Reading Voltaires Candide as Utopian Fiction
In Defense of Dr. Pangloss
It is most likely the case that the writer of any work of Utopian fiction has serious doubts concerning the possibility of his envisaged state, land or community ever being developed in our world. It is difficult to believe that intelligent philosophers and scholars, including the likes of Plato and Thomas More, were ever under the impression that their dream-states could ever in fact be realized. The enormous social, economic and political upheavals required in order for a community based on such radical ideals to come into existence are simply unrealistic in most cases. However, the impossibility of their projects being realized doesnt necessarily mean that these Utopian writers are simply dreaming of a better world. It would seem illogical, after all, to claim that these great visionaries were in fact, wasting their time.
It would be wrong to judge the success of a work of Utopian fiction on the existence or lack of existence of states and communities resembling the blueprint outlined in the original work. Platos Republic is not a failure, simply because any attempt to set up such a state met with failure. Edward Bellamys Looking Backward cant be discarded as a failed prediction just because we have now reached the year 2000 and Boston and America have not developed in the way he desired. Instead, the success of a Utopian work needs to be judged using different criteria. As Krishan Kumar correctly claims, Success for them (The Utopian writer) may be measured..by how far they may have shown the possibility of living even if only for a relatively short time in ways that refuse the compromises and corruptions generally thought inevitable in human society. The success of Platos Republic therefore should be judged on what extent it is able to create justice, the works central theme, in a society. Thomas Mores satirical criticism of peoples reliance and dependence on precious metals and money is far more important that his creation of a perfect society on an island far away from Europe.
The importance of Kumars observation becomes clear when Candide is read in connection with other works of Utopian fiction. Reading Candide as Utopian fiction would generally concentrate on the chapters in which the characters spend time in the Utopian land of El Dorado. However, as Kumar pointed out, it is not the creation of Utopias that determine the success of a work of Utopian fiction. Instead, it is the fact that these works are attempts to show that it is indeed, possible to live happily in a society (albeit a highly corrupted society), by developing a different perspective on life. By introducing the reader to the optimistic philosophy of Spinoza and Leibnitz through the character of Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire inadvertently gives the reader a Utopian perspective on life in a dystopic world. By widening the boundaries of Utopia to include ways of looking at life, it becomes possible to read Candide as a work of Utopian fiction.
Traditional Interpretations of Candide
Voltaires philosophical novel, Candide, is of course, best known for its highly critical analysis of European and Middle-Eastern society in the first half of the eighteenth century. Candide, along with various other characters, is taken on a journey that stretches from Europe to South America and then back to the Middle-East, permanently encountering the worst aspects of human nature and social institutions. The innocent Candide is constantly lied to, beaten, cheated on, unfairly treated, and on several occasions taken to the brink of death for no apparent reason. Humanity is presented in an extremely negative way in every place visited by the characters (with the obvious exception of El Dorado). Indeed, in a discussion on the nature of mankind, Candide comes to the conclusion that human being have always been, liars, cheats, traitors, brigands, weaklings, deceivers, cowards, enviers, gluttons, drunkards, misers, sycophants, butchers, slanderers, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites and fools
The characters that come in for the worst treatment by Voltaire however are those representing the church and religion in general. Voltaire, as a leading member of the Enlightenment, firmly believed that knowledge could be gained through science and reason, and that the received beliefs which people gained from religion, were dangerous to society and humanity in general. Religious persecution and the hypocrisy of religious leaders are evident throughout the novel, with only Zenoidas Lutheranism avoiding Voltaires biting satirical commentary.
Just as religion is never seen as the solution to the problems of eighteenth century Europe, philosophy also comes in for heavy criticism from Voltaire, particularly the optimistic, fatalistic doctrines of Spinoza and Leibnitz. Voltaires teacher, Dr. Pangloss, is used to represent the views of Spinoza and Leibnitz, particularly the idea that everything happens for a reason and that everything is for the best. Pangloss perhaps suffers physical torture more than any other character in the novel, yet still clings to his faith in the necessity of all that happens. Despite losing limbs, being hung, and being thrown into the great fire of Istanbul, Pangloss maintains that the world is good and that it is the best possible world in which we live. By subjecting Pangloss to such horrors, Voltaires aim was of course, to mock the ridiculously optimistic philosophy of Spinoza and Leibnitz. However, it is arguable that Dr Pangloss is actually the most successful character in terms of dealing with the world in which man is forced to live. He is the only character who is able to create a utopia out of the dystopic eighteenth century world.
The Existence of Traditional Utopia in Candide
The terms Utopia and Dystopia are not mutually exclusive entities. Despite seeming to be opposite in nature, the existence of either a Utopia or a Dystopia, relies heavily on the possibility or actual existence of the other. The best example of this fact is undoubtedly Thomas Mores Utopia. Neatly divided into two books, the first deals with the dystopic nature of European society; the second with the possibility of creating a new world based on values not found in that European society. Edward Bellamys Looking Backward follows the same pattern, criticizing late nineteenth century Boston in order to show how a new model of the city could be created. Swifts social satire Gullivers Travels involves aspects of both Utopia and Dystopia, and it is even possible to argue that Platos negative opinions of the existing political regimes, including democracy, resulted in his attempt to create a Utopian Republic. Utopia and Dystopia are therefore, interdependent states of existence, relying heavily on each other in order to gain validity.
Candide follows this tradition of including both elements of Utopia and Dystopia by placing Candide and his companion Cacambo in the land of El Dorado for two chapters. Despite only accounting for an extremely small portion of the novel, the presence of the El Dorado chapters are still worth analyzing, if only to show the connections between Candide and other works of Utopian fiction. Indeed, it would almost be possible to place Voltaires El Dorado onto the island of Thomas Mores Utopia and allow the two communities to live in peace without experiencing any problems of cultural assimilation whatsoever.
El Dorado is cut off from the rest of the world due to its unapproachable geographical location. It is in fact, the remains of the ancient country of the Incas in Peru, which has been able to fend off the imperialist attacks of Europeans. As in Mores Utopia, one of the most important aspects of this society is the lack of dependence on gold and silver and the deliberate contempt for such precious metals. Just as in Mores land, these metals are used by slaves and for the construction of toilets, Candide observes that in El Dorado, The royal children here must be very properly educated, since they are taught to despise gold and precious stones. Voltaire seems to share Mores opinion that the greed of human beings and the fight for possession of wealth are the fundamental problems of European society and that money is, indeed, the root of all evil.
The contempt for riches is not the only characteristic of El Dorado connecting the land to other works of Utopia. Private property is not in any way encouraged and the government finances accommodation and inns for merchants. The citizens of El Dorado are able to live much longer (the King claims that he is one hundred and seventy-two years old) and happier lives. There are no courts, prisons or judges due to the complete lack of crime in the city. Finally, religious tolerance is able to flourish as a result of the absence of any clergy. To Candides question concerning the existence of monks in the society, an old man replies that There is no disagreement among us (on religious matters); and I do not know what you mean by monks. The absence of a juridical system, the contempt for wealth, the free religious expression and the happiness and longevity of life are all traditional Utopian ideas and can be found in a selection of Utopian works, particularly Mores Utopia. The existence of El Dorado is however, of less importance in Candide, than the philosophy of Pangloss and the search for the perfect world. In order to understand the importance of Panglosss philosophy, we must first turn to an analysis of the nature of Utopia and the boundaries of the canon of Utopian thought and fiction.
The Nature of Utopia
As Kumar points out, etymologically, Utopia is nowhere (outopia) and it is also somewhere good (eutopia) However, limiting the idea of Utopia to a geographical setting seems to exclude a number of philosophers and thinkers from the discussion of the ideal world. Karl Marx never attempted to fictionally create his ideal state in a particular setting, however his writings cannot be excluded from the discussion of Utopia. John Stuart Mills Utilitarianism is firmly within the bounds of the Utopian canon despite the absence of any fictional perfect world. As Kumar states, to limit Utopia simply to its form as imaginative fiction is to leave out much thinking that seems to fall squarely within the utopian tradition.
Utopian thought therefore should not be limited to the fictional creation of promised lands in which wealth is both shared and despised, different opinions are tolerated, and equality among citizens is preserved. Instead, the walls limiting the utopian discourse can be pushed back to make room for other kinds of utopia. Critics often distinguish between utopian fiction and utopian theory with the dividing line falling on the creation of a particular setting in which the utopian community can function. By acknowledging the inclusion of the non-geographical utopian theory in the discussion, it is only a short step to including the non-geographical, non-community-based personal, individual utopian experience, albeit in a non-utopian world.
It is therefore possible, (yet difficult no doubt) to lead a utopian existence in the ordinary world, the success-determining factor of course being ones chosen way of looking at and dealing with the outside world. Utopia is after all, in Kumars own words, not only a way of looking at the world , but also a story of what it is to encounter and experience the good society Therefore, utopian writing can become an analysis of the individual and how he or she interacts with society; the aim of the writer being to show the best way in which people can organize and lead their lives in this world. The importance of the geographical location therefore becomes negligible and the importance of the individuals psyche increases. Indeed, Kumar points out that There can, of course, be utopias of the contemplative life, and other utopias primarily concerned with individual happiness or fulfillment.
These modern utopias, referred to as eupsychias have little in common with Platos Republic, yet they could still be placed in the same discourse, the discourse of utopian thought and literature. Candides place in the canon of utopian literature rests on this possibility of widening the boundaries of utopian literature and allowing the idea of utopia to exist at a personal level, not necessarily at the level of the community. The character of Dr. Pangloss, by espousing the philosophy of Spinoza and Leibnitz, shows how it is possible to live in the most dystopic of worlds holding on to a utopian outlook on life. Therefore, the traditional utopian vision of El Dorado maintains its negligible place in the novels importance, while the philosophy of Pangloss connects the novel to other works of utopian literature.
Pangloss Utopian Philosophy
Voltaires aim undoubtedly was to make Pangloss an object of humiliation. By ridiculing Pangloss with physical torture, the aim was to show how mistaken the opinion was that this is the best of all worlds and everything is for the best. However, despite his suffering, it is not possible to claim that Pangloss is an unsuccessful character. On the contrary, Pangloss outlook on life enables him to turn his living nightmare into a personal utopia of sorts. After all, if one believes that one is living in the best possible world, then isnt one in utopia?
The importance of the novel is that it brings the reader in touch with the philosophy of Spinoza and Leibnitz, both of whom claimed that the world in which we live in is in fact the best possible world. There are actually several features of this philosophy that connect this optimistic outlook on life with other utopian works. Most importantly, these features include (1) the creation or the search for the perfect world, (2) the desirability of a communist-like sharing of resources and a contempt for private wealth, (3) the necessity of escaping from ones passions, and (4) the importance of understanding ones own position in the social order and in life in general. Not only are all these features either an inherent part of, or a consequence of the Spinoza/Leibnitz philosophy, but they can also be found in the most famous works of utopian fiction, particularly the works of Thomas More and Plato.
The Perfect World
Utopia is basically defined as the best possible world or social system in which people can live. When all other systems have failed to produce social harmony, the utopian system is created to allow all men and women to live together in peace and love. In Kumars words, It is the perfect society and its organization is the embodiment of perfection. The creation of this perfect society is by no means an easy task. Indeed, the utopians of Thomas Mores land frequently pray to God to show them how, if they have not already succeeded, to create this perfect society. Platos ideal state can only be achieved if an understanding of the concept of justice is reached, and as Socrates shows, a solid understanding of such a concept is no easy matter.
Although the major works of utopian fiction are secular works, the impact of religion on utopian thought is still prevalent. Indeed, the Christian belief in the coming of the Millennium has played a role in western utopian thought. Millenarianism of course, attempts to portray the perfect state of affairs, which will be revealed to mankind by God in the future. But is it really necessary to wait for this perfect world to arrive? As Leibnitz pointed out, if God is really good, then it follows that the world that he created must in fact be the best possible world.
There are an infinite number of worlds, all of which God contemplated before
creating the actual world. Being good, God decided to create the best of the
possible worlds, and He considered that one to be the best which had the greatest
excess of good over evil. He could have created a world containing no evil, but
it would not have been so good as the actual world. That is because some great
goods are logically bound up with certain evils.
Pangloss fully subscribes to these ideas, claiming that It is demonstrablethat things cannot be other than they are. For, since everything is made for a purpose, everything must be for the best possible purposeIt follows that those who say that everything is good are talking foolishly: what they should say is that everything is for the best.
It therefore follows that if this is the best possible world in which we are living then we are in fact living in Utopia. As we are spending our lives in Utopia, we therefore should be as happy and contented as it is possible to be. Obviously, following this philosophy requires a great deal of strength and self discipline, however, it is certainly not to be mocked. Instead, such a philosophy needs to be admired, as it is a method of creating ones own personal utopia without the need to create far away fictional lands. Indeed, the possibility of developing such an outlook on life is far more realistic than the possibility of creating a utopian community in a new country.
Platos Republic and Thomas Mores Utopia have often been analyzed as works promoting the implementation of a communist socio-economic system. Indeed, Lenin is known to have referred to Platos work during the communist revolution, which led to the creation of the Soviet Union. Mores work, on the other hand, is often analyzed as either a kind of communist manifesto, or an ideal Catholic world. Despite the connections of these works to the ideas promoted in communism, it would be unfair and a little unrealistic to lable them communist works. Only in Marxs philosophical writing, and later in Edward Bellamys Looking Backward do we see sufficient analysis of wealth-sharing economic systems to warrant the label communist. Instead, it would be far more sensible to label these works communitarian in their outlook, the focus being on the individuals desire to work for the benefit of the community as a whole, and not for private gain.
Of course, in order to create a communitarian social system, one must first wage war on the existence of private property and private wealth. In both Plato and Mores works, private possessions are almost non-existent, and therefore individual competition and selfish motives can be abolished. Once again, it is clear from Candide that Dr.Pangloss could undoubtedly become a contented citizen of either The Republic or the land of Utopia due to his philosophical views. As Candide explains, Pangloss used to demonstrate that the worlds goods are common to all men, and that each has an equal right to them. Spinoza himself is known to have lived an ascetic life, spurning private property in the search for a peaceful, contented life. As Russell states, Spinozas wants were few and simple, and he showed throughout his life a rare indifference to money.
If citizens are instructed to be community-minded, then despite the abolition of private gain, production will not suffer. Communist/Communitarian based systems undoubtedly require an enormous re-education program concerning individual and social values, and this is no easy task. However, what if hard manual labor itself, without any thought of the communitys benefit, was to provide the individual with the happiness he or she is searching for? Wouldnt this be a wonderful step forward, both in providing the happiness of the citizens of the community and in benefiting the community as a whole? Once again, Pangloss proves his feasibility as a candidate for citizenship in a classic Utopia, claiming that, when man was put into the garden of Eden he was put there ut operaretur eum that he might till it, that he might work Pangloss has therefore developed an extremely useful, if not entirely necessary, way of viewing labor, which would benefit either Plato or Mores utopias tremendously.
Controlling Ones Passions
The major flaw in Platos Republic, according to many observers, is that it would unavoidably become an exceedingly boring place to live in. From the very first chapters, we see Socrates culling the availability of music and literature due to its potential adverse effects on the characters of the citizens. If the Republic and other utopias are to run smoothly, citizens must be able to control themselves; they must not give in to their passions. These passions are not however limited to music and literature. Due to the necessity of controlling the population, sex between members of the community must be strictly controlled. Furthermore, the desire for money and the passion of gaining private possessions must be seriously criticized if the social body is to be able to live in peace.
Pangloss suffers tremendously from his inability to control his passions; he learns the hard way. One of the many physical tortures which Voltaire forces Pangloss to endure is the Pox, a diseases which covers the doctor in sores, sinks his eyes into his head, eats away the end of his nose, distorts his mouth and blackens his teeth. These deformities, we learn, are the result of a love affair with the disease-ridden waitress of the Baroness. Pangloss is able to reflect on the result of his passions illustrating to his student, Candide, that it was love; love, the comfort of the human race, preserver of the universe, the soul of all feeling creatures; the tender passion of love..In her arms I tasted those pleasures of paradise that produced the hellish torments with which you see me devoured.
As a follower of the doctrines of Spinoza, Pangloss should have known better than to give in to his passionate desires. As Spinoza claimed, not only bodily unhealthiness, but also, Spiritual unhealthiness and misfortunes can generally be traced to excessive love of something which is subject to many variations. The solution of course, in the eyes of Plato, More and Spinoza is self-control. An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it. Understanding that all things are necessary helps the mind to acquire power over the emotions. Undoubtedly, after learning his unfortunate lesson, Pangloss would have agreed entirely with Socrates in the prohibiting of passionate literature and music, and would have whole-heartedly accepted the restrictions that were to be placed on free, uncontrolled sexual relationships.
Understanding and Accepting Ones Position in Life
Platos Republic opens and develops with a discussion of the nature of justice; the conclusion for both the individual and the state being that justice exists when all aspects of the body/state are working in harmony with one another. Therefore, when every section of the community is satisfied with its role in the running of the state, the just state can be created. Whenever any section of the community becomes dissatisfied with its existing situation, disharmony occurs and the state cannot run smoothly. Plato uses this theory to refer to both the state in terms of philosopher kings, the auxiliaries and the general working class. Furthermore, he uses the same theory to describe the just man. According to Plato, the just man is the man who can control the balance between his thoughts (the philosopher kings), his physical side (the auxiliaries) and his emotions and desires (the working class). This seems to be the way to a happy and contented life.
Krishan Kumar also pays attention to the notion of harmony in the utopian world, albeit with reference to two kinds of utopia often excluded from the canon of utopian literature; Paradise and the Golden Age. Paradise and the Golden Age contribute the element of harmony. Human beings live in a state of quiet contentment. Everyone is at peace with himself and with other menHuman beings live in and according to nature.
Understanding ones own position in life and society, therefore allows man to live in harmony with the world around him. Furthermore, in Spinozas philosophy, understanding and accepting ones situation have positive effects for the individual as well. As Bertrand Russell claims, Spinozas outlook is intended to liberate men from the tyranny of fear . Not only fear, but also hope, a particularly dangerous passion when it cant be realized, is condemned, as the individual has no desire, or possibility of changing the existing state of affairs.
Any individual who is able to live with such an outlook on life has already created a personal utopia for himself, no matter what external circumstances are causing him pain or suffering. Freedom from want, hope, desire and fear can allow the individual perfect satisfaction with his position in society, a necessity characteristic for the citizen of utopia to develop. Furthermore, the man who adequately understands his own circumstances will act wisely, and will even be happy in the face of what to another would be misfortune. Dr Pangloss is this man and therefore is able to become the most successful character in dealing with Voltaires unfriendly world. A belief in the existence of the perfect world, a love of ones fellow man, an avoidance of personal possessions, freedom from ones passions and an understanding of ones role in life are characteristics which enable a person to go a long way in creating their own personal utopia in whatever circumstances they find themselves in.
Voltaire undoubtedly had no intention of praising the optimistic philosophy of Spinoza and Leibnitz. His aim, by exaggerating the physical suffering of Pangloss, was to mock their religious optimism by showing the dystopic nature of the real world. Only through science and reason could one hope to deal with the problems that one was to face in this world. However, it is not always the case (in fact it is very rarely the case) that the intentions of the writer can be transferred directly to the reader without loss of, or distortion of meaning. Voltaires scathing attacks on Pangloss can actually have the effect of making the reader aware an extremely utopian way of dealing with life.
Utopia is either created for mans happiness, or it is not worth creating at all. All imagined utopias have at base, a desire to create a system in which the citizens of the state are as happy as they possible can be. Economic and social systems work to promote or decrease the various desires and passions of human beings, and the utopian system ultimately aims to create a harmony in which every member of the community is happy and contented. However, the feasibility of actually creating such a utopian community is questionable. The re-education of human beings would be such an enormous task (as the Soviet Union found out) that the process would take a considerable length of time. Furthermore, this length of time is unavailable to the creator of the utopian state, as any utopian system would need to be implemented in one step, the gradual adoption of utopian practices being unavailable and impractical.
If Utopian literature is to have a practical value, it therefore becomes necessary to connect the ideas proposed by the utopian writers with the world in which we live. The problems of the world and humanity today are not likely to be solved by creating a new socio-economic system. However, the one thing that can possibly be changed is the way in which the individual views and interacts with the world. Utopia, if it needs a geographical setting, can be placed in the mind of the individual, allowing the individual to live in the worst possible world, but with the best possible attitude and outlook. Voltaires Candide, by introducing the reader to the philosophy of Spinoza, Leibnitz and consequently Dr. Pangloss, shows the reader a utopian way of living in Dystopia.
Kumar, Krishan. Utopianism (Minneapolis Press, 1991)
Plato. The Republic (London: Penguin, 1955)
Voltaire. Candide (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1996)
Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy (Canada: Routledge, 1961)
Despite Russells role as a philosopher himself, this book is an objective analysis of the leading philosophers in the west since the time of ancient Greece. The chapters on both Spinoza and Leibnitz were particularly useful to this study.
More, Thomas. Utopia (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1997)
Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward 2000-1887 (Internet Source, first published in 1887)