François-Marie Arouet [1694 – 1778], known by his pen name, or nom de plume, Voltaire, was a French Englightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. Voltaire was a prolific writer, despite the strict censorship laws of the time. As a satirist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of his day.
Candide, also L’Optimism, is a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire. It begins with a young man, Candide, who has lived a sheltered life and indoctrinated with Leibnitzian optimism by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes his slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.
Written as a playful comedy, behind its amusing façade, there lies very harsh criticism of contemporary European civilization. European governments such as France, Prussia, Portugal and England are each attacked ruthlessly. Organised religion, is also harshly treated. For example, while in Paraguay, Cacambo remarks, “[The Jesuits] are masters of everything, and the people have no money at all …”. Voltaire depicts the Jesuits holding the indigenous peoples as slaves while they claim to be helping them.
Moreover, Candide was written into the context of mid 1700s natural disasters and war. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 led to a tsunami and city fires which rattled the philosophical optimism of the day, particularly that of Gottfried Leibnitz and his optimist worldview. Voltaire actively rejected Leibnizian optimism after the natural disaster, convinced that if this were the best possible world, it should surely be better than it is, describing the catastrophe as one of the most horrible disasters.
Voltaire concludes with Candide, advocating a deeply practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden“, in stead of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds“.
Candide has enjoyed both great success and great scandal. Immediately after its secretive publication, the book was widely banned because it contained religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of satirical amusement. Today, Candide is recognized as Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Candide has been listed as one of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.
In 1992, Candian born political scientist Jonathan Ralston Saul published “Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.” Part of a trilogy of political essays, Saul points out the ills of a dictatorship of reason, unbalanced by other human qualities.
Saul points out that Voltaire and his contemporaries believed reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the supersititons of relgious dogma. It was the key not only to challenge the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane society. This emphasis on reason has become central to modern thought. However, unfortunately, today’s rational society bears little resemblance to the visions of the 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers.
Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and methodoloy is based on specialised knowledge and the manipulation of “rational strucutres” rather than reason. The link between justice and reason has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical frameowrk have turned rational calculation into something short sighted and self-serving. This can and does lead to a directioness state that rewards the pursuit of power for power’s sake.
Moreover, we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs. The rationalism Voltaire advocates, captured in Candide’s mantra, “we must cultivate our garden” has birthed has led to the rise of individualism with no regard for the role of society has not created greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation.
He calls for a pursuit of a more humanist ideal in which reason is balanced with other human mental capacities such as common sense, ethics, intuition, creativity, and memory, for the sake of the common good.
What interests me in this literary debate between political minds is that art and art forms are 100 years ahead of academic thought, most of the time.
The modernist writers of the turn of the century and their melanchology works, the surrealism and absurdism is art and literature and the nihilism produced by many of the war writers and poets – signalled he death knell that pure “rational frameworks” brought to society. Lost and adrift without meaning, this generation saw the effects of reason driven ideology in Stalin and Hitler and its consequences.
Children’s writers such as C S Lewis and J K Rowling have made as much sense as Raslton Saul in calling out western rationalism for its hollow promises. Harry Potter’s “muggles” a great example of the non-sense in seeing magical and spiritual things the cause of social ills.
May we learn in this new generation, to balance celebrate learning and shun supersition without hiding within rational frameworks at the expense of ideology in the form of “truth”, intuition, creativity, spirituality and a framework for justice to work hand in hand with reason.