David Bosco grew up in Washington DC, and studied international relations and law at Cambridge and Harvard. He is the author of Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World. He teaches at American University's School of International Service, focusing on international organizations. David lives with his wife and son in Washington. Below he writes about Voltaire's Candide.
David Bosco on Candide by Voltaire
In those now long ago days when the United States was captivated by the suffering in Haiti, I often wondered how a modern-day Pangloss - Voltaire's cockeyed optimist - would react. If it weren't for that massive earthquake, he might argue, movie stars and other celebrities would never have fielded calls from ordinary Americans in a massive telethon organized by George Clooney. Had there been no earthquake, we would not have witnessed the heroics of Dr Sanjay Gupta, the CNN doctor-correspondent, tending to wounded Haitians after a Belgian medical team assigned to the facility shamefully fled the field. And without the earthquake, how would Americans have been able to remind themselves - after such a confusing past decade - that they are indeed a great and generous people? All in all, it must be said, the earthquake was for the best.
Pangloss is one of literature's most memorable straw men, and he has stuck with me ever since I first read Candide, Voltaire's savage 1759 satire, 20 years ago. Throughout the short novel, the good philosopher's system - 'all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds' - is steadily and colourfully battered into submission. Pangloss was a stand-in for Gottfried Leibniz, the German philosopher whose system Voltaire detested. The young and impressionable Candide carries the Panglossian/Leibnizian world-view through a series of absurdly horrifying misadvantures. As he chases his love, Candide is conscripted into the Prussian army, witnesses a massive earthquake in Lisbon, is flogged, watches an admiral executed for insufficient bellicosity, is cheated and robbed, accidentally kills the lovers of two women, intentionally stabs another three men, and hears excruciating tales of woe from fellow travellers (including a woman whose buttock was once consumed by her starved companions).
Optimism is not Voltaire's only target - not by a long shot. He also settles accounts with a variety of others who offended him, including publishers, literary critics, and financiers (my annotated version helpfully explains the context for each of his barbs). Priests are a favourite target. Corrupt and rapacious clergy are sprinkled throughout the short novel, whose most noted line might be 'Let us eat a Jesuit'.
In the end, Candide acquires a counterweight to Pangloss - the dryly witty Martin, who is never surprised by the treachery and tragedy that they encounter. Finally, Candide recovers his lost love - who has been rendered haggard and unpleasant by her own travails - and settles with her and his motley band of companions in a modest farmhouse. Martin, Candide and Pangloss continue to spar over metaphysics and morals, but for the most part agree to simply cultivate their garden.
Martin, we must suppose, represents Voltaire's own world-view - a weary cynicism leavened only by humour. But I have often wondered whether Voltaire didn't come to admire Pangloss. He is not, after all, a villain or a hypocrite, like so many others Candide encounters. He seems loyal to Candide and he generously employs his strange and circumlocutory logic to help Candide legally marry his love. Pangloss has found a world-view that sustains him and he clings to it in the face of contrary evidence. Indeed, the work of buttressing his outlook keeps his mind engaged and active. And in the end, the optimist and the realist end up labouring, more or less cheerfully, in the same field.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]