The statue of French philosopher Voltaire stands in front of his tomb in Pantheon, Paris. (Shutterstock.com/silviofranca)
Voltaire’s 17th century Candide ou l’Optimisme (Candide: Optimism) is not merely a hallmark of the Enlightenment Age and holds as much relevance today as it did then, as it serves as a guide to more inclusive and thoughtful political discourse.
The novella starts with the young nobleman Candide, who lives in the castle of the fictional Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalian Germany. There, his tutor Pangloss instills in him a doctrine of Leibnizian optimism. Candide’s adventure begins after his tryst with the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde is exposed and he is exiled from the municipality.
Candide experiences the lows of atrocities such as the Inquisition, slavery and the Great Lisbon Earthquake, as well as the highs of discovering the unparalleled wealth of El Dorado in the New World and that his beloved Cunegonde and Pangloss are very much alive, despite their present mutilated state. Eventually, Candide and his band of misfits end up on a Turkish farm only to realize that moving forward requires them to “cultivate their gardens".
Candide falls prey to its own satirical prowess. The stylistic familiarity and slapstick, deadpan way it handles rapes, disembowelments and religious persecutions make it easy to lose the way to its true meaning. You’d be fully forgiven into thinking this was the script for a Monty Python special.
The work is a critical and satirical response to the absurd logical extremities of the once-prominent philosophy of optimism that Gottfried Leibniz (who had a hand in inventing calculus) had propounded.
Leibniz’s optimism was his proposed solution to the problem of evil: how evil can persist despite the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient God. His philosophy is perfectly summarized by the much used “best of all possible worlds”, which describes that having considered all infinitely possible worlds, God in all His goodness has chosen the best one. This implies that personal misfortune is always contextualized by a greater, but often unknowable, universal good. As Alexander Pope, a staunch Leibnizian optimist, put it: “All partial evil, universal good.”
We see one of the more absurd optimist formulations in the novella spewed by Pangloss after witnessing a man thrown overboard and drown off the coast of Lisbon. Pangloss reasons that there was nothing to worry about, as the Bay of Lisbon was expressly made for Jacques to drown in, since everything was for the best.
Voltaire here demonstrates that not only is optimism flawed because it is also severely fatalistic, but that it also requires an a priori framework that employs a premise-conclusion inversion of reality justified by philosophy.
This is what makes Candide strikingly relevant. Voltaire’s main issue was blind adherence to an idea or a philosophical framework (more economic and political nowadays, rather than religious as during his time), and the fatalistic belief that “everything is for the best” – or its modern equivalent, “everything will be for the better” – that arises from this complacent blind adherence, which then breeds rationalization at all costs.
We are numbed from others’ suffering because we are so entrenched in our beliefs that we seek to validate and conform reality to them. Realities that do not fit these beliefs are considered mere anomalies.
Unfortunately, this means that people’s difficulties are easily contextualized as a step on the path to a greater good. It is quite commonplace to find periodic unemployment reports or poorly planned government investment initiatives peppered with the language of expectation that things will be for the better, despite their obvious shortcomings.
In hindsight, it should come as no surprise that we have witnessed the weakening of the liberal world order concurrently with the rising tide of populism (often of a right-wing variety) and anti-globalization. Those who defined such paradigms benefited the most. They convinced everyone that the system was a meritocracy: Those who hadn't reached the same heights were naysayers and simply had not tried hard enough. However, the resulting rise in global inequality of the past decades, as illustrated in the World Inequality Report 2018, shakes us of this blind adherence.
The liberal world order, on the other hand, has proponents touting that “everything will be better”, despite the growing inequality. It is no wonder that the top economists’ calls to remain faithful to the liberal economic model, no matter how right the numbers may be, have fallen on deaf ears and why many of them, and technocrats in general, are perceived as Panglossian in this post-truth era.
Supporters of the liberal world order are not the only guilty ones. Populist politicians who occupy the extremes of the political spectrum are repeat offenders, due to their stubbornly dogmatic, divisive and callous policies that are often rooted in some flawed philosophical framework.
So, what does Voltaire, for all his warnings, then suggest as a solution to this constant failing of human political thought? The answer lies in the novella’s timeless quote, “il faut cultiver le jardin (we must cultivate our garden).” Voltaire’s use of garden imagery evokes the dichotomy between reality and philosophical abstractions that we identify with. Voltaire advocates a meliorism – the belief that the world can be made better by human effort – that is guided by the reality that governs our political landscape, humanism and careful planning. This would mean that blind adherence to policies, be it truly neoliberal or simply under the guise of prosperity, is not sustainable.
We must hold our policies and policymakers accountable to a more stringent level of scrutiny to ensure that policies objectively address the often cruel and harsh realities in our society. We can start upholding a more rigorous standard for policies and policymakers by asking hard questions that explore an issue deeper and more wholly.
If we, out of complacency, choose to be fatalistic and adhere blindly to existing policies, then we risk betraying the very social beliefs that guarantee a deeper sense of humanity and inclusivity – something that those occupying the ends of the political spectrum have continuously promised, but have endlessly failed to fulfill. (kes)
Giovanni Ugut is a Jakarta-based consultant. He completed a double degree in mathematics and economics at the University of California, San Diego. He takes great interest in geopolitics, economics and history. He swims and reads in his spare time.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.