Monday, October 19, 2009

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

In Candide, Voltaire satirizes both philosophy and religion relentlessly. Within the first quarter of the novel, countless jokes are made with respect to “effects and causes” (5), “sufficient reason” (8), and the concept that Candide’s world is “the best of worlds” (11). Though philosophy is central to the novel – and thus to Candide’s character – it is rarely portrayed in a positive light. Indeed, from the very first page, philosophy is mocked. Candide’s philosophy instructor Pangloss is described as a “professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology” (1). This term is clearly nonsensical and implies that the profession is infused with a kind of absurdity. Here, Voltaire immediately takes away from the legitimacy of the profession. Shortly following this statement, he writes that Dr. Pangloss was found “giving a lesson in experimental natural philosophy to her mother’s chamber-maid” (2). That is, he is found having sex with the chamber-maid. During Voltaire’s time, philosophers strove to transcend worldly pleasures and concern themselves only with love of knowledge. Here, Voltaire’s dry humor suggests the presence of hypocrisy within the profession.

Voltaire likewise mocks religion early in Candide. Upon reaching Holland, a land the reader is told is filled with “Christians,” Candide experiences only coldness and unfriendliness. At last, one man asks him “‘My friend … do you believe the Pope to be the Anti-Christ?’” (6). Candide apparently responds incorrectly, stating “‘I have not heard it’” (6). Because of this, the man refuses to help him. Indeed, the “Christians” in Holland behave rather un-Christianly in the modern sense of the term. They are selfish and, in fact, mean. Not until he meets the Anabaptist James does Candide find charity. That James, a member of a heretical religious sect, behaves more like a Christian than do the actual Christians is rather controversial. Additionally, James offers perhaps the most accurate representation of humanity. He says “‘It is more likely … mankind have a little corrupted nature, for they were not born wolves, and they have become wolves’” (9). This seems far closer to the truth as Candide experiences it than Pangloss’ idea of “the best of all possible worlds” (1).

Interestingly, though James and Pangloss represent opposing trains of thought, Voltaire kills them both. James drowns in the Bay of Lisbon attempting to save one of his sailors while Pangloss is hung in Portugal. Pangloss’ death, though sad because Candide cared for him, is perhaps a sign that his philosophy is flawed. This is somewhat comforting because, like Candide, the reader has trouble believing that the world of the book is the “best of all possible worlds.” James’ death is more discouraging because he is one of the truly good characters in the tale. Voltaire suggests, in killing James, that acting like a Christian often comes at a price. To remain “safe” one must behave like the “Christians” in Holland.

As I mentioned in class a few weeks ago, one of the students I tutor is not allowed to read the Harry Potter books because they possess potentially controversial implications for religion. In his words, “Harry Potter is about witchcraft.” Though not necessarily accurate, his statement reveals that religion remains an issue for readers today. Where readers in the past might have avoided Candide because of how harshly Voltaire critiques philosophy and religion, my student avoids the Harry Potter books because of its implications for religion. I personally think that Harry Potter actually promotes Christian ideals (rather than “witchcraft”) and that Voltaire, in satirizing the dominant philosophy and theology of his time, comes closer to the truth. Yet that these novels were and are so intimidating proves how significant a role religion plays in daily life.

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