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Voltaire's verities

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By Ravi Vyas

Candide, Voltaire, translated by John Butt, first published in Penguin Classics, 1947, £2.50. WHEN the late French President, Charles De Gaulle, wondered how anyone could govern a country that had "two hundred and forty seven varieties of cheese," he was merely echoing Voltaire who had lampooned State and society in his biting satire Candide Or Optimism on the Eve of the French Revolution. (Later, referring to the inflammatory communist activities of Jean Paul Sartre in the late 1960s, De Gaulle was to say, "One does not arrest Voltaire.") Nobody ever more successfully undermined the faith of the bourgeoisie in the central pillars of French society in two things — government and religion.

Practical philosophy

Voltaire's philosophy was entirely practical. Temperamentally irreligious and disrespectful, Voltaire preached disbelief, not only by precept but by example; he made disrespect easy and popular by the sheer force of his literary gifts; he taught the bourgeoisie and the half-educated not only how to do without religion, but how to laugh at it, how to treat it as absurd. His god was a philosophical axiom acceptable to reason, and far more than the nihilists and the predecessors of the Russian revolution, he was the first Bolshevist. His fundamental ideas and his philosophy were based on the all-importance of material welfare and progress; everything was to be seen from the point of reason, in black and white; there existed for him things that were true and things which were false and therefore foolish, folly. Follies must be remedied, or killed by ridicule; that is to say, by reason. In this sense, Voltaire was quintessentially French, "the French of the French." In Candide, probably the best known of his copious writings, Voltaire nibbled away at the pillars of society and the old regime and left them shaking and rotten for the Revolution to pull down. Candide was written as an answer to a letter in which Rousseau had upbraided him for his atheism. In it he sums up all the evils to which the flesh is heir to, and the disasters that can happen to man, laughs at them, and makes us share his laughter; but in the bitter after-taste that his laughter leaves, there is something tonic, a cleansing common sense as when Candide says, "but we must go and tend to the Garden (of Life)... Work banishes three great evils, boredom, poverty, vice... Let us work without arguing; that is the only way to make life bearable."Like Swift's universal satire, Gulliver's Travels, Voltaire takes his representative of mankind to that Paradise of 18th-century philosophers, the Imaginary State based on the principles of pure Reason. Voltaire's model is all that the 18th Century could desire: "A society in which all physical requirements are supplied, and where no one needs to go to law; where men have simplified religious belief to the lowest common denominator of natural religion; where neither crime nor war exist, where achievements of science are respected; where men enjoy equality and fraternity." This was the "best of all possible worlds," as Candide's tutor, Pangloss tells him. What Candide asks his tutor in his travels is, "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what can the rest be like?" It is the question that Candide keeps asking because the "best" is as bad you can get!

The truth beneath

Anyway, Candide accepts the description of Paradise for what it is, but you can't live by bread, or the material world, alone. His lovely Cunégonde is not there; so his search or travels continue. It is in the course of his travels that he discovers the deception under the glitter of Parisian society, the misery which a prostitute's wantonness conceals, the frustration of a monk's life in spite of its apparent prosperity. He pays a visit to a noble Venetian who has all that money can buy and yet disdains it all. "You must admit," says Candide to Martin, "that there is the happiest man alive because he is superior to all he possesses." Candide's satire, at every twist and turn of his extended journeys, contains a hard grain of truth based on reason and experience. But pressed, Candide admits his life based on reason and religious disbelief was empty where nothing gives pleasure. Having lost all his money, an empty life is the danger that Candide faces. The only preoccupation is to take part in everlasting metaphysical discussions with Pangloss. It is in these discussions that Voltaire conveys the principal lessons he wishes to convey from his travels. A Turkish philosopher shows him the uselessness of metaphysical speculation and a Turkish farmer the value of work. Armed with these simple truths, Candide goes to Pangloss to silence him: "Let us work without arguing; that is the only way to make life bearable." Such cherry picking of his stories does little justice to Voltaire's art of story telling. It is Voltaire's prose — the economy of the irony and even the pathos — that draws you to him because it reflects his pessimism; or, at least the wit and buffoonery and the power of invention that his numerous adventures reveal. Fortune behaves as outrageously as ever, while man receives her buffets and blessings with the usual resilience.

Evil abroad

It is the quality of his pessimism that stands out, but, unlike pessimists who turn inward to find fault with themselves, Voltaire's pessimism lay outside of himself. One needed only to put one's nose outside the door for a flood of calamities to fall, or threaten to fall, on one's head. There was evil in the land; that was the truth of things. The basic question that Voltaire asks is: if the Creator is good, how is it he allows so much to happen that no sensitive and sensible man can possibly approve? So, Voltaire advises that we need to solve our problems ourselves through a patient optimism: as human beings we do not possess the range of vision to see how a present evil is compensated by a future good, or how each event contributes to a great design that God alone can comprehend. Men and women will always suffer in the imperfect world that God had created but they are never down for long if virtue and good sense is on their side and they don't lose hope.


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