Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Let Us Cultivate Our Garden: The Nature of the Human Soul in Candide

At the center of Voltaire’s humorous novella, Candide, is the philosophical, some may ague, the theological, exploration of humanity and the natural state of human beings. Are we naturally good, honest, and charitable, or are we naturally wicked, dishonest, and greedy? Voltaire doesn’t really give any explicit answers concerning whether we are naturally good or bad, he does imply a certain kind of natural tendencies and inalienable rights all human beings have, some of which are well imbedded into our American constitution, through the innocent philosophical beliefs of Candide in the beginning of the novella, as told by him through Pangloss.

On a deeper level, the story is really about Candide’s loss of innocence and faith in Pangloss’ teachings that all things are good and will “end in the best of ways”. But to lose something, one must have possessed it in the first place. Candide’s description establishes a kind of innocence and trust in his character: he has “gentle manners” and possesses “true judgement with simplicity of spirit” (1), hence why he is named Candide. In the first half of the novella, he held onto these two beliefs: 1) that all men fare free and 2) “all is for the best (2). No matter what trials came his way, no matter how many thing happened that seemingly contradicted these two notions, he still asserted and believed in them. However, as his tribulations continue further, he slowly begins losing faith in them, saying them less and less, until at the end, even Pangloss doesn’t believe his own teachings. This development, from the innocent and assumably naive notions in the beginning to their total abandonment, demonstrates a natural innocence in human beings, until the misfortunes of the world begin to test out one’s innocence and most inevitably fail to keep it. 

Voltaire, through the character of Martin at the end, describes human beings as restless creatures meant to continuously work toward something when he says, “Martin especially concluded that man was born to live either in a state of distracting inquietude or of lethargic disgust” (85). This implies that, if man has nothing to do, he is not happy and would perhaps turn to wicked employment to fill in that boredom. On the natural innocence and goodness of humanity, I would agree with Voltaire, but I would disagree with him on the causes of evil. Talking to reformed reentry citizens and incarcerated persons over my spring bread service trip, many of those men did not commit their crimes because they were bored; most were in desperation because of an addiction problem or they were impoverished. One man said that every crime begins with the best intentions, like stealing diapers for your child because you can’t afford to pay for them. Voltaire’s solution to humanity’s tendency to lose sight of their innocence and nature is to set to useful employment and “cultivate our garden” (87).

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