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Candide and Oedipus

The use of satire and the definition of what makes a tragic hero as it relates to Candide and Oedipus will be the focus of this essay. The idea of the Enlightenment will be major focus in Voltaire’s work as well as the use of the absurd as a theme in the work. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex will be examined in the way that the main protagonist is a tragic hero: thus the way in which a tragic hero is defined and what makes them a tragic hero will be discussed. In Voltaire’s novel Candide, the theme of the absurd takes on new meaning.

In the very beginning of the plot the absurd is obvious in the expolusion of Candide from the Baron’s castle for kissing Cunegonde. The entire plot is filled with the ridiculous nature and circumstances of humanity. After Candide is forced into joining the Belgium army he quickly flees to Holland where he is confronted with the this very theme of the absurd; he discovers that the philosopher Dr. Pangloss, a very noted, and distinguished man is living in rags and begging. Not only this, but the extreme of the absurd in Voltaire’s writing is further portrayed when he writes that Dr. Pangloss is ridden with a venereal disease.

The idea that increased knowledge and human improvement go together became fundamental to the Enlightenment. Voltaire not only rejected this idea but proclaimed the opposite, stressing the simplicity of nature over the artificiality of society, feeling and faith over doubt and rationalism, and the freedom of individual genius over hard and fast aesthetic rules, as can be seen in the development of the character Candide. The novel is increasingly riddled with extreme absurd events ranging from his being beaten during the Spanish inquisition to his reunion with Cunegonde and their fleeing to Buenos Aires.

The ultimate theme that is parallel with the absurd is that of countering optimism. Every step of Candide’s journey leaves him subject to horrendous acts of cruelty or bizarre twists of fate (as when he and his lover meet he brother but the encounter turns sour when he forbids their marriage). In every part of the world, Candide meets with absurd events that change the course of life. High civilization makes societies become enfeebled; sociability makes men false to each other and to themselves, which is a major theme in Voltaire’s work Candide.

This apparent paradox, and the rhetorical force with which Voltaire argues it, prompts dozens of refutations. The source of evil is inequality and dependence, and this is the source of how the Enlightenment ideals are portrayed in Voltaire’s work. Man is naturally good, and has only been made bad by social relations, vanity, and pride, as can be seen in Voltaire’s characters Candide and Dr. Pangloss. Voltaire’s philosophy in Candide as it relates to the Enlightenment expresses the negative human transformation of a positive self-love Rousseau called “amour de soi” into pride, or “amour-propre. ” (Rousseau 22).

Amour de soi represents the instictive human desire for self-preservation, combined with the human power of reason. In contrast, the unnatural and artificial amour-propre forces man to compare himself to others, thus creating unwarranted fear and allowing men to take pleasure in the pain or weakness of others (Rousseau 22). Neither this distinction between self-preservation and pride, nor the rejection of a malevolent supreme as the sole cause of human degradation originated with Rousseau; his philosophy merely contributed to a wave of thought started long before, and is epmhasized through Voltaire’s work.

Rejecting religious dogma and superstition, thinkers of the “Age of Reason” applied a new emphasis on empiricism and rationality to their thought, like John Locke who believed in experience laid the essence to learning. A wave of change swept across European thinking, exemplified chiefly in Rouseau’s work and Voltaire’s. The publication of Candide provided a provable and a coherent system of natural law as it applied to his protagonist’s circumstances.

The idea of uniform laws for natural phenomenon mirrored the greater systematization in a variety of studies; the Enlightenment saw itself as looking into the mind of God by studying creation and mining the basic truths of the world, and it takes Candide the entire span of the novel to realize his own self, his capabilities in regards to love, religion, justice, forgiveness all in the expanse of the Enlightenment’s cosmic disposition. With the concept of scriptural revelation becoming superfluous in the Enlightenment, it is no wonder that the theme of guilt is not a major player in Voltaire’s representation of this philosophical movement.

Despite scientific proof and emphasis on rationality, the Enlightenment view of the natural world still included many doctrines of the Church. Rousseau’s continuation of this newfound natural philosophy proved not only controversial and highly refuted but also revolutionary in nature, and so, Candide ends in a graveyard so that there is a clear juxtaposition of man and religion in the minds of the readers, and therefore a clear distinction of the desires of the Enlightenment.

In Voltaire’s Candid, his writings not only anticipated specific movements and ideas, but their general tone and fundamental principles influentially determined the broad movements of feeling and thought in the second half of the eighteenth century. His writing was helping instigate the shift in European sensibility from the desire to “tame” nature, to make it bear the imprint of man’s design, towards the appreciation of the wild, the untouched and the terrifying in nature, as later became defining characteristics of Romantic literature.

This is seen predominantly in Voltaire’s writing: Permanent families and verbal language increase social relations, leading to economic and moral dependence, social injustice and hubris. Civilized humans inevitably adopt the amour propre to compete successfully with each other. The general will, essentially directed toward common good, Voltaire believed, is always right. The citizens of a united community exchange their natural liberty for something better, moral liberty.

In Voltaire’s theory, political society is seen as involving the total voluntary subjection of every individual to the collective general will, creating an unspoken social contract which becomes the sole source of legitimate sovereignty and something that cannot but be directed towards common good. This is Voltaire’s writing style in Candide. The idea of selfishness and pursuit of self-interest has proven to be rewarding in capitalistic societies, but the altruistic ideals of adhering to the general will are really not as altruistic as they seem.

If anything, these ideals are crucial to the survival of humanity, and by acting with compassion and regard for those other than the self, humans are really acting in their own best interests. Anybody playing any kind of team sport understands that personal accomplishment is secondary to the satisfaction of victory. Anybody working with others on a project understands that when each member contributes to reach a common goal, they can achieve far greater things than if they were attempting to reach this goal separately.

By agreeing to the social contract and general will, people are able to act in society without constant anxiety. Traveling a normal speed through a green traffic light is nothing more than faith that the cars that have the red light will stop. If they fail to adhere to this basic contract, terrible accidents ensue. By adhering to the general will, humans are allowed to live a life relatively devoid of anxiety. But, the reality exists, that for all the people who adhere to the general will, many choose to ignore it.

Finally, at the end of the novel, Candide states that it is better to cultivate one’s own garden that to philosophize. This translates into being a master of one’s own fate and making one’s own choices, instead, as the theme of the absurd has defined, allowing fate to be in control. The absurd is not truly a series of unfortunate events as written previously but is in fact the truth of humanity. The writers have focused their portrayals of humanity to be true to human nature and to not gloss over the facts and give happily ever-after endings to each and every one of their characters.

The point of writing with the absurd is to present an accurate portrayal of life, with all of its degradating and humiliating parts so that the reader can be witness to the veracity of life as presented in the written word. The authors did not want to give false impressions. The purpose at the end of this novel is self-realization from the protagonists. They must realize that their lives have been a lie, that the extreme and ridiculous and absurd events that have surrounded them are of their own making and that this is life in all of its dirty humanity and filthy, sometimes brilliant moments.

Tragic heroes begin their stories with “aplomb of luck, or ego”, or a rosy view of the world, and each play seems to end with destruction (Duggan 22). Oedipus is blind at the beginning of the play and then becomes physically blind at the end of the play thus making the ethereal concrete. With Greek drama; the tragedy of the unmistakable truth found in the character’s own self-realization is the typically denouement. The playwright’s tragic heroes have survived in life under false pretences, thus they are doomed to suffer from their one flaw of ego. In Oedipus there is another case of fate controlling the destiny of man.

Due to fate’s interference in the lives of heroes, it must be pondered whether or not they are heroes because they are devoid of choice and by definition a hero chooses their actions, but with fate, their actions are predestined. For Oedipus, his only link to heroism is that in his redemptive attitude . His heroic stance in Greek culture is seen as a protagonist who felt guilt for what he had done and this translates to the audience that if a hero can succumb to evil then they themselves, as less than heroic, are more likely to fall in favor, in the eyes of the gods.

Human nature is a nature of reason, not strictly adherent to passion or feelings, and in drama playwrights strive to be exact in their representation of reality. Morality then, becomes the crux of Oedipus Rex. Morality is reason. This is not to say that Plato and other classic Greek writers were ascetic; rather they placed passion, and feelings in their plays but the ethics of humanity are tied into the good of a person because reasonably, being virtuous, or good leads a character to happiness or release at the end of a modern play. The word for this given by Plato is eudemonism, which means blissful.

As a Greek hero, Oedipus is controlled by fate: His remittance of gouging his eyes shows that he is a strong hero because of his debt payment of sight. For Oedipus the flaw could be contained within the word ego. Ego in answering the sphinx riddle and unbeknownst to him killing his birth father, marrying his mother, having children; ego accounts for all of Oedipus’s actions, and it is fate which had designed ego and thus was the ultimate ruler of Oedipus. The true definition of a tragic hero resides with the idea of fate versus free will.

In the Oedipus play Sophocles presents the audience or reader a tale of ill fortune that all seems to be predestined from the Delphi oracle. It was due to the oracle that Oedipus’ father sent him into the wilderness as a child in order to fend for himself or to die from the elements, so that Oedipus would not grow up to kill his father one day; but it is through fate that Oedipus does kill his father and it was the design of fate that deteriorates the concept of free will in the Oedipus cycle. For Oedipus, his only link to heroism is that in his redemptive attitude .

His heroic stance in Greek culture is seen as a protagonist who felt guilt for what he had done and this translates to the audience that if a hero can succumb to evil then they themselves, as less than heroic, are more likely to fall in favor, in the eyes of the gods. As a Greek hero, Oedipus is like Hamlet in that they are both coerced by fate but with Oedipus his remittance of gouging his eyes shows that he is a stronger hero than Hamlet because of his debt payment of sight. The classic Greek tragic hero is not in control of his/her own fate, but is instead a character in the playground of the gods and goddesses and destiny (Jung 11).

Thus, when Oedipus is faced with a situation in which seemingly free will would play a part, he is instead destined to have a lack of control over the situation, and thus it is because of fate that Oedipus ‘sees’ his downfall. It is the ego that is Oedipus’ tragic fall and it is that trait by which he is controlled by fortune. Oedipus succumbs to ego by his mastering of the sphinx riddle; his ego also leads him to conquer and kill his biological father and claim his kingdom as well as to sleep with his mother. Oedipus lives like a king, and conquers to fulfill his ego that was given to him through fate.

This is Oedipus’ great error. Oedipus begins his story after being tossed to the wild to survive by being brought to a different kingdom, where he is adopted by the king and queen, and thus not through free will, since he was a baby and unable to make a conscious choice, but through fate does Oedipus end up in a different kingdom. With Oedipus, his tragic hero status is ensured by his unwillingness to exist as a partial man; without knowing his origins, without knowing his true identity. When he discovers his true identity, therein lies his status as a fateful tragic hero.

He realizes his ego got in the way of his life. His ego was his ruin. As Victoria Hamilton (1993) states in Narcissism and Oedipus, From within the tragic vision, Oedipus appears a fit candidate for the tragic hero. The hero’s search for truth leads to greater and greater suffering and finally to a blinding and a castration of his sense faculties. However, the absolute truth which Oedipus pursues is not a transcendental truth, but the precise details of his own origins — a limited knowledge of the facts surrounding his birth.

His ruin is brought about by his refusal to rest content with partial truths and with lies (Hamilton 254) The realism of choice does not allow the audience to believe they may submit to the ultimate decision in their life which way to turn. Greek drama, especially Oedipus Rex gives the audience no illusions about harsh reality, but it also gives the difference between fate and circumstance.

Works Cited

Aristotle. <http://olldownload. libertyfund. org/EBooks/Plato_0407. pdf> Duggan, A. E. Nature and Culture in the Fairy Tale of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy.

Marvels & Tales. Vol. 15. 2. 2001. Hamilton, V. Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books, 1993. Jung, C. G. Essays on a Science of Mythology. Princeton University Press, New York. 1978. Rousseau. J. J. The social contract: and, Discourse on the origin and foundation of inequality among mankind. Ed. Lester G. Crocker. New York: Washington Square Press. 1967. Sophocles. The Oedipus Cycle. Harcourt Inc. Florida. 1977. Voltaire. Candide. Trans. John Butt. Penguin Classics. New York. 1995.

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