Saturday, February 20, 2021

Candide and the Utopian Enclave

Optimistic theodicy thrived briefly in the Eighteenth Century, and today is perhaps best-known as the target of Voltaire’s satire Candide (1759). Optimistic theodicy aimed to solve the problem of evil — if God knows everything, can do anything, and is infinitely good, how then can evil exist? — by proposing that evil in some parts of Creation is the necessary condition for greater good elsewhere. So the best of all possible worlds, reasoned optimistic theodicians, may still be filled with plenty of suffering and vice.

Voltaire’s Candide famously concludes with Candide’s words to his former mentor in optimistic theodicy, the indefatigable Pangloss, who is still trying to trace divine benevolence in their mutual history of brutal suffering. Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin. All that is very well, but let us grow our garden. 

Out of context, the sentiment might be read as a conservative one, perhaps a kind of civil privatism: the world is an irredeemably evil place, and all we can do is count our blessings and defend whatever little patch of it will sustain us! 

But I think this reading neglects both the larger context of the narrative, and half of what Candide actually says. “All that is very well.” The liberal virtue of tolerance is being exemplified, sure. More broadly, this is an ending that celebrates the work of worldmaking. Candide tolerates and transcends rather than strictly speaking dismisses Pangloss’s disputation.

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the[Pg 168] linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

“All that is very well,” says Candide: even Pangloss and his philosophizing have a place within this inclusive community, a found family of former slaves, forced migrants, survivors of traumatic violence, who work together to preserve and extend their small sphere of care and security. It’s sometimes forgotten that Candide does also include a utopia, El Dorado, apparently unironically a place of prosperity, generosity, and happiness, characterized by its muted hierarchy and its lack of a clerical class. That is, Candide is a narrative that has certain ambitions about how big a garden might grow.