A Story About Land of Eldorado By Voltaire
Voltaire’s Eldorado by the Standards of More’s Utopia
Everyone has heard the word “utopia.” It is often used in passing by idealistic characters as they reference a perfect but non-existent town or city, usually in contrast to the shoddy world that lends itself to the story’s setting. The story of Candide mimics this introduction to a utopian civilization as Voltaire, the story’s author, presents his readers with the legendary Eldorado, the one place that is good and fair among all other countries as well as the place in which, by a stroke of luck, Candide and his associate find themselves. In the book, Candide, a young and naïve boy who has been travelling the world to be reunited with his one love, Cunégonde, and enduring a multitude of tragedies along his journey, finds his way to the mythical land of Eldorado, with the help of Cacambo, a friend and valet to the main character. Despite the all of the wealth and good fortune contained within the walls of the hidden country, Candide and Cacambo choose to leave after about a month of having savored its glory. After having gone through so much misery prior to the landing at Eldorado, the reader is left speculating: why? Despite its general appearance of being a fair and perfect world, Eldorado is still open to corruption and merely illustrates the idealization of a culture prior to its overwhelming reliance on wealth and status, which is depicted throughout the rest of Candide’s journey.
Eldorado seems to have been introduced in Candide only to serve as a contrast to the awful war-torn societies present within the book. As mentioned above, the land is immeasurably wealthy and impossibly peaceful. The country is free from war and battle. And, what perhaps may be its most surprising quality, is how generous its people are. Much to their good fortune, Candide and Cacambo were greeted with open arms by the citizens of Eldorado and are provided extravagant meals, housing, and tours—all at no cost despite the mention of a local currency when the two tried to pay with the gold and jewels they picked up on their way to the main city. Eldorado, therefore, was representative of an ideal society, perhaps one that favored Voltaire’s own opinion, which valued intellect over material wealth and freedom over a strict monarchical regime. As mentioned previously, this seemingly perfect world may not be quite what it seems and actually falls quite short of being an actual utopia, at least by the standards set forth by Thomas More.
Sir Thomas More was a social philosopher and humanist from the early half of the Renaissance and is most noted for his literary work Utopia, which was written originally in Latin in 1516. The work is highly controversial, introducing the concept of a highly idealized political system, perhaps on the basis of later parallels to the communist ideas that were popular for a time in Germany and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More is very thorough in that he describes even the smallest details of the society, such as what the people of Utopia wear and what their silverware and toys are made from. Like Eldorado, More’s Utopia is anti-war and anti-bloodshed, although the people will take up arms if their land is being attacked. There is also a level of gender equality in that the women of the utopia are allowed to fight if they so choose, perhaps an implied freedom of all humankind as is stated by the King in Voltaire’s Eldorado: “But I certainly have no right to stop strangers from leaving. That is a piece of tyranny which has no part in our customs or our laws. All men are free.” (47). And of course, both places portray the image of a perfect society in which everyone is content in their fortunes. Although these general observations are shared between the two places, to assume that Eldorado is a true utopia might be a bit presumptuous if one hasn’t gone to the trouble of dissecting some of the more specific points of the two societies. After all, Candide had once assumed that his home in Westphalia was the perfect haven, but that idea crumbled soon after the young boy’s exile.
As mentioned previously, one of the most outstanding aspects of More’s Utopia is that the gold and jewels that laden the country holds no more value than wood, good only for toys and silverware. This idea is paralleled in Eldorado as Candide and Cacambo run across a few children playing with gold and precious jewels as if they held a very simple value, quite unlike the richness and wealth with which the two main characters associated such things (Voltaire 41). Although it seems like this aspect of Eldorado would qualify it as a utopia, one must look beyond the surface. More’s Utopia exhibits a land in which material wealth should mean very little to the people. As far as material goods go, in Utopia, the people only desire what is needed and nothing more. In Eldorado, although the people certainly turn down gold and jewels, it does not stop them from indulging in material extravagances: “At once two waiters and two waitresses, dressed in cloth of gold and wearing ribbons in their hair, showed them to a table and offered them the table d’hôte.” (Voltaire 42). This type of dressing up suggests that there is at least some level of pride that is taken into consideration when making their appearances, which greatly opposes More’s vision of Utopia where the people wear little more than animal skins, all of similar fashion, for the sake of low labor, low cost, and overall efficiency. In terms of their pleasures, what is displayed in Eldorado is not at all consistent with Utopia: “But of what they call counterfeit pleasures they make naught; as of pride in apparel and gems, or in vain honours; or of dicing; or hunting, which they deem the most abject kind of butchery.” (More). Although one could argue that since gold and jewels meant so little to the people of Eldorado that they saw these fine clothes as very modest, the fact that the waitresses mentioned above decorated their hair with ribbons, something with no function value whatsoever, indicates that the people do care about their looks. In addition to the fine clothing, Eldorado exhibits an excessive lavishness in its architecture: “The main entrance was two hundred and twenty feet high and one hundred wide. There are no words to describe what it was made of, which in itself gives some idea of just how prodigiously superior it was to the sand and pebbles we call ‘gold’ and ‘precious stones’.” (Voltaire 46). In addition to their more meager uses, gold and jewels in the land of Eldorado are used the same as in any regular society for the creation of grandiose luxuries, which again does not fall in line with the depicted modesty and humble nature of the people in Utopia. So, overall, even though Eldorado’s citizens may not view gold and jewels as currency, it does not negate the fact that they still connect the precious metals to wealth and status.
Another major aspect of More’s Utopia is the country’s dedication to education and knowledge:
Although there be not many that are appointed only to learning, yet all in childhood be instructed therein; and the more part do bestow in learning their spare hours. In the course of the stars and movings of the heavenly sphere they be expert, but for the deceitful divination thereof they never dreamed of it.
As a philosopher, and assuming he was familiar with More’s work, Voltaire probably quite favored this part of Utopia. And readers can see that parallel in his Eldorado. When Candide and Cacambo are being toured around the main city, they pass by another grand building called the Palace of Science, which, as the name would suggest, is dedicated to the learning of mathematics and physics (Voltaire 46). However, whereas More asserts that education in Utopia is taught to all citizens and that all citizens enjoy the practice of seeking knowledge, especially through discussion, Voltaire shows us in Eldorado that there are only a few who actually actively pursue knowledge, the only example being the old man. After Candide and Cacambo inquire about Eldorado and its customs, a local landlord tells them, “I know very little about things, and that suits me well enough. But we have an old man living in the village who used to be at court and who is the most knowledgeable man in the kingdom, as well as the most communicative.” (Voltaire 43). Of course, no one is expecting that all the citizens be equally knowledgeable. However, the fact that the landlord admits to knowing very little undermines More’s utopian ideal of all citizens being educated and finding pleasure in education, for if the landlord matched that perception, he would have been a bit more helpful to Candide and Cacambo. But of course, it is implied that as a landlord, one does not need an outstanding education. This idea, however, that one’s career or status determines how much education is or is not necessary to the individual subtly marks the beginning of a class-based society, which is certainly not what More intended a utopia to be.
Additionally, the previous passage in Candide already implies an established hierarchy. After Candide and Cacambo try to pay for their meal, their host explains to them how the inns in Eldorado are set up. But more importantly, the host says, “The meal wasn’t very good here because this is a poor village, but anywhere else, you’ll get the kind of reception you deserve.” (Voltaire 43). The fact that this host distinguishes his own village from all of the others, especially in terms of wealth, indicates that there is in fact a consciousness about rank. This consciousness can do one of two things for the people of Eldorado: help the people so that they can become a more equal society or pave the way toward competition and even greater disparities. History reveals that it is the latter that tends to occur.
An additional similarity between Utopia and Eldorado is the acceptance and tolerance of all monotheistic religions. Voltaire describes to us through the old man character that praise is given to one God all day long by all citizens of Eldorado, as they are all blessed with far more than what they need to live comfortably. However, unlike More’s Utopia where there are a few appointed priests who exhibit higher levels of holiness than the average person, there are no priests in Eldorado: “’My friends,’ he said, ‘we are all priests. The King and the head of each family sing hymns of thanksgiving solemnly every morning, to the accompaniment of five or six thousand musicians.’” (Voltaire 45). In this one case, Eldorado portrays a slightly more egalitarian society than what is described in Utopia, suggesting that in Voltaire’s ideal world, all men are recognized equally under the eyes of God at least in terms of the religion. This also suggests that the virtues of all of the people in Eldorado are either perfectly good or at least equal to each other, whereas in More’s Utopia, the levels of virtue vary, as implied by there being men who are holier than others. Although this small detail in Voltaire’s Eldorado doesn’t match up to More’s Utopia, it certainly reflects Utopia’s more general qualities of humility and equality as, again, all of the people are seen as equal in this aspect of life.
The final parallel between Utopia and Eldorado is the two countries’ isolated locations. Thomas More states:
The island of Utopia is shaped like a new moon, in breadth at the middle 200 miles, narrowing to the tips, which fetch about a compass of 500 miles, and are sundered by eleven miles, having in the space between them a high rock; so that that whole coast is a great haven, but the way into it is securely guarded by hidden rocks.
Likewise, the old man in Candide explains to the young travelers, “[The princes] ordained, with the consent of the nation, that no inhabitant was ever to leave our little kingdom. And that’s how we’ve managed to remain innocent and happy.” (Voltaire 44). Both places were made so that their ideal societies could thrive without the threat of arbitrary human constructs as well as dark human desires.
At the beginning of this essay, it was mentioned that Eldorado was open to corruption, and this reliance on isolation proves that. Should any particularly violent and greedy persons, like the Spanish conquistadors, enter either More’s Utopia or Voltaire’s Eldorado, they would kill the citizens in order to possess all of the land’s wealth and then, just as people have done during colonial times, drain the land of its resources in order to benefit the economy of the countries from which they were sent. Whatever people remained would be used for forced labor, and the invaders would set up a hierarchical system with themselves at the top and the natives on the bottom (Strayer 632 – 33). And even the cultures of these “perfect” societies were not destroyed, they would live on merely as a shadow of what they formerly were, having to bow down to a highly unjust hierarchical system and to the global need for wealth, status, and power. Having been exposed now to greed, massive bloodshed, inequality, poverty, and so on, the people from these utopias would have to adapt because there is little chance that a peaceful society can exist openly with one that relies on power and violence.
In the end, it seems that while Utopia and Eldorado bear many resemblances, the two lands still hold a few slightly varying values. Utopia is largely defined by its efforts in humility, modesty, and equality. On the other hand, Eldorado is marked by its hospitality and religious equality. Even though both civilizations would suffer with the violent integration of more realistic societies, Eldorado reflects slightly less utopian ideals as the people have already begun to show small acts of pride and a ranking system based on wealth and class. However, both places still exhibit conditions which are far more favorable than the ones present when Utopia and Candide were written. And in spite of everything, Candide and Cacambo still decide to leave Eldorado. Candide reasons that:
If we stay on here, we’ll simply be the same as everyone else, whereas if we return to Europe with even a mere dozen sheep loaded up with Eldorado pebbles, then we’ll be richer than all the kings put together, we’ll have no more inquisitors to worry about, and we’ll easily be able to get Miss Cunégone back.” (Voltaire 47).
One could easily deduce that it was simply out of pride that the two chose to return to the normal world. The money from Eldorado would give the two travelers power and authority over the people who might try to threaten them. Wealth, however, isn’t just about getting ahead in society or making one’s way into a higher class. For those who are poor and suffering, wealth is a means of improving their circumstances. And yes, while living in Eldorado, Candide’s and Cacambo’s circumstances were quite fair. But staying there wasn’t going to get them anywhere else. They were perfectly content. But humans have an innate desire to seek improvement. In a world that is relatively perfect, there is no way to improve, and so for Candide and Cacambo, it was better to leave, not necessarily so they could be wealthy, but to prove to themselves that they were capable of doing better and to do so with the people they cared about most. Of course, as a satire, the ending of Voltaire’s Candide was amusingly mediocre.
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