Home > 18th Century, Classics, French Literature, Highly Recommended, Made into a play, Novella, Voltaire > Candide. If that’s the best of possible worlds…

Candide. If that’s the best of possible worlds…

Candide by Voltaire (1759)

I had tickets to a stage version of Candide by Voltaire and it prompted me to re-read this conte philosophique. (It means philosophical tale and Candide is filed under that genre in French. In English, I believe it’s a satire and although the French word satire exists as well, it is not used in this case.) Candide is perhaps Voltaire’s best known work. For those who wouldn’t know about it, Candide is a young man who lives in a castle in Vestphalie. He’s allegedly the illegitimate son of the baron’s sister. He’s been raised with the baron’s children, Cunégonde and her brother. Their tutor is Maître Pangloss, a philosopher who teaches the metaphysico–theologo–cosmolonigology and the basis of his education is that

Il est démontré (…) que les choses ne peuvent être autrement : car tout étant fait pour une fin, tout est nécessairement pour la meilleure fin. Remarquez bien que les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes ; aussi avons-nous des lunettes. It is demonstrable,(…) that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles

Candide truly believes in Pangloss’s education and he’s convinced that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. One day, Candide is caught kissing Cunégonde behind a curtain and is thrown out of the castle. Here starts his journey around the world, pushed from one place to the other by events and still hoping for a happy ending with Cunégonde. His belief in Pangloss’s teaching is repeatedly attacked by what he sees in other countries. His travels lead him through Europe and South America. He’s confronted to wars, earthquakes, Inquisition, fights for power, greed and desolation.

I see three layers in Candide. The first one is the obvious Leibnitz-bashing dripping from Pangloss’s ridiculous philosophy. The second one is the strong criticism of hypocrisy, obscurantism and institutions. The third one is on a more individual level and questions our personal way to give our life a meaning in such a world.

I haven’t read Leibnitz and I don’t know to what extend Voltaire distorted Leibnitz’s thoughts but I find Pangloss’s philosophy ludicrous and harmful. If we all think like this, then we never rebel against anything. We’d still be living in caverns since improving our living conditions is futile; after all, we live in the best of all possible worlds. With that line of thinking, we never discover vaccination, Martin Luther King preaches acceptance of your fate as a black person and women never get to become doctors or astronauts because they’ve always stayed at home. I refuse to think things can never change, especially institutions or mentalities. It’s too depressing.

Then Voltaire shoots at everything that looks like an institution. The descriptions are coated with lethal irony. Armies look full of morons but still able to joyfully kill each other, murder and assult populations, especially women. The baron is full of aristocratic contempt and unable to detach himself from his snobbish ways. Candide saves Cunégonde, loves her, wants to marry her after she’s become poor, battered and ugly and still, the baron thinks Candide’s unworthy of her because he doesn’t have the right degrees of noble decent. Smart guess from Voltaire here: inability to let this go and accept equality among men will cost a lot to the French aristocracy during the French Revolution.

Religious institutions and their representatives are exposed as hypocrites and deviant from the real message of their faith. The Protestant pastor preaches about love being the basis of everything and won’t help Candide who needs food and water. The Catholic Inquisition in Portugal hangs and burns people who dare stray from a floating and blurry line of conduct imposed by the Church, blatantly ignoring the Thou shalt not kill command. The Muslims are at war against each other and awful massacres are conducted in the name of God and yet they never missed the five stated times of prayer enjoined by their prophet Mahomet. In South America, the Jesuits are more a political force than a religious congregation. Voltaire never mocks or criticizes personal faith in any God. He points out the way humanity translates honest faith into religious codes and rules and rebels against using other people’s faith to achieve personal, greedy and very earthly goals through religious institutions.

After all these travels, Candide and friends come to the conclusion that the best way to live is to work without disputing and that it is the only way to render life supportable. And Candide concludes with the famous Il faut cultiver notre jardin (Let us cultivate our garden) Although I’ve been taught that this statement should be taken literally, I want to see it differently. In French, we often have one word for something concrete and its related concept. Example: maison means house and home. Etre cultivé (to be cultivated) means to be farmed and to be educated. I want to see Candide’s garden as one’s brain and cultiver as to educate. I strongly believe in education to fight efficiently and long-term against obscurantism. That’s the only way to the best of all possible worlds.

When I tweeted my Friday Read last Friday, I wrote “I wonder what Volaire would write today.” After re-reading Candide, I know. Sadly, he would write Candide again since everything is still valid. The text was adapted for the theatre by Kevin Keiss and Maëlle Poésy, who also directed the play. It was brilliant, mixing actual passages of the novella and adding contemporary references to carry the message. The actors were fantastic in picturing the emotions, the travelling and the philosophical parts. The direction was creative with lights, sound effects and décors. It brought out the fun of the text, its raw power as a thought-provoking comedy. Pangloss looked as ridiculous as the tutor Trissotin in The Learned Ladies by Molière.

In France, Candide is a text often studied in high school. In class, we insist on the philosophical side and never on the funny side. Here, the production managed to preserve the serious topics and make the public laugh. A tremendous evening. Once again, the theatre proves to be the right place to expose the modernity of a text, to give life to words and show why reading books written a long time ago by guys who had funny hair brings pleasure and enlightenment. Voltaire loved theatre. I think he would love to see his text played like this and would bask in the public’s clapping.

If you’ve never read Candide, it’s time to read it. You can get free copies in electronic files. It’s probably in every decent library. It’s easy to read. It’s less than 200 pages. It shows you part of the French DNA, the part that puts 3.5 million people on the streets to stand their ground for the freedom of speech and the right to criticize, not someone’s faith, but the way faith is institutionalized and weaponized (I know the word doesn’t exist) for earthly possessions and power.

I have to mention an extra bonus in the leaflet I got in the theatre. Voltaire’s text was illustrated with literary quotes. One of them was by Romain Gary.

Aussi longtemps que des phares de la pensée humaine prétendront au monopole de la lumière, il ne saurait y avoir que des successions d’éclairs de lumière et de ténèbres, de foi et de désillusion, d’excès dans la croyance et dans la démystification, de fanatisme et de retrait, de croisades sanguinaires suivies d’une haine du mot même de foi, de dévouement total puis de nausée totale, le genre d’amoralisme qui vient d’une morale trop rigide, puis à nouveau le genre de morale rigide qui procède d’un excès d’amoralisme.

In L’Affaire homme.

As long as beacons of human thinking pretend to have the monopoly of light, we will only experience a series of lightning of enlightenment and dark ages, of faith and disillusion, of excesses in beliefs and demystification, of fanaticism and retreat, of bloodthirsty crusades followed by hatred of the very word of faith, of total dedication and then total nausea. We will only live through the sort of amorality that comes after a too rigid morality, then through another time of rigid morality that is born from an excess of amorality.

 

 

  1. March 1, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    I wonder if this is the same version that I saw performed in St. Genis Pouilly – they took the primary school children to see it. My son’s CM1 class loved it (although of course many of the allusions went right over their head), but it was a very energetic and humorous interpretation.

    Like

    • March 1, 2015 at 8:37 pm

      What can I tell to help you figure out if you’ve seen the same play? It was originally done by the theatre of Dijon.
      Were the actors dancing during travels? Wearing canvas shirts? Was Pangloss played by a woman? Was the old lady accompanying Cunégonde played by a man?

      Like

      • March 1, 2015 at 8:43 pm

        No, I think the actors were from Lyon, which is why I thought it might be the same one. They did dance during travels, but it was just 3 actors, two men and a woman.

        Like

        • March 1, 2015 at 9:26 pm

          It’s not the same play, then.
          It was for a very young public. I like that they do field trips to the theatre, it’s such a great experience for kids.

          Like

          • March 1, 2015 at 9:42 pm

            We live in the village named after Voltaire, virtually in the shadow of his chateau, so it’s only fitting that the children should know about him and his work. Plus, it’s such sane advice for the present day…

            Like

            • March 1, 2015 at 9:47 pm

              I understand and it’s great the school talks about Voltaire and what he represents, especially today. I’ve seen his works on display tables in book stores.

              My son’s school is in a neighbourhood of revolutionary streets (rue Robespierre, rue Danton, rue Rouget de l’Isle…) He asked questions about the names.

              I’ve been to Ferney-Voltaire; I always feel something when I visit a writer’s house.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael O'Reilly
    March 1, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    That Moliere and Voltaire still thrill and inspire gives me great joy. Oh how merveilleux to be among ‘the happy few’!

    Like

    • March 1, 2015 at 9:22 pm

      I love Molière. I’ll go and see Le malade imaginaire in few weeks.

      We were a lot of happy few in this theatre. It was full.

      Like

  3. March 1, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    Candide is a wonderful humorous philosophical novel. Now that I’m in the midst of reading Romain Gary, I can’t help but associate Jean Seberg with Candide. Seberg believes in social justice, some would say naively. She is hounded by the FBI and the Nixon administration, probably blacklisted from Hollywood. She gets pregnant, and the authorities spread rumors that the father is a Black Panther leader. The baby soon dies . and Seberg has an open-casket funeral for the baby in her hometown Marshaltown, Iowa, showing that it is white. She commits suicide 9 years later.
    I have many more thoughts concerning ‘White Dog’ which will run on my site in a couple of weeks. Thanks for introducing me to this fascinating couple.

    Like

    • March 1, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      Your comment made my day: I’m so happy you’re enjoying White Dog! I can’t wait to read your thoughts about it. It is a tragic story. Gary had such an interesting life. I’m curious to read what you think of his perception or analysis of racism in the US.

      Like

  4. March 1, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    I’ve recently put Candide near the top of the TBR for a reread, so this is very timely for me. I love your take on the final sentence. Perfect, Emma. We must all cultivate our minds.

    Like

    • March 1, 2015 at 11:12 pm

      I’ve read it three times. I’m sure I’ll read it again.
      With all the horrors we hear about, it’s a healthy read.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. March 2, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Fantastic review and commentary Emma. I have seen a production of Candide, but it was so long ago that my memories of it are fairly sketchy now! I suspect I was probably too young to have really appreciated all the different layers you’ve mentioned here.

    It sounds as if you managed to catch an excellent stage version.

    Like

    • March 2, 2015 at 9:55 pm

      It’s great theatre material, which is not surprising given how much Voltaire loved theatre. This stage version was really good.

      Have you read the book?

      Like

      • March 3, 2015 at 1:59 pm

        I haven’t. I ought to…

        Like

        • March 3, 2015 at 10:29 pm

          May I say “yes you ought to”? 🙂

          Like

          • March 4, 2015 at 11:56 am

            You may! You’ve made a very convincing case for it…on the wishlist it goes.

            Like

            • March 4, 2015 at 10:05 pm

              Can’t wait to read your review!

              Like

  6. March 2, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Great commentary Emma.

    I need to read a translation of this. I am always drawn to sharp criticism of institutions.

    I also have not read Leibnitz. I do hear people express similar sentiments all the time. I agree that that such thinking gets us nowhere.

    Like

    • March 2, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      There are a lot of free translations of Candide on the internet. This is a book you’d most certainly like and I’d be very interested in reading your review of it.

      Like

  7. March 2, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    Really nice commentary, Emma, and helpful for the context in which the book’s read in France. I’m way overdue for a re-read of Candide, especially after recently finishing Leonardo Sciascia’s Sicilian version of it, Candido, a great little homage. Have you heard/seen the delightful Leonard Bernstein operetta?

    Like

    • March 2, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      Thanks, Scott.
      I’ll have a look at Candido, I’ve never heard of this Sicilian version.

      I don’t know the Bernstein operetta; classical music is a really weak spot of mine.

      Like

  8. March 2, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    “weaponized” is, I am afraid, an already existing English word, mostly followed by the words “Ebola” or “anthrax.”

    I am so old that I went to a university where every student was assigned Candide as part of the Western Civilization curriculum. My observation was that most students even read it, because it is short and funny and we were not so skittish about books back then.

    Leibniz is a funny case. His philosophy had two tiers. One was Leibniz for Dummies, apparently mostly aimed at his royal patrons, which is pretty close to the way Voltaire describes it. The second tier was more complex, real philosophy, so beyond my capabilities, but still important for philosophers today, and anyways not the work of a simpleton.

    The play sounds wonderful. Candide must be highly adaptable.

    Like

    • March 2, 2015 at 10:55 pm

      My dictionary doesn’t know “weaponized”. I must have read it somewhere though, if it came to mind.
      However, I didn’t know the word “tiers” outside of an insurance related context. I’m glad I looked it up.

      I’ve read Candide in high school and I was in a science major. There weren’t too many complains about it. As you say, it’s short and funny. Like Molière’s plays, it is appreciated even by non-readers.
      The play was wonderful. I hope students who have to read it for the bac de français had the opportunity to see it.

      I know that Voltaire’s giving a simplified version of Leibniz. I love his irony.

      Like

  9. March 3, 2015 at 9:21 am

    Voltaire (and Molière and Corneille) have long been on my TBR list, but I always hesitated to actually pick one of their works for reading because I often experienced eigtheenth and nineteenth century literature as lengthy and boring… probably, I just made unlucky choices. Your review makes me feel that I should give “Candide” a chance at last. So thanks for the review!

    Like

    • March 3, 2015 at 10:28 pm

      I really recommend Candide, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it.

      Molière is a fantastic playwright. There are billets about The Learned Ladies and The School for Wives on my blog. Not sure that’s the best place to start. I’d recommend Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope or Le malade imaginaire first. Don Juan is excellent as well.
      I’m not a huge fan of Racine and Corneille, although I like Racine better.

      Like

      • March 4, 2015 at 6:35 pm

        Thanks for the recommendations! I really didn’t know where to start best…

        I see that you aren’t particularly fond of Racine and Corneille. Well, to be truthfully, the last made it on my TBR list mainly because I share my birthday with him 😉

        Like

        • March 4, 2015 at 10:06 pm

          I’m not fond of Racine and Corneille because of the battle between duty and passion and I think it didn’t age well. But that’s my take, lots of readers find their plays beautiful.

          Like

  10. March 3, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    A lovely review of what I sometimes cite as my favourite novel. It’s so very funny, which makes me fear for it as a school text where I suspect (and you don’t make me suspect otherwise) that element would be rather smothered. At the same time it’s so very astute too. A genuinely wonderful book. If anyone after reading this is considering adding it to their TBR as I note some are, I can only urge them to follow Emma’s recommendation and read it.

    Like

    • March 3, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      So Candide stands beside Madame Bovary on your dream-books shelf?
      Candide is so good that, like Molière, not even the dullest teacher can destroy it. It’s true though that in class, a lot of time was spent on Leibnitz, the events. It’s difficult to avoid as students lack the background we now have as adults. That’s why rereading classics is so rewarding.

      Like

  11. March 3, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    I’ve read this so often that my text falls apart. I could never understand that someone doesn’t like it. Although – when we read it in high school I hated it but when I had to do close reading at the university I loved it.

    Like

    • March 3, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      I have an old copy that belonged to someone in my family. There’s a paper in it with ideas for homework, I know it’s not my mom’s handwriting (she’s the most likely candidate to own books) and not my dad’s either. It must belong to my aunt.

      Since you know it so well, what do you think of the “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”? What’s your interpretation?

      Like

      • March 4, 2015 at 10:16 am

        As far as we interpreted it at the university it means to stay outside of the world. It can be proven when you read it closely. Everytime Pangloss starts talking about the world Candide interrupts him saying Il faut cultiver notre garden. If he0’d said it only once it would be vague but reinforcing it, closing the discussion twice means in a way “Yes, yes, you’re right but I’ve had enough of the world and its ways. I can only be an optimsite if I stay outside.” The accent is on “jardin” – with all the biblical connotations and the refutation thereof – not so much on “culture”.

        Like

        • March 4, 2015 at 10:04 pm

          Thanks.

          That’s what I learnt in school too. It’s kind of sad, don’t you think? It’s a bit like giving up.

          Like

          • March 5, 2015 at 9:43 am

            Giving up on the world (humans have created), maybe but not on life. I get this type of thinking.

            Like

  12. March 4, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Oh my – notre garden. 🙂

    Like

    • March 4, 2015 at 10:05 pm

      Happens to me all the time with the blogging, reading and working in English.

      Like

  13. February 5, 2017 at 12:11 am

    Hello Emma, I thoroughly enjoyed this post:) It’s years since I read Candide but I still remember chuckling over it, so *smile* maybe I instinctively enjoyed its humour more than its philosophy…
    Yes, weaponize is a word, you can tell that the Americans invented it because it uses a ‘z’ not an ‘s’. If you use a dictionary of English English rather than American English, that might be why you can’t find it.

    Like

    • February 5, 2017 at 11:03 am

      Hello Lisa,

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Candide is a must-read. My daughter has to read it now, she’s in high school.

      re-weaponized. Thanks.
      I never know which English I speak. I’m French, so which spelling shall I use? I try to adapt to the book if it’s Anglophone literature. I will try to use English spelling/words for a British book and American spelling/words for US lit. As for Australian, well, I suppose British spelling is closer to the mark.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 5, 2017 at 12:01 pm

        *chuckle* Just to make it difficult we have a sort of hybrid UK/US spelling with our own distinctive Aussie vocabulary as well. But seriously, I wouldn’t worry about adapting it if I were you, stick to whatever dictionary you currently use and hope for the best… I think you do very well indeed!

        Like

        • February 5, 2017 at 1:07 pm

          I’m more worried about mixing words/spelling that don’t go together and write weird English.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. February 5, 2017 at 10:58 am

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