Trying to find a connection between Voltaire’s “Candide” and my service experience at Govan’s has been especially more difficult than it normally is – perhaps this is because I haven’t been over there quite recently (last week was a professional development day), but there also seems to be such a wide difference between the experiences of the first graders learning basic math and the 18th century French story of a world traveler. The two experiences seem so distant and unlike, yet at a very basic level they share commonalities: both Candide and my first graders are constantly in a learning environment, being challenged to think in new ways, both have certainly felt some sort of suffering (as have all people), but most importantly they both share a certain sense of naivety about the world around them, the first graders simply because of their age and lack of experience, and Candide because of his firm beliefs in optimism and the words of Pangloss. Of course, this sense of naivety is much different, almost because of this sense of optimism that runs Candide’s life. In order to have this sense of optimism about the world on a greater scale, one must already be at a level where one realizes and thinks about the greater world on a scale besides how the world relates only to the self. By the first grade this type of thinking hasn’t really developed yet – emotions come and go as they please, and the children take life almost as if second by second. If they are happy, then they are living in the best of all possible worlds, but if they are sad, then they are living in the worst of all possible worlds.
Of course, for Voltaire, the naivety of Candide exists to serve his satirical purposes: by portraying violence and suffering in the world so bluntly through the eyes of one who cannot comprehend why this suffering exists, the suffering stands out even more, and the eventual disillusionment of the title character becomes a profound statement about philosophy in the real world. In a sense, this disillusionment is something that all humans go through during the course of one’s life, and one that parallels the growth of the children I am working with. Much like Candide eventually learns that his preconceived philosophical notions may be wrong, so too the first graders will eventually begin realizing that they do not exist as the center of the universe and that a greater world exists outside of themselves. It also reflects questions that most people struggle with daily, especially those who are especially religious: why does suffering exist? Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God allow this? In finding different ways to answer this question, many are left confused and inevitably struggle, questioning their faith in the process.
Although Voltaire leaves the question of how to accept this suffering somewhat ambiguous, saying only that one should “cultivate his garden,” there seems to be a clear connection between his answer and a fundamental principle of Japanese ethics: in that the question of philosophy shouldn’t be why suffering exists, but rather begin with an acceptance of that suffering. Whether Voltaire is advocating another specific philosophy by saying one should “cultivate his garden,” such as the ethics of labor in keeping one’s mind off of suffering, or if he is advocating pessimism as an alternative to optimism isn’t completely certain, but either way begins with an acceptance of suffering as a requirement, rather than asking why it exists. As I read the short novel and interpreted Voltaire’s philosophy, I found myself seeing in the work an actual denial of philosophy, or almost a refusal by Voltaire to subscribe to any philosophy in lieu of just living life and dealing with it as it comes. One may call this a philosophy in itself, but it is an anti-philosophy in a way, it is a way of living life rather than vainly trying to explain or understand it, a way of thinking that I personally have found attractive in my own philosophical “journey.” Although Voltaire might have been proposing this, it could be any number of things, which is why I feel he left the ending somewhat ambiguous, almost so that the reader takes out of it something different, so that they formulate their own beliefs about the world rather than simply subscribe to Voltaire’s, a mistake that I’m sure Voltaire would find as grave as Candide blindly following the beliefs of Pangloss.