Candide, Or, The Optimist, by Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire, translated by Tobias Smollet, illustrated by Antoni Clavè
“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “But let us cultivate our garden (154).” So ends this short and immensely important book by the French skeptic philosophe Voltiare, whose work makes fun of the view that this earth is the best possible of all worlds in what amounts to a serious level of figurative and even literal overkill, by painting a cynical picture of the misfortunes of one illegitimate child named Candide and his various associates, who go from one misfortune to another over the course of the novel. In many ways, one can see the influence of Jonathan Swift upon the book, with Swift’s own taste for cynical satire, and this book is nothing if not an extremely cynical satire, cynical even about the sort of cynicism that leads one to claim not to enjoy anything, for there is a pleasure, at least according to the author, in not having any pleasure.
Despite the book’s short length, there are a few genres that are combined together to make the whole, including the author’s obvious philosophical interests, which involve debate and discussion between different parties, as well as the author’s clear desire to comment upon the social realities of European and imperial behaviors, as the author makes fun of Germans (including Candide, the protagonist) and the various armies destroying each other and Germany, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, English, Italians, and Turks, among many others. The author shows himself in this book to be a student of epidemiology, through a study of syphilis, and one who uses his knowledge of the response of the Portuguese to the great earthquake of 1755, the British habit of executing admirals to encourage the others, the fierce isolationism of Jesuit Paraguay, and many other aspects of contemporary European society to make the short novel nevertheless a pointed one and a thought-provoking one, as the author assumes that the reader will be generally open-hearted and not particularly philosophical, like Candide, which makes his closing comment all the more notable. The plot itself is the sort that one would expect from a Marx Brothers movie, with ridiculous situations where people appear to be dead and do not end up actually being dead, and where a young man is tossed out of a castle for having fallen in love and chastely kissed the daughter of its castellan, only to find himself in a madcap set of adventures within Europe, the Americas, and the Levant, meeting pirates and thieves of all kinds, before reaching a conclusion where Candide and his friends (and shrewish wife) are working on a farm together and puzzling on the ultimate task of man with which it closes.
And it is that closing comment that is worthy of reflection. Voltaire does not end up being quite as cynical as he is assumed to be, for this novel neither gives into despair, nor does it celebrate the total lack of pleasure or good in life, nor does it argue that everything that happens is the best possible outcome. Rather, Candide tells us that we should take care of our garden, to work so that our life is the best that it can possibly be, regardless of the difficulties or blessings that we deal with. It should be noted, as difficult as that may be to realize from the author’s reputation as being a critic of Christianity, that this is the biblical advice, not only the literal advice given to Adam to tend and keep the garden, but also the consistent habit of the Bible in encouraging people to do what they can with what they have where they are. It should also be noted that the Bible nowhere promises that what happens is the best of all possible outcomes, but only that all things work together for the good for those who love and obey God, which is something entirely different. A book that therefore appears on the surface to be a lighthearted but intensely critical satire ends up having genuine advice to its readers that is worth following and full of interest even now, advice that would make our lives happier. Perhaps that is the biggest surprise of all in this little book, that we would do much better to cultivate our garden than the projects to which so many of us devote our lives and attention.