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Voltaire and Racism

Racism is regarded as one of the most degrading offenses a human being could inflict to one another. It is a kind of discrimination that is attacking one of the most important aspects of a person, his or her origins. A look back at history combined with what we could observe today just tell us how prevalent is the problem of racism. A classic of literature had explored much of the topic of racism in the society. This literary classic is titled “Candide”, also known as “Candide: or, The Optimist”, “Candide: or, All for the Best”, and “Candide: or, Optimism.”

“Candide” is a masterpiece of the enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire. “Candide” had displayed profound sensibility for the human condition through focusing on a very real problem in the society, racism. This aspect of “Candide” suggests to us that the author, Voltaire, is one “enlightened” individual. But before we traverse further in this discussion, it would be perhaps helpful to first get a hold of a definition of the term “enlightened. ” Of course, the phase in history during the eighteenth century should be taken into consideration.

The Enlightenment is generally described as a period of great sensibility to the social realities. In addition to that, the term “enlightened individual” could be rephrased into “illuminated individual” wherein the illumination is a symbolism for knowledge. In a sense, an enlightened person is different than other people. Voltaire could be considered as an enlightened individual, in other words, he has a different view in opposition to others. His work on “Candide” is often attacked as to being a racist piece. This could be the immediate response to the piece.

However, a deeper and closer look would reveal to the reader that the piece actually made a deliberate overload of racist topics for the aspect of racism to be an echoing theme. Voltaire had designed “Candide” to have an offensive aftertaste for the readers to realize social realities such as racism. Here is an instance wherein Voltaire had plotted very offensive and seemingly insensitive words “A lady of honor may be raped once but it strengthens her virtue” (Voltaire 30). That set of words could be even be offensive not only to women, but even to men.

But it would be important to reiterate that “Candide” was written as a social satire, wherein humor is a very dominant element. Voltaire had made an understatement about a very offending act such as rape. In effect, even if the statement is offensive, it could be somehow categorized as humorous. Moreover, those kind of statement are what we could consider controversial statements. However, “Controversial”, not in a negative sense. Voltaire was very successful in getting the attention of the public through these kind of offensive statements.

This design was used by Voltaire throughout the entire narrative of “Candide” particularly in the aspect of racism. Therefore, it is just understandable that some people would take Voltaire’s masterpiece as extremely racist. Let us take for example the instance wherein Candide had imitated his neighbor who is Turkish by origin. The Turk does not debate philosophy in his house, instead the Turk cultivates his garden. Candide had developed a slight dislike for philosophy and decided that his house would no longer debate philosophy, he would just cultivate his own garden (136-137).

Without the proper approach, what had transpired in the previous paragraph could be immediately interpreted as racist in nature. It could be immediately interpreted that Voltaire has something negative to say about the Turks. Voltaire statement could appear that the Turks does not value philosophy—which translates to love for knowledge. It could arrive to the conclusion that the Turks have no love for knowledge. The statement renders them as a savage society. It is necessary to take note that this is a hasty interpretation which goes along the complex design of Voltaire for his work on “Candide.

” People are being shown a seemingly racist text. However, what is really transpiring is that the readers would realize that they themselves are racists because they have arrived to that hasty judgment of the text. However, with an open-minded look, that particular instance that involved the Turk and Candide suggests that the Turk has a better outlook in life than those who debate over philosophy like Candide formerly did. It was as if Voltaire, a philosopher himself, suggested that philosophy could only make a person’s life miserable. Here are other quotes from “Candide” wherein Voltaire was seemingly insensitively committing racism.

There is another instances in the book that it was mentioned that one of the worst things that could ever happen to a European woman is to raped “a hundred times by negro pirates. ” Another major aspect why “Candide” is often interpreted as a racist text is because of Voltaire’s argument that racism is generated from ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism is basically a concept used particularly in sociology to describe the preference of people to their one culture, thinking that their own culture is more dominant than other cultures. Here is a line that expresses this view “in spite of what Dr.Pangloss said, I often noticed that everything went very ill in Westphalia. ” (72) Voltaire is hinting that racism is generated because people criticize what they do not entirely understand. All in all, Voltaire is certainly an enlightened individual not only because he is aware of social realities like racism, but also because he wanted to convey such awareness. He had thrown in some lines that describe the graveness of the situation regarding racism like “dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less miserable than we are” (65) That line is probably one of the best lines to resound in this discussion.

After all, it seems that racism is more of a problem of humans than animals. Humans are too quick to judge other humans. Voltaire had shown us that racism is one of our greatest flaws. Admirably, he had enlightened us through his witty and comical depiction of racism. Voltaire is definitely an enlightened individual because he had shown us the light in the gloomy topic of racism.

Works Cited

Voltaire. Candide, Or, Optimism: A Fresh Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism. Translated by Robert Martin Adams. KS: Norton. 1991 Wade, Ira. Studies on Voltaire. New York: Russell & Russell. 1967

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