“Everything happens for a reason.”
How often have we justified some misfortune we’ve encountered with the above statement? It is, most certainly, helpful in blocking out the pain inflicted by the misfortune we faced, albeit only on a temporary basis. Perhaps such a supposition is a good thing that helps us recover from the blows we are dealt with. But what if we applied this extensively to each and every situation we found ourselves in or witnessed or read about?
We would be blinding ourselves to the grave injustices of the world and providing justification for the unjust, when instead we should be acting to change things. Such a line of thought is best exemplified by philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s theory of the “best of all possible worlds,” where he essentially argues that God created this world and since God is almighty, all knowing and perfectly good — omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent — he chose to create this world we live in. There is one single world among infinity that, according to God, is the best of all worlds and that must be the world we live in. This then justifies the evil and injustice present in the world today as a necessary part of this “best of all worlds” that we must just accept because it fits God’s plan.
I certainly do not intend to question anyone’s faith and it may be easier to dismiss or cope with some of our experiences using this argument but upon expanding our scope of thought, it becomes hard to dismiss each and every hardship every person on Earth faces as just a consequence of this being the best of all worlds.
French philosopher Voltaire sought to refute this argument in a rather unconventional manner; by writing “Candide” in 1759, a satirical rejection of Leibniz’s theory.
The book is a comical third person account of the experiences of the eponymous protagonist Candide — the name can be translated from French to mean “innocent” or “simple” — and how he faced a raft of hurdles and unjust experiences that changed his worldview and helped bring forward Voltaire’s own points of view.
Candide is the illegitimate son of the Baron of Westphalia’s sister who grew up in the Baron’s castle and studied under the tutelage of Pangloss — a name that roughly means “all tongue” in Greek and is a nod to his babbling nature — a philosopher character in the story described as a “professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology” that appears to mimic Leibniz. Candide imbibed the “best of all worlds'' view from Pangloss, as he fell in love with the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde. Everything seemed to go to plan as they kissed, but it all came crashing down as they were caught by the Baron. Candide was expelled from the castle — after all, a commoner and a Baron’s daughter wasn’t a pairing viewed with positive light — and he found himself alone for the first time, equipped only with Pangloss’ teachings. This marks the beginning of his journey towards rejecting Pangloss’ views.
Candide suddenly found himself amongst the Bulgarians, who enlisted him as part of their army but as he left camp for a mere brief walk, he was carried to a dungeon by four soldiers and brutally flogged for desertion.
After witnessing a gruesome war between the Abarians — a tribe of Tartars settled on the shores of the Danube — and the Bulgarians, Candide traveled to Holland and found a helpful Anabaptist that took him in. Soon enough, Candide found a sickly beggar on the streets and to his amazement, it was Pangloss. Pangloss told Candide he had contracted syphilis and Cunegonde and her family had been murdered by the Bulgar army. Despite all this, the optimistic attitude stuck and Pangloss was taken in by the Anabaptist as well. The three of them then traveled to Lisbon by sea, where the Anabaptist drowned.
Upon arriving in Lisbon, Candide and Pangloss faced an earthquake levelling the city. When Candide asked for wine and oil after being wounded by falling stones, Pangloss ignored him and continued trying to justify the sufficient reason for the earthquake until Candide fainted. This exchange could be viewed as a criticism of philosophers like Leibniz who try to find a neat explanation for adversity, often in the very face of adversity itself.
Pangloss eventually found himself sentenced as a heretic and hanged, while Candide — who was sentenced for listening with approval to Pangloss — was flogged yet again. An old woman tended to his wounds and then, to his surprise, took him to Cunegonde, who was alive after all. Cunegonde was now a sex slave who had barely evaded death but Candide was overjoyed to see her alive and proceeded to kill her owners. Candide, the old woman and Cunegonde now fled to South America by sea. During this journey, the old woman documented her harrowing past of rape, enslavement and cannibalism, only adding to the list of already harrowing events that would be justified under Leibniz’s theory and according to Voltaire, shouldn’t be.
They arrived at Buenos Aires, where the governor Don Fernando proposed to Cunegonde, scuppering the plan Candide and Cunegonde had made to marry each other. She accepted the governor’s proposal to protect herself, while Candide found a valet named Cacambo and eventually found himself in the land of Eldorado, a utopian country with gold and jewels on the streets, no conflict and no courts, to name just a few things. A true “best of all worlds”. As tempting as it was to stay, Candide wished to return to Cunegonde after a month and took with him countless jewels from Eldorado and headed to Suriname. He sent Cacambo to purchase Cunegonde from Don Fernando and meet him at Venice, while he plotted his path to Venice. He then dealt with a merchant named Vanderdendur, who stole much of his fortune. Yet another misfortune that befell him and he found himself questioning his optimism. He sailed off to France with another scholar, Martin, who disagreed with Candide on his optimistic Leibnizian world view — perhaps as an extension of Voltaire himself. Vanderdendur’s ship had been sunk by the Spanish on the way to France and Candide could recover some of his fortune. He proposed this as a sign of justice in the world that backed his world view but Martin disagreed.
Candide and Martin made their way from Paris to Venice. In Venice, they met several characters that were very dissatisfied with their lives in the “best of all worlds.” Candide then found that Cacambo had been enslaved by a deposed Turkish monarch — along with the old woman — and then they headed to Turkey to buy Cacambo’s freedom.
In Turkey, Candide found Pangloss again. He had managed to survive the attempted execution but faced further misfortunes before ending up in Turkey. The group soon found and freed Cunegonde — who had grown old and ugly — and the old woman too. Candide and Cunegonde married each other and the entire expanded entourage now settled on a piece of land that they farmed and maintained. Pangloss now conceded that he did not believe in his own previous optimistic conclusions. As they found themselves engaged in work, there was no time for philosophical speculation and everyone lived happily ever after.
Summarizing this whole whirlwind journey is necessary to understand the flaws in an entirely optimistic worldview. It clearly papers over cracks by ignoring the inherent flaws of human nature, the pursuit of power, the silencing of dissent and the mistreatment of people. For its time, “Candide” is critical of religious extremism, wealth and slavery. After all, if activists believed that the evil in this world was justified like Leibniz did, we would not see the massive strides made in the treatment of those previously subjugated.
Looking at the movements sparked in 2020, it becomes imperative to reject Leibniz like Voltaire did. An optimistic worldview does not induce change but neither does mere philosophical speculation. At the end of the book, Candide talks about cultivating one’s own garden. This is an excellent thought, for I think it implies that we should first make changes at an individual level rather than concerning ourselves with speculation, optimism or macroscopic matters. Such an approach would help fight compassion fatigue and still result in active change through a domino effect. Blind optimism leaves us blind to a subpar existence that the status quo profits from, but changes from a grassroots level involving those near us can lead upwards to macroscopic change.
Whatever your takeaways may be from "Candide", it is a humorous, compelling and rather simple philosophical text and truly a classic still relevant today.