point out that the majority of the evil resident in our world is perpetuated on vast masses of humanity by other human beings, not God, and that evil is the cause and effect of conflicting self-interests imposed by people with more power upon the less powerful. But this point doesn't explain why a loving, all-powerful God would allow any of it to exist and endure. Why not cast down all the devils and give his human creatures a perfect garden, a paradise on earth, without snakes anywhere? Why did God create the serpent in the Garden of Eden in the first place? Voltaire, like Rousseau, was an avid gardener and Voltaire jests at Rousseau's good faith in the "Confessions" as if the latter were simply a country bumpkin. But gardens have a great deal of meaning in "Candide" as in, for example, Milton's "Paradise Lost" or "Genesis" and are thematically significant for Voltaire who concludes that gardens are, after all, a wise place to reside out of harm's way. Voltaire absolutely skewers the optimistic cause and effect of Pope and Leibniz with a catalog of tragicomic catastrophes which plague not only Candide and Pangloss but all of mankind infinitely. Consider the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 which burst suddenly out of nowhere with all its raging fires and tidal waves to destroy nearly all of the city and the ships in its harbor. Is there no end even to the great catastrophes in which man has no hand but from which we are compelled to suffer except for God's grace? Voltaire's vivid and piercing wit is hilarious as he brazenly brings parody to places high and low, near and far, rich and poor to depict our world as the ultimate dystopia. In his novel Candide can only find a semblance of happiness in El Dorado, a rich, hidden world in South America: in other words, happiness in real life can only be found in a utopia without a basis for reality. So what are we to deduce about Candide? Is he a sometimes violent fool for all his naivete? And is Pangloss not a buffoon who earns his suffering so extensively at every turn of the road for his unjustified, unbridled optimism? Or are they heroic for their optimism despite the epic disasters that nearly devastate them time after time. Or is their fate really just the human condition and are they both just being all too human? You decide. In the course of your reading of this brief novel you may discover, as I did, that the optimists are constantly challenged by the gap between their optimism and reality, and that the pessimists are doomed to be the unhappiest people on the planet because they cannot imagine a world without misery and, thereby, create it for themselves wherever it doesn't really already exist. Take your pick of perspectives as a "free" human being and challenge your own assumptions about the human condition. Clearly, Balzac would seem to agree with his compatriot, Voltaire, that whatever you make of life on this earth, surely it is no less than an epic human comedy. At least in this life, thankfully, if you can stand back far enough, there is, God knows, no end to the laughter of the human condition.
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