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Voltaire Enlightened

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 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 is this, but the extreme of the absurd in Voltaire’s writing 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. ” 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.

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 portryals 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 degradation 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.

Work Cited

Duggan, A. E. (2001) “Nature and Culture in the Fairy Tale of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. ” Marvels & Tales. Vol. 15. 2. Rousseau. J. J. (1967). The social contract: and, Discourse on the origin and foundation of inequality among mankind. Ed. Lester G. Crocker. New York: Washington Square Press. Voltaire. Candide. Trans. John Butt. Penguin Classics. New York. 1995.

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