Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Voltaire's Candide: A Review

So, you might wonder why it would be worth the time to read an 18th c. philosopher like Voltaire in the 21st century?  With regards to Candide, that's an easy question to answer.  a. It's short  b.  It's wildly funny c. It's a multilayered, complex work of fiction that would appeal to even a semi-keen intellect, and d. It's one of those "classics" that everyone should read that isn't actually a pain to read; in short, it's an easy one to cross off your list.

We dig a a little deeper.  What is Voltaire on about here? What is the point.  I see three main planks to the greatness of Cadide

I.  Philosophic inquiry:  One could read it largely as a rejection and satire of Leibniz's "this is the best of all worlds" philosophy.  While Voltaire certainly intends this critique as a main function of the novel, there is a lot more packed in to 70 some odd pages:  empiricism vs. rationalism, utopian visions, religion, "right living", etc. 

II.  Politics:  I  believe that Voltaire was also offering a scathing critique of the optimistic philosophical stance of many in French society in the face of Bourbon oppression and the extreme conditions in which most of the third estate lived.  A certain call to action through the person of Candide, who goes from mere survival at the outset of the novel to action, then to a defined conclusion in which we are told "we must tend our own garden."  Perhaps an allusion to the revolutionary ideal which Voltaire would soon help to inspire.

III.  Fun:  Yes, it's just a fun read.  The humor is biting and holds up extremely well.  Not only is Candide an insightful glimpse into the mind of maybe the most central figure of the European Enlightenment, but one could read it without a deep meditation into it's philosophical underpinnings, and just enjoy the craftsmanship of a fine piece of writing.

One final note:  the Norton edition is absolutely crucial for the extreme usefulness of the footnotes and the secondary materials which help to further explicate the depth of the work, should one choose to know more after reading it.  Highly recommended:

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