I know I know, intoxicated with a new idea, I’ve forgotten someone important. The author! Can a hothouse plant, so fragile that it wilts under the mere whiff of an autumn wind, welcome such cold questioning? Open the doors! Break the glass! Now’s the time to see...
I’ve always had my doubts about Peter Gay’s great work on the Enlightenment; its two big volumesi too schematically structured around a central argument to be altogether convincing. Is life really so simple as the old against the new; the 18th century merely a punch up between the philosophes and St Thomas Aquinas; Voltaire knocking out the elderly scholastic with a head butt? Did the modern world really emerge out of its mother’s womb fully formed and mature – did those arthritic theologians have no influence at all? Was it really conceived through parthenogenesis? The professor’s argument implies that this was so: modernity can owe very little to its medieval predecessors because they are two different species of thought - the one irretrievably religious and mythic, the other analytical, and heavily influenced by the classical heritage. The Enlightenment, in this view, represents a profound break in the history of thought. It is an ideological revolution; an intellectual coup d’état. The old ideas sent to the guillotine.
There is an element of advocacy in these books; or at least the suggestion of a pre-conceived theory that oversimplifies a complex and subtly shifting reality that defies easy categorisationii – Roy Porter writes of separate nationalist enlightenments, a thesis which, while not altogether convincing, captures something of the variety of this intellectual movement.iii Too entranced by a simple binary opposition there are moments when Gay’s work feels like a world devised by newspaper columnists – the good guys on our side battling it out with the illiberal barbarians - although the exposition is usually much more sophisticated than this; Peter Gay is a fine scholar not a crude controversialist. And these are great books! They have taught me a lot. I have some doubts. That is all.
My greatest debt is to the writings of Ernst Cassirer both in philosophy and in intellectual history. His central distinction between critical and mythical thinking lies at the heart of my interpretation. (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation; The Rise of Modern Paganism)
Reality, even intellectual reality, is always more complicated than a simple dialectic;iv the 18th century not just a boxing match between two opponents, a religious mindset and a “critical philosophy”, even if this is what the original protagonists themselves believed.v Of course we must listen to their views, and take their words seriously; although we should never wholly trust them – Voltaire and his friends burdened with large biases and a limited perspective. Often it is we who have the greater knowledge, and are able to situate them within a context of which they were hardly if at all aware. The arrogance of hindsight? Think of yourself, and the limitations of your understanding of the contemporary scene. The world is too vast for us to fully comprehend even a part of what influences even our own thoughts – do you remember everything that you have read and heard? And how little of what we remember we understand! We miss so much of its subterranean complexity; the culture for the most part absorbed reflexively, percolating down unobserved into our all too crafty and secretive subconscious; which then decides what it will do with what it has received – one day using a defaced poster to create a masterpiece; another day throwing Kirchner’s Marzella away as useless junk. Consciousness is like a bus station open 24/7: anyone can enter! Dogs and cats; drunks with their lager cans; preachers with their messages of universal salvation; prostitutes with their money belts half full of condoms… Anybody can stroll in and out. Even Serenity Science has been seen to lurk around by the dustbins, though few notice her. We know so little of what enters our minds, which are usually too jealous to give up what they contain – it is their art collection, and no one else is going to see it! There is so much we do not know. So much that is out of our control, even inside our own heads.
A writer’s words must be taken seriously. Yet they cannot be left to proselytize alone on a street corner. Always we must bring in other writers, other ideas, and ourselves as well. We must muscle in between Voltaire’s sentences and Rousseau’s paragraphs, and break a few noses and bruise a few ankles with our questions and our doubts. Ah! Here they are again. “Calm down Jean Jacques, calm down.” Now is the time to find out just how critical is your Critical Philosophy!
When summing up a slightly longer period three historians inform us that although the scientists and philosophers of the early modern era may have rejected the content of the old scholasticism they nonetheless inherited the most significant part of its mindset.
In the Eighteenth Century a small group of determined reformers established science as the new foundation for truth, a granite-like platform upon which all knowledge could rest. The absolute character of their truth mimicked the older Christian truth upon which Westerners since late Roman times had come to rely. They transferred a habit of mind associated with religiosity – the conviction that transcendent and absolute truth could be known – to the new mechanical understanding of the natural world. Eventually they grafted this conviction onto all other inquiries…(Telling the Truth About History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt & Margaret Jacob)
The classic statement of this view is the once famous Carl L. Becker.
Obviously the disciples of the Newtonian philosophy had not ceased to worship. They had only given another form and a new name to the object of worship: having denatured God, they deified nature. They could, therefore, without self-consciousness, and with only a slight emendation in the sacred text, repeat the cry of the psalmist: “I will lift up mine eyes to Nature from whence cometh my help!” With eyes uplifted, contemplating and admiring so excellent a system, they were excited and animated to correspond with the general harmony. (The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers)
Candide could be a test case for Peter Gay’s work; his interpretation of Voltaire’s masterpiece an indication of the soundness of his theoretical scheme. Does the book accord with his thesis? Or must he squeeze it into the corset of his premises? Is he able, after all the pushing and pulling, and the laboured breathing, to actually lace up Candide’s well-fed body inside the narrow stays of his arguments? Luckily the first volume contains an essay on the novel, which allows us to test both the professor’s ideas and his analytical skill. “Lucky for us or for him”, you say. Oh! I see! It seems, my friend, you know me just a little too well!
…young Candide, innocent and naïve, is expelled from a miserable chateau in Westphalia by the baron who owns it…
It hasn’t begun well. Compare this gloss with title of the first chapter…
How Candide was brought up in a beautiful country house, and how he was driven away
And contrast it with the first two sentences of the second:
After being turned out of this earthly paradise, Candide wandered off without thinking which way he was going. As he plodded along he wept, glancing sometimes towards heaven, but more often in the direction of the most beautiful of houses, which contained the loveliest of barons’ daughters.
By misreading the first section professor Gay misses something essential in this book: its fall into pessimism. On the threshold of acquiring “modern” knowledge – the satisfaction of Cunégonde’s sexual craving is the metaphor - Candide is thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Reared in a paradise he can remain there only for as long as he retains his innocence; when desire awakens a combination of sex, social class and prejudice will destroy this contented life and he will be expelled from his earthly happiness. Candide, by going beyond the limits of his status, has broken the rules, and is kicked out of the Baron’s estate because of his presumptive behaviour. His knowledge is not commensurate with his experience, once sex enters into his environment. And how he bemoans this newfound desire – it lays waste to all of his comforts and creates a yearning that can never be fulfilled. Love the great devastator! It is why Candide is miserable after he leaves Westphalia; while it is only much later, when he realises he can never regain his childhood idyll, that he reconciles himself to his expulsion. An extremely important nuance that Gay misses entirely, although he is not the only one.vi
The Baron’s chateau wasn’t miserable it was lovely. However, our hero wasn’t civilised enough to remain there. Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh’s estate is thus transformed from a permanent residence into a temporary abode; a place where Candide lives until his childhood ends. He is too innocent and too naïve to stay forever in this Elysium. If he had been crafty, a good actor, or much wiser, if he had been Odysseus for example, he would have found a way to live with his Eve in this particular Eden. But he was too simple for that; Candide lacking the sophistication to stay long in the Baron’s home. It is the reason why they threw him out – he betrayed his civilisation by succumbing to his desires which if satisfied would have destroyed the established order. Of course he wasn’t to blame. But if he had been wiser he would have been more careful when Cunégonde persuaded him to repeat Pangloss’ lesson. It was both his naivety and his ignorance that defeated him; and so he was banished into the wilderness of unfulfilled love.
Notice how I have reversed the polarity. Candide is about its hero’s fall from grace not his rise into critical enlightenment. Candide has lost something vital and beautiful, something that is very important to him; the reason why later he rejects Eldorado – it may be an intellectual’s paradise but it cannot satisfy a man in love. The Baron’s estate was not some horrible place that he is happy to leave. On the contrary! The hero is thrown into an ugly and uncaring world, from which he barely escapes sane. Candide, ostensibly a comedy, also has tragic elements; the novel a sad reflection on the narrow horizons of modern man – think of how much Candide must lose in order to gain his worldly wisdom. After the marvellously rich estate of his youth he must live the rest of his life on a small farm in a country outside Europe; the then intellectual centre of the world. What a miserable existence! Surely not something we should celebrate; although we accept it as the best Candide can do, in the circumstances. He has made too many mistakes to recover the lost happiness of his childhood, and must now accept the few scraps of comfort left to his adult years.
Now let us look at the metaphors. By itself reason isn’t enough to understand the universe – this was the failure of the scholastics.vii Reality is too various and too complicated to be contained within simple syllogisms and naïve theories; it needs a level of intellectual sophistication that can apply itself to each case at hand. Where there are general laws they tend to apply only to simple phenomena, and must be vigorously tested with evidence to ensure their validity; the reason why the hard sciences are limited to such small areas of knowledge. The social sciences are not so careful, and the less sophisticated amongst them have been known to confuse trends with laws. Yet in daily living these laws rarely apply – they have a tendency to break down under the pressure of individual circumstance. If Cunégonde had thought about the difference in status between herself and her mother’s maid she would have foreseen the consequences of applying Pangloss’ “sufficient reason” to her childhood friend; and thus aware of the dangers she may not have risked their happiness. Alternatively, if she had considered her lesson more closely Cunégonde, like her teacher, would have practiced the “new science” in the woods - far from the sensitive ears of her parents the lovers may not have been caught so easily; Candide safe until it was too late to chuck him out. Pangloss’ lesson isn’t so much wrong, after all, it does give the participants great pleasure, as that Cunégonde hasn’t learnt it well enough; and thus makes a mistake in its application. The perennial problem of master and pupil! It is also the fatal error of a metaphysical system that pays little attention to the facts on the ground, which can, if properly considered, limit our natural generalising tendencies with their bias towards error and exaggeration.viii It is one reason why intelligence alone is useless for comprehending the world – clever minds tend to prefer their own ideas to the recalcitrant facts that contradict them. It is a special kind of stupidity; and if you want success, particularly in academia or the newspapers, you should cultivate it vigorously.ix
Any kind of knowledge has to be applied with sophistication; and this is especially so in human affairs, which relies so much on the fluid moment and the uniquely particular. No laws here please! A good education should encourage children to think for themselves, questioning old maxims not copying them, thus making them alert to the peculiarities of the individual situation; always different, always alive with the potential for new possibilities. If only the two lovers had been properly educated, if doubt and uncertainty had been instilled into their self-consciousness, Candide may not have been expelled from this paradise. Instead he has to learn about the real nature of knowledge through his own gruesome experiences. It is not a pleasant task. Empiricism, he is to find, is hard work; and its rewards are not that wonderful. Its adherents poorly paid labourers far from the City of Reason; the truth neither rich nor glamorous, “just average on the iniquity scale”.x
Do the wealthy need this kind of education? Not really. It is only for those, like Cunégonde, who transgress the social conventions; for it is only then that they must think for themselves.xi Although…
Although these characters need practical reason in order to survive they acquire it only when their desire has gone; the sad irony at the end of Voltaire’s book. Romantically (sexually?) worn out, Candide is now ready to cultivate his garden, having resigned himself to his uninspiring middle age. He has nothing better to do. He has no fire left! That last chapter a stoic acceptance of the inevitable disappointments of mature adulthood. Make the best of the little you have got, is the final message. Candide has reconciled himself to his limitations. He is a farmer, not a thinker; a simple bourgeois not a rich aristocrat, an ordinary man not Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Here is The Fall if ever there was one. For a thinker, for a scholar, even for the pedant, this, surely, is a tragic collapse of the human spirit: potatoes preferred to Spinoza.
Gay will have none of it.
The end of the tale, which portrays stability after long wandering, is happy – or at least not intolerably unhappy… Candide is… a morality tale in the most concrete sense possible: it teaches, by example, the supremacy of realistic moral thinking…
…Candide [suggests] moral action, action which is the only cure for the sense of impotence and the only justification for happiness. That is why Candide is so unsparing in its criticism - more than almost any other production of the Enlightenment, Candide embodies the philosophes’ equation of criticism with philosophy.
Is “[m]oral action… the only cure for the sense of impotence and the only justification for happiness”? If working in order to survive is moral action then Gay is (partially) correct (happiness is its own reward); but anyone with a refined intellectual taste will not accept such a crude formulation, which if taken seriously would include the work of just about everybody - clerks, hairdressers, butchers, even journalists and politicians, could call themselves moral actors if they listened to this paragraph. Indeed some, I am thinking of particularly the latter, believe they are such agents; although they justify themselves not by reference to their wage packets but to their role as representatives of the People - work thus gains moral value by serving some higher purpose. It is a view of morality that is surely closer to the truth than Gay’s: politicians are endorsing some transcendental idea (almost certainly the source of moral law)xii even if they do not practice it; the very belief then creating a moral restraint on their behaviour however slight. Candide has no such aspiration. He decides to work in his garden because it is the most profitable thing he can do for himself and his tribe. Disillusioned with the world of adventure and power, a world that Pangloss’ idealism has failed to explain, he gives up the cosmopolitan life for a little plot of land that his family alone can cultivate. The public realm and its affairs will no longer be part of his mental landscape. He has forsaken them. Hard work is all that is left to him. His Turkish mentor is very explicit about the moral.
‘I have no idea,’ he replied. ‘I could not tell you the name of any judge or any minister. I am utterly ignorant of what you have been talking about. I suppose it’s true that those who enter politics sometimes come to a miserable end, and deserve it; but I never bother myself about what happens in Constantinople. I send my garden stuff to be sold there, and that’s enough for me.’
Constantinople represents Paris. To live a happy life we are not expected to bother ourselves with the metropolis, the centre of the French Enlightenment. Ignorance is bliss! Concentrating on mundane concerns will help us to survive tolerably well; sound advice, but only for the worn out and uninspired. It is a philistine’s philosophy. Justifiable on its own terms, but a sad and rather limited perspective for the rest of us: could any artist of note live long in such an intellectually impoverished atmosphere? We are thus shocked (but not surprised) by Candide’s reaction to the Turk’s folksy wisdom.
‘That old fellow,’ said he, turning to Pangloss and Martin, ‘seemed to me to have done much better for himself than those six kings we had the honour of supping with.’
Pangloss’ reply is accurate:
‘High estate… is always dangerous, as every philosopher knows…’
Candide has made up his mind. He will prefer the safety of cabbages to the dangerous doubts of David Hume. This is the comfort of middle age, where the stress and strain of adventure, whether mental or physical, is given up for the easily calibrated pleasures of domesticity. Life outside the garden gate is too hard to think about; and to change; so best leave it alone. And he does! Candide is a common man who accepts this all too common advice. No wonder the book has remained popular! Its conclusion is the folk philosophy of the ordinary and the tedious: only money matters. How often do we hear these sentiments? More to the point, how rare is the occasion when we don’t – only when we talk to an intellectual, that rare breed, do we perceive that it is possible to live a life inside ideas. I listen to Candide’s final words, and I see and hear… what? The flushed faces and pitiful clichés of the successfully dull; whose wit rarely rises above the conventional and banal. For success is like quicksand. It is a world made up of the ambitious and the mediocre who first trap then suck down the original intellect, now unable to escape the endless demands on their person: “come to Carlotta’s”, “see you at Jake’s”; “don’t forget Arsenal on Saturday....” Surrounded by fashionable opinion that it cannot overcome the original mind is left with no time to think for itself; and thus sinks down into oblivion.xiii Can a serious thinker accept Candide’s conclusion? Did even Voltaire?
How does Gay deal with this tribute to limited horizons? By slight of hand. Watch him as he does it…
His fable enjoins men to cultivate their private selves, but the question remains: how large is our gardens? Voltaire’s specific answer to this question, as I have suggested, changed after he published Candide: if we take the last twenty-five years of Voltaire’s life, busy, even frantic, with good causes, as a commentary on this question, the answer become that our garden is the world – or more realistically, whatever in the world is in our power.
If you read too fast you miss the trick; which is to conflate the book with Voltaire’s public life, which negates it.xiv That Gay thinks he can reconcile this contradiction suggests something of the power of his ideological urge: he wants everything to fit together into one harmonious whole; a characteristic of the mythic mind. A more subtle reading is to divorce Voltaire’s public life from his most notorious work; his social and political activism, when we consider it properly, casting doubt on the moral of that last chapter; implying that Candide’s famous conclusion is just as bone-headed as Pangloss’ premises. They are extremes none of us should follow; that is, if we want to become enlightened and act morally. Candide is not a philosophe – at least as portrayed in the myth of the critical thinker. He is far closer to Pangloss: a caricature of a position the author does not actually hold; or at least refuses to embody – Voltaire was too active a person to remain quietly at home poking his nose in amongst his chrysanthemums. He wanted to influence people too much to do that.
The cynicism of Voltaire was not bred in the bone… It was all on the surface, signifying nothing but the play of a supple and irrepressible mind, or the sharp impatience of an exasperated idealist. In spite of Candide and all the rest of it, Voltaire was an optimist, although not a naïve one. He was the defender of causes, and not of lost causes either – a crusader pledged to recover the holy places of the true faith, the religion of humanity. Voltaire, skeptic – strange misconception! On the contrary, a man of faith, an apostle who fought the good fight, tireless to the end, writing seventy volumes to convey the truth that was to make us free. (Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers)
“In spite of Candide….” How true!
So keen to prove his theory Gay has forgotten that Candide is a novel, preferring to read it as a philosophical tract and contemporary critique of the “great compromiser” Leibniz; thus his emphasis on its factual basis; although as he himself admits the presentation of so many facts in so a dense cluster transforms them into fable. Again and again he reads into the book an empiricism that the narrative seems to subtly undermine: the idealised fantasy of Cunégonde that engenders Candide’s adventures replaced by the prematurely aged and ugly woman whom he eventually marries. Voltaire’s very advocacy of the new wisdom contains its own criticism – that last garden is not a new utopia but a dull and rather poor place.
Gay misses the melancholy that pervades the novel’s last pages. He believes life on this farm is happy (or “not intolerably unhappy”), and so implies it is preferable to that “miserable chateau in Westphalia.” It is why he thinks Candide is such a positive book. He has missed completely the hero’s sense of loss - of paradise; of a theory that validates this perfect existence; of a beautiful lover that inhabits it. Whatever benefits Candide has acquired through recognising reality, and they are important - we should never be insouciant about stability -, he has lost a great deal: the entire universe has been reduced to a little plot of land outside of European civilisation. And even if all his previous life was an illusion, which it was not, it was nevertheless a beautiful illusion for all that. It gave him happiness and love; it gave him hope. All is gone. Only realism is left. Candide is no simple-minded paean to critical reason. It is a disillusioned diatribe against the ugliness of the world and the utopian blindness of the philosophers who escape from it into abstract ideas. We have to give up our aristocratic airs if we want to survive amongst this amoral mess is the book’s final defeated message. Those last paragraphs have been forced to their knees by the weight of their terrible experiences. Live only within narrow limits! This is a half-truth at most, and a grim one indeed if we follow it to its logical conclusion – the farmer who criticises Boris Pasternak for the lack of agricultural produce in his verses.
If Voltaire were a disciple of professor Gay he should reject the mythic paradise of his childhood home not praise it. Joy should be found in the discovery of practical reason not in the fantasies of prelapsarian youth; Candide glad he was expelled from the Elysium of the Baron’s estate and separated from the lovely Cunégonde because it enables him to discover life’s true meaning. He does none of these things. Instead he recognises a simple truth: hard work in his own garden is the only way he can survive in exile. This is downbeat realism. It is a submission to the hard facts of fate. It is the second best option.
Gay, a writer on the side of the “Critical Philosophers”, has the mindset of their opponents: he turns the Enlightenment into a myth - the “critical” light of British empiricism, by penetrating the dark of false rationalism, has revealed a wonderful new truth.xv Voltaire’s feelings were far more ambiguous: for him the 18th century was the setting of the sun on a late autumn afternoon. Beautiful: yes! Joyous: yes! Exhilarating: yes! But also melancholic… so much is being lost to the enveloping shade, even if most of it was meretricious. The 17th and 18th centuries are not simply a record of progress; they represent a change in the very nature of knowledge and human understanding; a process that inevitably destroys as well as creates, so that ideas enormously important in one worldview become inexplicable to another; their fate to be forgotten or dismissed as nonsense.xvi Such intellectual revolutions leave a vacuum in the culture, which takes more than a few generations to fill. The period between the early 1700s and the late 20th century is one of ideological transition from out of an essentially Christian society into one where lots of little faiths cohere into a conflicting but coherent whole – capitalism and nationalism somehow combine with science and fundamentalist religion to form the modern worldview. Values become complicated and feelings are confused during transitions such as these. This is especially the case for a writer like Voltaire living at the beginning of this historical change.
The simple optimism of a Pangloss ignores these tensions, preferring to celebrate the latest invention as the panacea for all contemporary ills. Fashionable thinkers like Pangloss, and we see them all in the time in the establishment culture - the evolutionary psychology of today’s Dawkins has replaced the metaphysics of Leibniz -, tend to have short memories: they are as long as the latest enthusiasm. This is wonderfully captured in that last Panglossian speech which proves that a poor farm is the best of all possible worlds. The present is always perfect for people like these. It is why the powerful love them so much. And why the author of Candide hated them with a vengeance!
During Voltaire’s lifetime modern thought was leaving the wide-open spaces illuminated by the summer sun to enter into a myriad of dark little rooms, each lit up by a single and extraordinarily powerful light. And what power these lights have! It is because of them that we know much more than even the greatest of the Greeks – that concentrated gaze on a hundred thousand individual subjects has uncovered so many of their hidden secrets.xvii But there has been a cost. The splendid unity, the fabulous harmony, the balminess, of pre-modern thought has been left behind in the process. Man is no longer the centre of the universe. We know that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds; so complex now we can hardly understand it. This is a terrible loss; and a religious man like Voltaire would have felt it acutely. Only doubts and practical philosophy remain; a poor compensation for our former wisdom. No wonder the Turk doesn’t want to live in Constantinople. The world outside his farm is too big to be safely comprehended. But even practical philosophy becomes too much for Candide. To survive he must even get rid of this burden: hard work on his own land is the only thing left to him at the end. This is poor stuff compared to the promises of the Universal Church, where everything was explained, the good would always be redeemed; and the best of all possible worlds was proven to exist – the Baron’s estate was no illusion. Nothing is certain now. Indeed, everything is so uncertain, there is such a mismatch between knowledge and reality, life and our ideas about it, that it is best to give up thought altogether, and work like a bourgeois farmer. Candide represents the spiritual poverty of the post-Christian world; which has its own kind of riches, for sure.
Cunégonde… soon made excellent pastry, Pacquette was clever at embroidery, and the old woman took care of the linen. No one refused to work, not even Brother Giroflée, who was a good carpenter, and thus became an honest man.
Weird is Gay’s refusal to engage with the religious references in the work, which seem to bear out (and how!) Appleby’s, Hunt’s and Jacob’s argument about the intellectual overlap between the medieval and the modern mind. Instead the professor prefers to attribute its inspiration to the Greeks and Romans (a major theme of his two volumes – the Enlightenment went back into the classical past to acquire the critical methods to attack the Catholic present). His conclusion follows inevitably.
As a classic of the Enlightenment at once extraordinary and representative, Candide epitomizes the appeal to antiquity. (My emphasis)
It is an odd kind of antiquity, and I fail to see how it applies to this novel. Gay happy to simply state his case for the classical authors, assuming the book proves his thesis. Too fast! Before he can dive into the safety of a narrative summary he must first argue his point with a close reading of the text. This he fails to do, preferring to follow the above comment, which for him is a truism, with a brief summary of the plot. The barest details, it seems, are enough to establish his argument. Yet to take his own example: does the expulsion of
…young Candide…from a miserable chateau in Westphalia by the baron who owns it…
… prove that the hero is wearing a toga? Surely, the later reference to an “earthly paradise” suggests another kind of ancient wisdom, which although influenced by the Greeks is separate from them – The Old Testament. Gay needs to tell us why the Baron’s estate is the Island of Hesperides and not the Garden of Eden. He doesn’t feel this necessity, preferring to make somewhat empty comparisons to the Stoics and the Epicureans.
It is the task of philosophy to discover, as the Stoics said long ago, what is within our power and what is beyond it. Candide is thus a morality tale in the most concrete sense possible: it teaches, by example, the supremacy of realistic moral thinking.
This is the classicism of Candide: its wit is Voltaire’s own, its message places it in the tradition of antique speculation.
This gloss is not necessary wrong; it is simply too abstract and general. Using a little ingenuity you could make it work for any writer; especially if they lived in the 18th century. Doubts are beginning to shuffle in through the back door… Would a Stoic wish to emulate a poor farmer with no intellectual pretensions? Did classical writers argue that manual work must replace philosophy? And… what exactly is antique speculation: a brilliant satire to prove a point that is already known? Voltaire was more a journalist than a philosopher. A proselytizer not an original thinker. He didn’t write Candide to find things out but to prove a point; a lot like Peter Gay himself, in fact.
Although there may be some classical influence on Voltaire’s writing style these are minor elements in this particular book; which is a masterpiece precisely because it is so modern and so individual. That is, Candide must be read on its own terms before it can be fitted into some wider (Enlightenment) pattern. Carl L. Becker knew better: this book is an exception in this author’s oeuvre. Gay cannot accept this obvious truth; being a mythic thinker himself he reads the totality of his vision into all phenomena, so that Candide is “at once extraordinary and representative”. It is not enough that Voltaire is influenced by the classics. No! For the religious mind God has to appear in each line of the Holy Book he inspired. The professor therefore interprets each sentence in Candide as a sign of the deity’s presence: the pagan one of Critical Philosophy. And so we end in absurdity: the very fact we can’t see any Greeks or Romans in the book proves that they are everywhere in it. Here is the railway track logic of the religious mind, which operates as if there are no station stops between the original assumption and the final conclusion. Believe our lord is omniscient and the proof is simple tautology – the first railway station is also the last. There is no need for facts. And even if they did exist these facts would always be interpreted in line with the pre-conceived idea; never would they be used as an independent means of verification; thus the Baron’s lovely estate becomes a “miserable chateau” – the professor’s religion requires it.
More likely is Gay’s assertion that the book is designed to be topical; thus, or so he argues, all the incidents described in the novel actually took place during Voltaire’s lifetime; the book not simply a fable but an attack on the inhumanities of the day. Whatever the antique influence on Voltaire’s thought professor Gay is surely correct that it is the author’s ire against the then current inhumanity, and the sloppy thinking that accompanied it, that inspired this story.
Gay does have insights: all the characters are caricatures, so as to create a distance between the book and its readers, giving us some critical detachment to read the moral, is one of them. But then he goes too far:
Thus the reality of the detail is an essential quality of the fable: only the land of Eldorado, where men live in peace, despise riches, have no jails or priests, and are all deists, is obviously, ironically – alas, inevitably – a fiction.
How I’d love that insight to be true! Indeed, at first I thought it was; so right did it feel. Unfortunately, Gay’s assertion, which ignores the real paradise from which Candide has been expelled, xviii is pure wish fulfilment. I mean, how realistic is this…
‘We had a Mohammedan priest in our fortress, a most pious and compassionate man. He preached a beautiful sermon to the soldiers persuading them not to kill us outright. “Cut one buttock off each of these ladies,” he said, “and that will provide you with a delicious meal; if you find you need more, you can have as much again in a few day’s time. Allah will be pleased at such a charitable action…” [The meal finished she was rescued by the attacking troops].xix
Gay so wants Candide to be on the side of the facts. There is a sharp divide, he argues, between those who believe in fictions and those that look at reality; the one thinks in myths the other critically; Voltaire a prototype of modern Analytic Man.xx If only life was so simple! As Anita Brookner writes, the philosophes were incorrigible idealists; it is only the content of their thought that distinguishes them from their Catholic antagonists.
The Enlightenment is also about a new kind of priesthood, a brotherhood of enthusiasts who are demonstrating, through the new gospel of the Encyclopédie, that the world is vast and variable, teeming with skills and radical alternatives, a world in which the most important preoccupation is not salvation but a different kind of morality.
The most beguiling conversation of the day is devoted to the question of improvement, or, as it was then called, perfectibility, and it developed around the fashioning of systems – of law, education, government, and in the case of the fine arts, appearance. There was no doubt in the minds of the philosophes that mankind would evolve naturally towards these ideal systems, and there was no suspicion that they would or could come about as a result of either revolution or autocracy. Theses systems had the power of words, not of economics; they were harmless and beautiful and self-justifying constructions, and they did not even aspire to the status of propaganda, because if men were sensible as they were seen to be in 1760xxi their natural good judgement would concede that these ideal systems were desirable. The matter could be left there, and evolution would take care of the rest. (Soundings)
These paragraphs suggest that Voltaire isn’t so much arguing with the old scholastics as against the new secular thinkers – he is attacking his own side! Abusing the philosophes for their own overly rational fantasies. Critical Philosophy prone to the same temptations as the Christianity it wanted to replace – progress, not God, now the great redeemer in a new kind of metaphysics, where the glorious future stands in for the once majestic past. This could be the reason why the book is so brutal. It is a civil war! Voltaire taking on, literally destroying, the French Enlightenment which he has helped to create. Paris (Constantinople) a place you supply with swedes and parsnips but avoid if your goal is wisdom and sound sense. If my interpretation is correct a very different gloss can be put on Candide’s relationship to the Critical Philosophers. Pace Peter Gay: the novel doesn’t support his thesis, but demolishes it. Voltaire’s contention is that Enlightenment thinking is as absurd as the previous scholasticism; like them it prefers to gaze at itself in the mirror, to marvel at its own beautiful ideas, rather than stretching over the windowsill to observe the human traffic below; with its mud and abuse and its foul streets. Facts are irrelevant – our theories will replace them! Like many theologians before and since they couldn’t see the point of spending any time on such trivial ugliness. “No, Pierre. Don’t’ waste our water washing the front pavement. One day all the roads of Paris will be laid with stone and cleaned by state officials. Until then we must use the water for better things.” “Do you want me to clean the cherubs, sir?” “Why of course!” Voltaire’s solution to this solipsism is extreme: the best way to improve the world is not to think about it at all! So much for this new world of intellect! And this, surely, is Candide’s value: it is not just attacking the author’s ideological enemies but a particular type of mind, common throughout the ages. And here is a thought (always I get carried away): would Peter Gay have appeared in Candide if Voltaire had lived long enough to read The Enlightenment: An Interpretation? A second thought while you’re still thinking about the first: would Gay have recognised himself in it?
The novel is a pilgrim’s progress from a highly rational premise to a completely irrational conclusion – from all thinking to all doing; from Pangloss to Candide. The pupil has learned that he must doubt the theories of his master, but then makes the fundamental (and all too common) error of rejecting them in their entirety. The result? He has replaced one catchall explanation with another – only the surface quality of them has changed, his Turkish garden much poorer than the Baron’s wealthy estate.
Peter Gay is right to insist that Candide is constantly questioning the world around him. Thrown into new and confusing situations he tries to make sense of them; and in the process discovers that his old ideas are essentially unsound. His education is thus a progressive emptying out of the content of his childhood lessons. Gay is right to emphasise the process. What he misses is that it leads to an unsound conclusion, which, just like the novel’s beginning (the best of all possible worlds did exist, the Baron’s estate was real), is based on too narrow empirical grounds – the hero’s own experiences. Moreover, because he wants to prove a theory Gay once again goes too far; this time asserting that Candide is the critical philosopher in practice. His proof? The hero constantly argues with everyone he meets. This wasn’t’ my impression, although I agree that the book is a type of bildungsroman; Candide learning from his experiences, in large part by talking to people with differing opinions. He is thus qualitatively different from Pangloss who is trapped within an idée fixe which he imposes on every situation. Of course, our contrasting views arise from a difference in interpretation and emphasis, although Gay’s reference to Chapter 21 to prove his point does suggest he lacks subtlety; the real problem with his analysis - he is not so much wrong, although he is that, as too crude and analytically clumsy.
…the twenty-first chapter has what must be one of the most expressive chapter headings of the century – “Candide and Martin Approach the Coast of France and Argue.”
Yet in my translation the title is
What Candide and Martin discussed as they approached the coast of France.
In the most recent Penguin edition we read:
Candide and Martin approach the coast of France, philosophizing all the way
These titles seem far closer to the spirit of the chapter, which is mostly a conversation between two people with different opinions about everything (there are the beginnings of an argument towards the end, but we assume, given the foregoing, that it won’t be very aggressive or illuminating).xxii If Candide really was interested in dialectic, rather than just listening to other people’s views he would argue vociferously to justify his own position. That he does not suggests the passive nature of his intellect – Candide doesn’t think his way into a new mindset, he lets circumstances do the work for him. Experience and other people’s ideas slowly wear away the “common sense” understanding he learned as child, until, when nothing is left of Pangloss’ influence, he is ready to absorb a very different message – from the Turkish farmer. Candide doesn’t think is way into a new way of life. He meanders into it by accident. That is, the hero of this book is no role model for anyone who wants to seriously learn about the world and change it. He is no scholar. Indeed, he is rather egoistic and selfish:
‘For my part,’ said Candide, ‘I have no curiosity to see France. You will appreciate that after spending a month in Eldorado a man is not interested in seeing anything in the world except Lady Cunégonde…”
These are the authentic words of a man in love. Probably not unrelated to this is Candide’s obsession with a single idea – he has learned his lessons from Pangloss too well. These kinds of minds are not conducive to a sceptical and critical attention to reality. They are not British empiricists, no matter what professor Gay writes…
Candide is propaganda in [sic] behalf of empiricism, a dramatization of Newton’s methods.
If this argument were true we would read about Candide’s experimental work and his mathematical reasoning. Yet the hero is no scientist. He is an unsophisticated bourgeois! Gay is reading a worldview into a fable that is far more complicated than a simple clash of two fashionable theories: British empiricism against Leibniz’s rationalism. That said, the general thrust of his remarks is correct: the overall structure of this satire is a clash between these two meta-theories, his horrendous experiences demolishing the philosophic rationalism that Candide imbibed as a child. But although this clash takes place, and we see metaphysical reason defeated by experience, the conclusion is not the obvious one assumed by Gay. British empiricism doesn’t triumph. Mindless work wears the laurels as it jogs out of that last sentence…
Gay’s mistake is his attempt to replicate the general structure of the fable into each of its component parts; all of the Enlightenment must be squeezed into this tiny novel; an elephant into a mouse hole. This leads to strange effects. Championing the critical method he replicates precisely the mindset of his heroes: like them he thinks he is being critical and analytical when he in fact is doing theology by another name. Religion gets in everywhere! Oh dear me.
[ii] Consider Anita Brookner’s comment on Diderot:
“For passion, in the eighteenth-century understanding of the word, presents itself as an eminently agreeable state, a sort of hectic vitality which gives one full licence to change one’s mien, stance and opinion fifty times within the hour. People thus enabled to go skidding along the paths traced out by their senses – and Diderot is the supreme example – did not get on terribly well with those in the grip of an idée fixe.” (Soundings)
This passage is highly suggestive: sensibility not critical thinking was the reason Paris was so attracted to the British empiricists.
[iii] Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. For the contrary view see Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment. What is clear from these vastly contrasting books is that there was a significant shift in European thought. They show there was an Enlightenment, although it was not a single unitary phenomenon. Like any revolution it fragmented into numerous sects; many of which retained large swathes of the culture of the ancien regime; and particularly so in its early stages – again like revolutions intellectual movements change over time, often increasing in radicalism until they collapse under their own absurdities.
[iv] For a brilliant act of intellectual recovery that demonstrates this point for the 17th century see Quentin Skinner’s Liberty Before Liberalism, which resurrects the lost movement of Roman republicanism that was later squeezed out of history by the advocates of the divine right of kings and a liberalism based on some kind of social contract theory.
[xi] Or if their world is shattered, and they are suddenly forced to think for themselves – such as the invasion of an occupying army that destroys the Baron’s estate.
[xiii] For a brilliant short story that both describes how this occurs and explains why it happens see Gogol’s The Portrait. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace Prince Andrei experiences the same process when he gives up his country retreat for court society. Although everyone wants to talk to him about his original ideas, he finds he no longer has time to conceive them.
[xiv] Elsewhere in this section he admits the truth about the novel but quickly passes on. You have to be quick to catch this professor!
“In the late 1750s when he wrote Candide, Voltaire still defined action as thoughtful resignation to reality; a few years later, after and partly through Candide, resignation gave way to tireless and polemical action – just as the Enlightenment itself was moving toward overt and bellicose action.”
This contradicts his earlier statement:
“Candide is not called a philosophical tale for nothing: the reader is purged, not through pity and terror, but through reason, and hence roused to rational action.” (My emphasis)
Here is an academic struggling between his “scholarly care and his scholarly presuppositions” (to quote C.M. Bowra, The Creative Experiment). It is the reason why this section is so messy. He so wants Candide to be a clarion call for radical moral action, which proves the truth of his theory about the critical philosophy. And yet when he reads the book he discovers a different message that he cannot quite assimilate. Yet he is truthful, and that is why we can see the tensions, the contradictions, the mess even, of his exposition.
For an excellent account of how an ideologue who is not truthful turns facts into ideology see Richard J. Evans: Telling Lies About Hitler. In one extraordinary chapter he shows how over time Irving was able to transform an inconvenient fact that disproved his theories into its exact opposite – a fact that proved them.
[xvi] For example: the First Cognitive Revolution, created by the Cartesians, was completely lost in the reaction to Descartes. It was rediscovered in the 20th century by Noam Chomsky; who found out about it only after he instigated the Second Cognitive Revolution in the 1950s. (New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind)
[xvii] It is an extraordinary experience when reading Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to realise just how little his contemporaries knew about the natural world. Indeed, one of the assumptions behind this book is that there will be much that will never be known – a far too pessimistic conclusion, as subsequent scientific research has proved.
[xviii] For my contention that Eldorado really isn’t a paradise, see my Neither the Future Nor the Past.
“Voltaire came across references to buttock-eating in a history of the Celtic peoples published in 1741, which in turn cites St Jerome, according to whom the Scots would feast on the buttocks of young boys, and the breasts of young girls, when they had no game to eat.”
A fourth century saint is hardly the most reliable of sources for an 18th century tale about Muslim pirates.
[xx] This may be an aspect of the intellectual culture of Gay’s time, where some of the most prestigious academic disciplines made an enormous effort to try and separate fact from value – thus the influence of the Analytic philosophy in America and Britain, where one of its central arguments, deriving G.E. Moore, was that an ought cannot be derived from an is; creating a tendency towards specialist technical concerns rather than with life as it is actually lived. For a fascinating discussion of this culture see Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey Through Western Philosophy; although he distinguishes between a more tolerant America and a Puritan Britain. A critical analysis of Moore’s impact on ethical theory can be found in Heart and Mind by Mary Midgley; while her wonderful Wisdom, Information & Wonder traces the wider history of this modern philosophic tradition. The Myths We Live By places it within a wider mythic framework.
[xxi] Candide was published in 1759.
[xxii] Indeed this is confirmed in the new translation. This “dispute”, we are told, may actual calm Candide down!