Monday, October 19, 2009

     Voltaire masterfully uses satire throughout Candide, juxtaposing extremes and extreme people—like Pangloss and Martin—to make a very pointed mockery of philosophy. It seems that Voltaire finds philosophy and similar studies pretty useless; Voltaire seems to be asking, as Mary titled her post, “What does it matter?” Time and time again, he shows the ridiculous situations philosophers get themselves into and the even more ridiculous ways in which they try to philosophize their experiences to make them fit some teaching, rather than allowing their experiences to direct their philosophies. This molding of experience to fit pre-existing philosophy also makes Voltaire’s characters particularly unwilling to take much action, but rather allow “the best of all possible worlds” act for them.

     Voltaire puts this corruption of philosophy quite concretely throughout Candide. We are constantly shown scenes like the following, from p. 81:

“Well, my dear Pangloss,” said Candide… “when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped,
and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything happens for the best?”
“I am still of my first opinion,” answered Pangloss, “for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract, especially as Leibnitz could never be wrong…”

     These characters, particularly Pangloss, are simply unwilling to change their beliefs, even when it has become apparent that their experiences negate the philosophy they have been taught. Candide, too, suffers this fault; until the last page of the book, he optimistically hopes that all is for the best in a child-like manner, yet will not do anything to ensure the best for himself.

     It seems that Voltaire’s major characters are by-and-large inactive people full of hot air—the only thing they seem to know how to do is talk in stories and complicated circles. Similarly, they have things done to them rather than doing things for themselves (e.g. Pangloss is hanged, sold off to slavery, etc. and is only free when Candide finally takes action). The moral of the book reflects this issue: Candide declares on the final page, “we must cultivate our garden.” (To which Pangloss responds, as though he’d know it all along, “You are right … for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there … that he might cultivate it; which shows us that man was not born to be idle.”)

     To connect this book to what we’ve read so far—and what seems to catch my eye in every book—I think Voltaire is criticizing what we consider knowledge and education. Everything else we’re read has, in some way, commented upon this, as well. I think that in all of these banned books, one of the most subversive ideas presented is that formal education alone is not going to lead to success; experiential knowledge, gained from actually living in and engaging with the world, is the most important element in our “education.”

     For Voltaire, it is not enough to be taught philosophies. The original philosophers gained their knowledge through experience of the world, yet the secondary and tertiary philosophers he presents us with—like Pangloss and Candide, who have gained their philosophical knowledge only from the works of other philosophers—have removed themselves from experience of the world.
     Similarly, it is not enough for Mark Twain that one merely memorize and call such a thing learning. Instead, he presents Huck Finn, a boy who takes nothing a face value; he questions everything he is taught, including the largely untouchable tenets of Christianity. However, Huck Finn lacks much formal knowledge; Twain isn’t showing us a perfect model of education, but it seems clear that experiential knowledge overtakes his lack of formal training.

     I think Fr. Kolvenbach put it most succinctly when he said: “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.” This is true for Huck Finn, and ultimately, it is true for Candide, as well. Before the book opens, Candide has known nothing but life inside of his castle, his proverbial Eden. He has been taught the best philosophy from a respectable mentor, but he has never questioned his teaching. Only after he is expelled from his Eden does he encounter the world, and even then, it is not generally of his own volition. By the last page, however, he has thoroughly experienced the tragedies of the world and questioned his optimistic philosophical education, and has made his first original reflection: “we must cultivate our garden.”

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