Friday, February 3, 2012

A Pox on the Philosophy of Pangloss

Voltaire invented a sardonic romp through regimes and nations in the well-known novel, Candide. Along the way, Voltaire indicts and condemns the philosophy of optimism, religion, exploitation, violence, and the love of money by sending the titular character on a quest to find and rescue his beloved Cunégonde. At the end, Candide has come of age, much wiser and less dependent upon others for his happiness.

At the beginning of the novel, Candide is a two-dimensional stock character so inexperienced in the ways of the world that he is little more than a fool, driven by biological urges, blind to the social order that governs his little Eden. Candide lives on a grand, vast estate where he learns from Pangloss, the philosopher and tutor hired by the Baron to teach Cunégonde and his bastard nephew, Candide. The world beyond is an unknown, but Candide has no fear of it because Pangloss teaches only one lesson: theirs is the best of all possible worlds because God is benevolent and loving; therefore, his creation is perfect.

Candide has no occasion to question Pangloss or doubt his teaching. His is the naïf, innocent and pure. Even when his body urges him to know Cunégonde, Candide’s mind never questions his urge. Thus, he’s hurt and surprised when kissing, the prelude to sexual awareness, results in being cast from his little Eden.

Outside the gates of the estate, Candide encounters an army that beats him bloody as a form of conscription, proving that there are fates far worse than being exiled, but Candide persists in the hope and belief that his is the best of all possible worlds. He flees to reunite with Cunégonde and make a home with her.

In Holland, an Anabaptist rescues Candide and introduces him to a diseased man, Pangloss himself, afflicted with syphilis, the scourge of the eighteenth century. Pangloss has not abandoned his optimism or the conviction that they live in the best of all possible worlds even though the Baron’s estate was destroyed by the Bulgars, the Baron and Cunégonde killed, and Pangloss’s personal security lost.

Readers recognize that a world whereon men hurt each other and self-inflicted diseases plague them is the antithesis of the best of all possible worlds. But Pangloss and Candide have much more to bear before doubt can bloom. Candide endures a storm at sea, an earthquake, Pangloss’s death by hanging, and a severe beating for listening to Pangloss’s heretical teachings.

As he heals, ministered to by an old hag, Candide learns that Cunégonde lives. She is sex slave and later, the willing whore to a powerful man. She is sins of the flesh and desire incarnate, agreeably exploited whereas the old hag is unwilling. The daughter of a Pope, the hag has been cast adrift, raped, and her buttocks eaten by humans. She represents hypocrisy in the church and brutality alive in the world.

Still Candide clings to Pangloss’s lesson. In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he believes and continues to pursue Cunégonde, even killing for her and  forgiving her the indignities she has suffered. His pursuit leads Candide to Eldorado, a utopia, the true best of all possible worlds where conflict does not exist and man’s predatory, greedy nature does not thrive. Poor Candide cannot be happy there because his beloved Cunégonde is not with him so he takes as much wealth as he can carry from Eldorado where gems and gold have no worth.

Still too trusting, Candide loses much of his treasure for there are thieves alive and well outside Eldorado. He recovers some of it, however, reaffirming his belief in this fine world and enabling him to resist the teaching of a new philosopher, Martin, Pangloss’s opposite. Martin believes only in doom and gloom.

Candide also recovers the people he thought he’d lost: the Baron and Pangloss, both of whom survived in spite of reports to the contrary; the old hag and Cunégonde who now looks as ugly and worn as the hag. Nevertheless Candide does not shirk from his promise to marry her, ugly and foul though she may be. The Baron, Cunégonde's brother, no longer the mighty landowner, still objects due to Candide’s lowly status as a bastard, but Candide has grown more assertive, more certain of his quest. He casts the Baron out and accepts Cunégonde, now unattractive, given to incessant nagging.

Is it any wonder that Candide is still not happy? Everyone in his small world is bitter, but serendipitously, Candide meets a farmer who is at peace. From him, Candide learns that the world is not provided as the best of all possible worlds. Instead it is given to man to make it the best of all possible worlds. Candide determines to buy his own piece of this world and cultivate his garden until it is an Eden. In making such a decision, he has become a living, breathing three-dimensional character. He has come of age as he acquires humility, patience, and wisdom.

Reading Challenge:

Read the quintessential satire, Candide. Prepare to laugh in the face of man’s abominations as you travel with poor, misguided Candide.

Writing Challenge:

Imagine a utopia. What do the inhabitants care about? What do they do each day? How evolved are they in scientific knowledge? Is there any need for courts or jails or government? Build this world from the ground up, from the physical space to the abstract ideals.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): The Apostrophe to Indicate Possession for Words Ending in S

When I first learned to punctuate, I learned to place an apostrophe to indicate possession after the  “s” in a word ending in “s”. For example:

·      The home of the Johnsons became The Johnsons’ home.
·      The shoes of Cinderella’s step-sisters became Cinderella’s step-sisters’ shoes.

But that old guideline for correct usage is gone. Now writers employ the apostrophe and a second “s.” For example:

·      The Johnsons’s home
·      Cinderella’s step-sisters’s shoes