Candides of the Enlightenment
Écrasez l’infâme (“Crush the horror”) was Voltaire’s motto, and for much of his life this 18th-century writer devoted his literary energy to exposing the vile ways human beings treat one another. In his most influential work—the satirical novella Candide, about a long-suffering innocent—Voltaire points a mocking finger at the institutions and social conventions that, in his view, add to the world’s sorrow. It’s a brutal little book—and a very funny one.
Voltaire—the pen name of François-Marie Arouet—was an 18th-century celebrity who churned out plays, philosophical essays, political pamphlets, poems and historical works. Of all Voltaire’s writings, the best known is the satirical novella Candide—a simple fable that doubles as a screed against organized religion, political tyranny and human nature itself. The story follows good-hearted but dim-witted Candide, for whom nothing ever goes right. Booted out of his childhood home, impressed into military service, repeatedly separated from the woman he adores, subjected to public flogging by agents of the Inquisition, Candide is always stumbling into trouble and is constantly on the run.
Candide’s fitful displacement parallels Voltaire’s own life. The writer’s sharp wit, intolerance of hypocrisy and disdain for political privilege earned him powerful enemies. He was beaten, imprisoned and forced to flee his French homeland. An extended stay at the court of King Frederick II of Prussia came to a bad end when, among other impolitic behavior, Voltaire dared to criticize Frederick’s poetry. Late in life, to avoid the persecution of various governments, Voltaire sought safety at country estates near Geneva—an escape echoed by the woebegone, world-weary Candide in his retirement to a farm outside Constantinople.
According to Irish writer Jonathan Swift, satire—a literary mode dating back at least as far as ancient Rome—is a “glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” Like the folly it skewers, satire is unlikely to disappear anytime soon—witness the popular “newsweekly” The Onion and TV programs like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. But satire doesn’t necessarily age well, since the targets of a satirist’s barbs are often unfamiliar to later generations. Voltaire’s Candide is one exception; Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is another.
From 1726 to 1729 Voltaire lived in England, where he and Swift became friends. Swift’s influence on Voltaire shows in Candide, which resembles the earlier Gulliver’s Travels in several particulars. Like Candide, Swift’s hero, Lemuel Gulliver, journeys from place to place, landing in hot water wherever he goes. The two satirists’ views of human nature are similarly jaundiced, but Gulliver’s Travels has a fanciful quality mostly absent from Candide. Children read Gulliver with pleasure—especially the best-known part of the book, concerning Gulliver’s adventures as a giant among the tiny people of Lilliput. Nobody, however, would call Candide a book for kids.
For all its bleakness, Candide ends on a humbly optimistic note. Candide’s wanderings lead him to Constantinople, where he finds his beloved Cunégonde, whom he has lost and rediscovered several times during his global peregrinations. True, Cunégonde is a wreck—the former aristocrat and high-priced call girl is now a kitchen slave, and her good looks have vamoosed—but the ever-honorable Candide buys her freedom and marries her. The not-too-happy couple repairs to a farm on Constantinople’s outskirts, along with Dr. Pangloss, Cunégonde’s servant and several other companions.
For a time, disharmony rules. Then Candide has a revelation. He visits his neighbor—a modestly prosperous, contented farmer—and suddenly understands what has heretofore eluded him: The only way to achieve peace is to do one’s work while paying as little heed as possible to the wider world and its concerns. For Candide, the meaning of life turns out to have nothing to do with endless philosophizing. Even as the incorrigible Pangloss continues to prattle his metaphysics, Candide, in the novella’s final line, responds, “We must cultivate our garden.” The idea that paradise is a garden is, of course, as old as Genesis. But for Candide, it happens to be true.
Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie was central to the French Enlightenment. A compendium of sciences, arts and trades, including the mechanical arts, the Encyclopédie grew out of the great thirst for knowledge that defined the epoch and may be seen as a riposte to Diderot’s epigram “I can be expected to look for truth but not to find it.” Among its entries and many supplements, the Encyclopédie contains some 650 articles and illustrations related to gardening—reflecting the contemporary passion for garden design, which had been evolving in purpose since the Middle Ages. No longer simply a tangle of herbs grown for an apothecary’s tinctures and poultices, the Enlightenment-era garden was a stately, symmetrical affair, with bold plantings in strict geometric patterns. The planned garden, so went the rationale, was a stay against the chaos of the natural world.
The Encyclopédie was also the first reference work of its kind to gather articles and translations by named contributors, Voltaire not least among them. The famously intemperate author was pleased to be included in Diderot and d’Alembert’s intellectual garden, though the pompous verbosity of some of his cocontributors annoyed him greatly.
In the 1750s, after decades spent crashing at other people’s houses, Voltaire bought an estate near Geneva, which he christened Les Délices (“The Delights”). The move was, according to New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, Voltaire’s “version of the ancient...ideal of escape from the corrupting city into a...country house.” At Les Délices and later at another estate, Ferney, Voltaire adopted the life of the prosperous landowner: collecting furniture, cultivating his garden (with the help of hired gardeners), receiving visitors from the world over. Childless, Voltaire even adopted a daughter. As W.H. Auden put it in his poem “Voltaire at Ferney,” “Almost happy now, he looked at his estate.”
But unlike Candide’s, the fruits of Voltaire’s labor weren’t merely agricultural. King Louis XV wanted him nowhere near Paris; nonetheless, Voltaire successfully advocated for social justice throughout France and the greater continent. His efforts during the long sunset of his life were partly journalistic: His writings exonerated two men who, through the collusion of state and religious authorities, had been unfairly convicted of—and tortured and executed for—crimes they did not commit. In addition to writing about social justice, Voltaire established a watch factory that employed Protestants, typically persecuted in Catholic France.
As a satirist, Voltaire followed in the footsteps of France’s greatest comic playwright, Molière (the pen name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin). Molière possessed a savage wit that frequently annoyed people. But whereas Molière had been so beloved by Louis XIV that the king installed the playwright’s troupe in the Louvre’s theater, Voltaire was detested by Louis XV.
Still, royal favor couldn’t always guarantee the performance of Molière’s works. Tartuffe (1664), a satire on religious hypocrisy, drew clerical opposition so fierce it was twice banned. Nearly a century later Voltaire’s Candide likewise raised the hackles of the religious establishment and had to be published clandestinely.
Molière’s assault on religion is, however, altogether gentler than Voltaire’s. Tartuffe centers on the misdeeds of a falsely pious scallywag, Tartuffe, who attempts to hoodwink his wealthy patron, Orgon, out of his earthly possessions (and who puts the moves on Orgon’s wife, besides). Candide, by contrast, goes beyond domestic comedy to deliver a biting indictment of organized religion as a whole. When it came to religion, Voltaire was an equal-opportunity despiser, and no faith or believer was spared his mighty pen.