While I was reading Candide, the controversial 18th century fable by master satirist and troublemaker Voltaire, I mentioned to some fellow readers that I thought it was very funny. I was met with a chorus of boos and hisses: “Awful book. Miserable book. Thoroughly depressing.” This made me wonder if we were talking about the same book, until I realized that they had both read it while still in their teens, when the bitterness of Voltaire’s satire must have proved overwhelming to their youthful optimism.
It should be noted that the full title of the book is Candide, or Optimism, although admittedly there is very little in the story of our hero Candide and his teacher Dr. Pangloss to inspire one to an optimistic view of the human race. Technically, it’s a satire on the views of the German thinker Liebniz, whose philosophy on the existence of evil is summed up in the famous saying that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire disagrees. But you don’t need to know the works of Liebniz to get Voltaire’s indictment of society which in Candide is corrupt from top to bottom.
Being no great optimist myself, I found the knavery in Candide hilarious. Voltaire does not shy away from hyperbole. Every time you think things can’t get any worse, they get much worse. Characters are routinely killed in the most gruesome fashion and then resurrected later by various miraculous devices. The good Dr. Pangloss is hung by a church officials seeking to ward off earthquakes, but survives. Candide’s love interest, the fetching Cunegonde, is disemboweled by a raping band of pillagers only to pop up alive and well later in the book (if one can be well after several years of forced prostitution). And that’s just the start of it.
The people who form the backdrop of this book are guilty of every sin, shortcoming, and evil under the sun from murder and theft to all varieties of trickery and fraud. Brutality and lies are the currency of this fictional world, where no crime is so low that some ambitious person won’t attempt it.
But that’s not why it’s funny. The reason it’s so funny is because, in less exaggerated form, there really are people like that. They exist and they always will, to prey on lost innocent lambs like our hero, Candide.
Of course, it’s tempting to say, “yes, there are some really bad people in the world,” but they aren’t the point in Candide. Voltaire’s target isn’t individuals, no matter how reprehensible they may be. He’s going after society at large and even human nature itself. Collectively and individually, what kind of people are we that we’re capable of such terrible things? Voltaire asks. Spoiler alert: his verdict isn’t good.
Voltaire implies that what’s really needed is more of what Candide has — candor, compassion, and altruism. But these qualities seem all but absent in Candide’s world, except in one unusual place hidden away in a secret valley in the Andes somewhere. In the mythical kingdom of El Dorado, the streets are paved with gold not to show off their wealth but because gold is just a thing to them with no special value. Here, everyone is treated decently and the same, people enjoy good food and entertainment, devote themselves to learning, and above all, stay away from the outside world. In short, it’s a veritable Shangri-La of goodness, a utopia on earth. Candide concludes after his stay there that the El Doradans are the only good people on earth. And yet he leaves them and returns to the world he knows, carrying away 100 packs of gold (all of which is stolen from him later) as he continues the search for his beloved Cunegonde.
And so it goes, leading our hero into countless trials and tribulations. Unable to convince himself that the problems of humanity are solvable, Voltaire arrives at the conclusion that the world is such a rotten place and people so untrustworthy that you’re better off staying home and tending your own garden than trying to make the world a better place. You could call his solution “evidence-based fatalism.” What will be will be. Of course, there are people with the same view today and I know some. People who would like climate change to be solved but don’t think it will, for instance. People who have given up on honest government, an end to war, or a fairer world.
The 18th century was a decadent time when people were much more violent than today, and when activities we would call criminal now were commonplace if not accepted. Much of the petty thievery, grand thievery, seduction and rape, murder, torture, beatings, and the like were the product of the gross inequalities of the era. The poor were basically serfs with no rights at all and no property either. They were lucky to eat. Since anyone who had money was suspect to those who didn’t, people all the way up the social ladder stole from the rung above. Change was impossible as there was an entrenched aristocracy and church apparatus that blocked any change they found disadvantageous. This included any change bettering the conditions of the poor, leading to widespread fatalism, and not unsurprisingly, epic amounts of crime.
In that context, Candide was right on the money. The world was a terrible place, change was impossible, and staying home and out of trouble was probably the best path you could take. But today? How have things changed?
For that, I have no answer. We still do bad things. We have all the crimes we’ve ever had. We have corruption and war. Every evil Voltaire lists and a bunch he wouldn’t have thought of are still done today, minus the auto-da-fé, but just as relentlessly. If you really think about it, you’ll see that this is true.
But the powers that be of Voltaire’s day were sensitive people and quick to take offense if they felt their privileges were being challenged. Voltaire was forced to publish Candide under a synonym (Dr. Ralph, to be precise) in order to protect his identity from offended nobles. That and the fact that he stayed far away from the Parisian capitol might have blunted the blow of the empire striking back.
Fear of punishment was also a good reason to use satire as the vehicle for his message. By couching his critique in humor, he was able to make the most strenuous allegations against people high and low — and get away with it. In fact, his book received popular acclaim and sold briskly across the continent of Europe, despite being almost immediately banned both in his native France and in Switzerland. Even today, Candide remains his most popular and only well-known work.
Which tells me three things about writing (and by extension, any form of communication):
1) You can say harsh things if you make it funny.
2) If you make it funny, more people will read it.
3) If you can get it banned, even more people will read it.
I guess a fourth and equally compelling reason to write satire rather than polemic is that anonymous satirists are less likely to get fired, exiled, or indefinitely detained for their effrontery. Although sometimes they still do.
As publishers of inconvenient truths know even today, writing is risky business. Voltaire’s Candide shows why it’s necessary to take that risk. His writing helped to break the system that governed Europe for nearly a millennium, bringing on the French Revolution and the end of feudalism, and ushering in the modern world we know today. Not bad for an author best known for this witty little tale, which despite its brevity has kept people laughing — and wincing — for going on 300 years.