A Look At Voltaires Candide Through New Historicism Philosophy
What can we learn from the fictional writings of the past? According to the New Historicist there is quite a bit of information in the novellas of the past. It is text such as Voltaire's Candide that can shed a light on the attitudes, science and philosophies of their times. In order to gain a greater understanding of the forces that were at play in Voltaire's life and the world around him, it is the intent of this paper to place the writings of Voltaire, especially the novella Candide, under the microscope of the New Historicism and examine religion and philosophy of the time.
When I first entered in Laurentian University, a professor commented that literature was an ongoing conversation between readers and authors. This is what must have been on the mind of theorists and academics when the theory of New Historicism came to be recognised. Hegel is credited as being one of the first scholars to give credit to the importance of the study of history "...not only for philosophy itself but for all areas of human significance" (Desmond, 173). It was Hegel's interest with history that led him to focus on the writings of the commentators of political issues; as a consequence Hegel's assertion was that the state was the divine Idea as it exists. Still no proper discussion of history can avoid the objective spirit found in the writings of the artist of the respective time. It is for this objective opinion that the works of writers like Voltaire speak just as strongly and those of historians such as Arthur Young and Edmund Burke. Before we can examine how the writings of Voltaire can prove to speak volumes of the writer's time and the outlook of its people, let us begin with the historians of the time.
The eighteenth century promised a time of change for the people of Europe; however, the explosion that rocked France was the pivotal moment in the history of the western world. The ten year period between 1789 and 1799, provided the citizens of France an opportunity to not only transform their lives but the imaginations of the world around them. Their bloody struggle was long imminent, yet few understand the everlasting effects this revolution of man and spirit has had on the conscience of the west. Rousseau would publish his discourse on the Social Contract just three years after the publication of Candide.
Even if philosophers of the time professed that they were living in the best of all possible worlds, where everything is connected and arranged for the best. For Voltaire and his countrymen it was a time of trials and tribulations. He chose to focus the subject of Candide based on these and personal sufferings, "He had known what personal suffering meant, for he had been imprisoned in the Bastille â€¦, cudgeled â€¦, and had been exiled from Paris" (Butt, 7). His examination of history and personal experience had persuaded him that there is no such thing as Providence directing human affairs. For Voltaire the questions of why the creator would allow a world filled with such suffering? If he was all powerful could he not have created a better world? Is the creator all good and all powerful as we are told he is?
These questions beg to be answered in Candide. For if Dr. Pangloss, Candide's tutor who professes that these truly are the best times, how do we come to terms with what we regard as evil will? This is the question that Candide must answer during his travels. We must keep in mind the philosophy of the time and rightly consider that within any will can be found conducive to the good of some other creature, and there for be necessary to the general design. As we see through Candide, "we must put up with it, as best we can, for the sake of the general good" (Butt 8).
The New Historicist will find these thoughts to be similar to the philosophies of Leibniz, a contemporary of Voltaire. It is this style of literary commentary that New Historicist seeks in a text. For it can be assured that Voltaire knew exactly who and what he was attacking with his satire. However, we can dig deeper into Pangloss. His name translated from Greek means "all tongue", presenting him with a chance to represent philosophy itself. Pangloss' philosophy as explained by Candide in chapter one support this logic.
Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron's castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. -It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.
Pangloss' beliefs are both the most essential point of discussion among the text's characters and one of the main objectives of Voltaire's satirical digs. Pangloss' and Candide's resolute belief that human beings live in "the best of all possible worlds" is confronted and questioned by the dreadful trials that they undergo.
Their personal philosophy roughly reminds readers of the conclusions of some of the most prominent academics of Voltaire's time. As discussed, the philosopher Leibniz eminently insists that, "There must be a sufficient reason [often known only to God] for anything to exist, for any event to occur, for any truth to obtain"(717). To clarify, since the world was created by God, and since the mind of God is the most benevolent and capable mind imaginable, the world must be the best world imaginable. Under such a system, humans perceive evil only because they do not understand the force governing the world and thus do not know that every ill exists only for a greater good, this is known as Leibniz principle of "Sufficient Reason". Candide is commonly believed to be Voltaire's cynical come back to Leibniz philosophy. In the above quotation, Voltaire not only assails philosophical "optimism", but also the eccentricity and faults of Enlightenment philosophy. Enlightenment theorists, such as Leibniz, focused a great deal of consideration on the interaction of cause and effect; this is mirrored in Pangloss' own claims. Pangloss' claims about spectacles and breeches reveal a ridiculous incapability to accurately discriminate between cause and effect. Eyeglasses fit noses not because God created noses to fit spectacles, as Pangloss claims, but the other way around. The starkness of this position is intended to echo the openness of the flaws Voltaire perceives in the philosophical processes of the Enlightenment.
As the philosophy of man changed so did the minds of the people. The views of the new philosophies did not call into the role of the Church, yet in Candide Voltaire often questions the role of the Church and God in the lives of man. This inner dialogue of the question of the church come from two interesting quotes the first in from Chapter twelve the second from Chapter thirty. In both of the quotes the question of how great a role that church and its teachings play in the lives of those who suffer without end. The first is from the view of the old woman and the other from the mind of Pangloss. Let us first look at the words of the old woman.
I wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our worst instincts; is anything more stupid than choosing to carry a burden that really one wants to cast on the ground? To hold existence in horror, and yet to cling to it? To fondle the serpent which devours us till it has eaten out our heart? -In the countries through which I have been forced to wander, in the taverns where I have had to work, I have seen a vast number of people who hated their existence; but I never saw more than a dozen who deliberately put an end to their own misery.
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