In 1759, Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism was published. According to the biographers and scholars, some years before the writer had been living through one of the most peaceful moments of his life. Voltaire had acquired a property in Geneva, Switzerland. Significantly, he’d called it Les Delices, “The Delights.” He compared its gardens with those of the Epicurean school, in which a philosophical reflection on pleasure was reflected in daily practice. In some sense, Voltaire had created his own paradise of meditation and recreation.

As might be expected, especially once we consider the rest of human history, this Eden didn’t last long. In November of 1755 an earthquake devastated the city of Lisbon; it killed somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people in one fell swoop. A few months later, political tensions between the European powers led to the conflict that came to be known as the Seven Years’ War, which began in April 1756. Little by little, amongst all of the open confrontations, the looting, and the confusion provoked by war, almost a million and a half people died, the majority in violent circumstances.

Both events deeply affected Voltaire. Within the same year, he published his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster and the famous Essay on the Manners and Spirit of the Nations, into which he’d stamped the rather grim phrase: “The history of the great events of this world is little else besides a register of crimes.”

The pessimism might be explained by the sensitivity of the author. We might likewise suppose that Voltaire was saddened by the fragility of life, and perhaps especially awe-struck and impotent in the face of human insignificance. It might end randomly at any given moment due to phenomena, like earthquakes, many of which are perfectly natural.

In another sense, we can also imagine Voltaire exasperated by humankind’s malice, its limitless ambition, and perhaps also by its seeming incurable foolishness. All of these have prevented humankind again and again from living in harmony and peace, but rather we’ve taken confrontation to ridiculous, tragic levels.

When history is considered from this broader perspective, how can we but share in Voltaire’s regret?

Beyond our empathy, we also need to consider another important historical reference. At the time of the aforementioned disasters, and the publication of Voltaire’s works, G. W. Leibniz, a mathematician, theologian, scientist, diplomat and jurist, was at the forefront of one of the main currents in philosophy. A student of people and their environments, Leibniz reached the conclusion that the world in which we find ourselves is the best of all possible worlds. This conclusion was the result of his research and his reflections. Leibniz supported his idea in a debate with the French philosopher, Pierre Bayle, when he argued that God, in His infinite wisdom and power, could only create a world which was perfect. Otherwise, were the world imperfect, then God was neither omnipotent nor infinitely wise.

In the poem dedicated to the Lisbon earthquake and in his essay on history, Voltaire had already satirized this idea. In Candide, he found an even more effective means to demonstrate the contradiction between that idea and reality. Not only had the human race daily faced that contradiction throughout its history, but above all, the reality itself was something that people had up till then constructed with their decisions, their actions, and their omissions.

In his “philosophical tale,” Voltaire has his character pass through the most emblematic atrocities of his time: war, looting, the Inquisition, colonialism, the sumptuousness of the nobility, the misery of the common people, theft and abuse. And all of this is within the framework of a sort of arc of growth, discovery and, one might say, the loss of a certain “candor” that the protagonist carries in his name.

“Candide” is, in effect, no casual choice for the character’s name and one who happens to lend his name to the story’s title. Although the story is told in the third-person (from the perspective of an “omniscient narrator”), from the beginning until almost the end, a reader breathes the same air of naivety and even of innocence. Although at several moments of the story, Candide’s confrontation with an incoherent view of the facts seems out of place, at other times, it’s perfectly necessary. It’s a kind of vital hope that sustains him in the face of the atrocities he experiences.

This is precisely the validity we find in Voltaire’s work today. Beyond technical or scientific “progress,” we can ask ourselves: how much have people changed since the days of Voltaire? How much better are we at dealing with our neighbors and with the world in general? How much have we been able to consciously change our own natures such that we’re more compassionate, more honest, more conciliatory, etc.? The answers to these questions may seem far from encouraging.

As Candide teaches, there’s something to “optimism” which needs to be cultivated. It’s not the disingenuous or naive optimism with which the unlikely hero begins his journey. Rather, it’s that other optimism which Voltaire shows us at the end of the story, once his character has gone through a thousand and one adversities and proven himself the measure of a man.

This optimism is gained by noting that, whether or not we live in the best of all possible worlds, optimism can’t be understood upon secluded and erudite reflection. Rather, it’s obtained in action and coexistence, in fraternity and in courage. In short, it’s obtained in the daily work of those who, like Candide, realize that it’s necessary to cultivate the Garden of Eden we inherit.

Also in Faena Aleph: Is it Possible to End War? Einstein and Freud Discuss in Letters

 

 

 

Image: Creative Commons

In 1759, Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism was published. According to the biographers and scholars, some years before the writer had been living through one of the most peaceful moments of his life. Voltaire had acquired a property in Geneva, Switzerland. Significantly, he’d called it Les Delices, “The Delights.” He compared its gardens with those of the Epicurean school, in which a philosophical reflection on pleasure was reflected in daily practice. In some sense, Voltaire had created his own paradise of meditation and recreation.

As might be expected, especially once we consider the rest of human history, this Eden didn’t last long. In November of 1755 an earthquake devastated the city of Lisbon; it killed somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people in one fell swoop. A few months later, political tensions between the European powers led to the conflict that came to be known as the Seven Years’ War, which began in April 1756. Little by little, amongst all of the open confrontations, the looting, and the confusion provoked by war, almost a million and a half people died, the majority in violent circumstances.

Both events deeply affected Voltaire. Within the same year, he published his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster and the famous Essay on the Manners and Spirit of the Nations, into which he’d stamped the rather grim phrase: “The history of the great events of this world is little else besides a register of crimes.”

The pessimism might be explained by the sensitivity of the author. We might likewise suppose that Voltaire was saddened by the fragility of life, and perhaps especially awe-struck and impotent in the face of human insignificance. It might end randomly at any given moment due to phenomena, like earthquakes, many of which are perfectly natural.

In another sense, we can also imagine Voltaire exasperated by humankind’s malice, its limitless ambition, and perhaps also by its seeming incurable foolishness. All of these have prevented humankind again and again from living in harmony and peace, but rather we’ve taken confrontation to ridiculous, tragic levels.

When history is considered from this broader perspective, how can we but share in Voltaire’s regret?

Beyond our empathy, we also need to consider another important historical reference. At the time of the aforementioned disasters, and the publication of Voltaire’s works, G. W. Leibniz, a mathematician, theologian, scientist, diplomat and jurist, was at the forefront of one of the main currents in philosophy. A student of people and their environments, Leibniz reached the conclusion that the world in which we find ourselves is the best of all possible worlds. This conclusion was the result of his research and his reflections. Leibniz supported his idea in a debate with the French philosopher, Pierre Bayle, when he argued that God, in His infinite wisdom and power, could only create a world which was perfect. Otherwise, were the world imperfect, then God was neither omnipotent nor infinitely wise.

In the poem dedicated to the Lisbon earthquake and in his essay on history, Voltaire had already satirized this idea. In Candide, he found an even more effective means to demonstrate the contradiction between that idea and reality. Not only had the human race daily faced that contradiction throughout its history, but above all, the reality itself was something that people had up till then constructed with their decisions, their actions, and their omissions.

In his “philosophical tale,” Voltaire has his character pass through the most emblematic atrocities of his time: war, looting, the Inquisition, colonialism, the sumptuousness of the nobility, the misery of the common people, theft and abuse. And all of this is within the framework of a sort of arc of growth, discovery and, one might say, the loss of a certain “candor” that the protagonist carries in his name.

“Candide” is, in effect, no casual choice for the character’s name and one who happens to lend his name to the story’s title. Although the story is told in the third-person (from the perspective of an “omniscient narrator”), from the beginning until almost the end, a reader breathes the same air of naivety and even of innocence. Although at several moments of the story, Candide’s confrontation with an incoherent view of the facts seems out of place, at other times, it’s perfectly necessary. It’s a kind of vital hope that sustains him in the face of the atrocities he experiences.

This is precisely the validity we find in Voltaire’s work today. Beyond technical or scientific “progress,” we can ask ourselves: how much have people changed since the days of Voltaire? How much better are we at dealing with our neighbors and with the world in general? How much have we been able to consciously change our own natures such that we’re more compassionate, more honest, more conciliatory, etc.? The answers to these questions may seem far from encouraging.

As Candide teaches, there’s something to “optimism” which needs to be cultivated. It’s not the disingenuous or naive optimism with which the unlikely hero begins his journey. Rather, it’s that other optimism which Voltaire shows us at the end of the story, once his character has gone through a thousand and one adversities and proven himself the measure of a man.

This optimism is gained by noting that, whether or not we live in the best of all possible worlds, optimism can’t be understood upon secluded and erudite reflection. Rather, it’s obtained in action and coexistence, in fraternity and in courage. In short, it’s obtained in the daily work of those who, like Candide, realize that it’s necessary to cultivate the Garden of Eden we inherit.

Also in Faena Aleph: Is it Possible to End War? Einstein and Freud Discuss in Letters

 

 

 

Image: Creative Commons