Candide

This classic story by Voltaire is about a young man, Candide, who grows up in a castle with his philosopher mentor, Pangloss. He eventually sets out on a lifelong adventure and keeps his words (“everything is for the best, and we live in the best of all possible worlds”) ringing in his head, even as Candide faces a wide variety of challenges. He ends the book finishing small, tending to a garden, and dispensing with the high-minded philosophy. It’s a quick story (under four hours via audiobook), and I would recommend it to anybody who has never read it, as there is some timeless wisdom within these pages.

It starts out with Candide in a castle, learning philosophy from Pangloss, where he meets a beautiful woman, Cunegonde. After he kisses her, he is shunned from the castle and has to make his way on his own. From there he is enlisted in an army, and from there he witnesses — according to the modern and accepted rules of war — deaths in the tens of thousands, the rape and murder of locals, and the pillaging of towns. He accepts all of this, seeing a silver lining at the end, and believing that all of the war was required to achieve this more-perfect existence. He walks through another series of unfortunate events, and anybody observing his life would see him as having terrible luck. However, he maintains this cheery disposition, believing in the wisdom imparted from his philosopher teacher, that the world could not possibly be any better than it is.

Candide is eventually reunited with Cunegonde, his love, and they make their way over to South America. However, in another turn of events, they encounter the highest ranking official there, who chooses to keep Cunegonde for himself. Candide makes his way to El Dorado, where he marvels at a city with gold and jewel-crusted streets and everyone is a priest. This place is truly heaven, but he misses his dear Cunegonde, so he splits up with his trusted sidekick Cacambo and heads back to Europe. Cacambo is to bring Cunegonde over as well, and they’ll meet up in Venice to live happily ever after.

Naturally there are a range of obstacles in the way. Candide seeks out a companion to travel with, and selects this companion by gathering a group of men in a pub to hear their stories. From there he selects Martin, who had the saddest and most difficult set of circumstances. Here is when the edifice of Pangloss’ optimism begins to crack; Martin is an unrepentant realist who shuns the high-minded idea that we live in the best of all worlds. He is unsurprised by any unfortunate circumstance, and accepts the world as it is. Candide meets more people, and learns that basically everyone has pain and suffering in their past, which causes him to begin re-evaluating his philosophy on life. He is eventually reunited with Cunegonde, however she has become extremely ugly, and so he marries her more out of obligation than love. And because they brought piles of dirt from El Dorado, Candide and a handful of other travelers are able to settle down into a place and be without want.

This final section is where Voltaire’s two big ideas come out. The first is that, while settled down, Candide and others find themselves miserable. This stems from the idea that people need purpose in their lives, and that it is better to be traveling or working with purpose than simply sitting around doing nothing. The second is in the final exchange of the story. Pangloss, who has been reunited, mentions that he sticks with his idea of the best of all possible worlds, however no longer believes it. He gives a high-minded speech, and Candide responds with ‘yes, but now is time to tend to the garden’ — essentially repudiating the time spent on philosophizing to focus on the real and immediate. These are valuable insights, and while not uncommon knowledge, they come together very well to wrap up the story. It’s a great story, I understand why it is considered a classic, and moves quickly along. I’m happy to have read it.

And with that — I have finished 50 books this year! Back in January I thought it was a real stretch, and didn’t expect that I could actually pull it off. But, with amazing suggestions from family and friends, and the wonder of audiobooks to listen to while exercising, I’ve reached that goal six weeks early. What a wealth of ideas I have gained!