Enlightened Absolutism and the Value of Voltaire’s “Tending One’s Own Garden” Metaphor in Candide
Familiarizing oneself with philosophical ideas of 18th century Europe means understanding the ways in which writers during this time dealt with the unique philosophical problems – social, political, scientific and religious – of the Enlightenment period. In the writings of Voltaire, one of the most vocal and adamant reformist philosophers of the Enlightenment era, the story of Candide stands out as emblematic of changes to philosophy, unique to the 18th century. Published in 1759, Candide belongs to the format of the philosophical novel. In it, Voltaire parodies the gradual disillusionment of the main character, Candide, who signifies an emerging rejection of optimism – notable in the work of Leibniz – in a quickly moving plot that trace’s the main characters struggle with events, such as the Seven Years War, as well as natural disasters, like the devastating earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755. It also deals head on with what is known in philosophical discourse as “the problem of evil,” developed well before the Enlightenment, by religious scholars and theologians such as Augustine, which positions Atheism as a plausible explanation for the qualitative existence of evil in the world.
In terms of politics, the character of the Honest Turk, who leads a mundane and dedicated life of simple work, represents both the work ethic and class position of many philosophers of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire. Yet, even if we have ulterior reasons for pursuing an active political or luxurious life, the Honest Turk in Candide is right, that the most satisfying life is simple and apolitical. Despite the forewarning of Voltaire’s Honest Turk, we are obligated to seek political change – to make an earnest attempt at progress. The Honest Turk is a displaced former Turkish sultan, Achmet III, who Candide first encounters in chapter 26. As a former sultan, his humble work ethic appears somewhat surprising to the reader. Arguably, Voltaire uses him to both lend satire to the notions of monarchy, aristocracy and the nepotism of 18th century social and political life. According to Dorina Outram, state control in Europe by the 18th century had centralized under several key monarchies – Louis XIV’s reign in France; Frederick the Great in Prussia; and the Habsburgs and Bourbon’s in Spain. With the emergence of Enlightenment thinking, Voltaire and others like Denis Diderot and Baron Montesquieu, became very distasteful of everything they represented: cronyism, nepotism, meritless and ultimately, worthy of overthrow by democracy, transforming states into beacons of politically and socially liberal ideas of self-determination, rather than monarchist rule. Furthermore, the Honest Turk represents a character whose values, self-worth and humility represent everything these Enlightenment philosophers’ thought possible, with regard to social and political transformation. If, as the Honest Turk embodied, monarchies could give way to systemic changes, based on modern liberal ideals of democracy, then society as a whole, would be qualitatively better off.
When Voltaire introduces the Honest Turk, he does so with satire. Meeting the Honest Turk at the Carnival in Venice, the humble man reveals how he met unfortunate circumstances. After he relays his story, several others around him repeat it nearly verbatim with the same concluding sentence: “I come to spend the carnival at Venice” (Voltaire, 1960, p. 84). In the company of several satirical monarchs (two from Poland, one from England and one from Corsica), they listen to the Honest Turk as he describes his outlandish story and mock him through their satire. Yet, the Honest Turk, despite presumably having a vast estate, lives a simple, meagre and virtuous life. Pillars that became central to one of the key concepts developed by Voltaire throughout the book: the cultivation of one’s own garden, symbolizing, in effect, the trustworthiness that comes from hard work and bearing the fruits of one’s own labour and surplus adulterated by nepotism and inheritance. During a conversation with Candide, the Honest Turk responds that he lives an honest life free of vice. “I have no more than twenty acres of ground, the whole of which I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and our labor keeps off from us three great evils—idleness, vice, and want” (Voltaire, 1960, p. 90). Later, when Candide is returning home with Pangloss and Martin, he comments on truism within this way of thinking emblematic of the Honest Turk’s life as philosophically just. “This good old man,” Candide remarks, “appears to me to have chosen for himself a lot much preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honor to sup”, And “that we must take care of our garden”, an apt metaphor that sits in for value of hard work, regardless of political orientation, social standing or class. The idea that hard work, merit and dedication is apolitical may seem straightforward enough to the contemporary reader, but during the 18th century and the Enlightenment, this would have been a radical idea.
The entire social and political fabric of Europe, prior to the 18th century, was built along lines of familial and papal dynasties. Religion and monarchy went hand in hand. Those who ruled Europe did so knowing that it was through a patchwork of alliances and inter-marriages that kept the large aristocracy in check and the idea that one could rise through the ranks, simply based on merit, was very difficult to attain in any practical sense. However, the idea that hard work and honesty factored into merit was not something that most monarchs in Europe were willing to accept, until the wave of political upheavals in Europe began overthrowing centuries of established political dynasties, beginning in France. That idea that hard work and honesty is apolitical is also somewhat problematic, however, because it ignores the fact that the Enlightenment thought, developed by Voltaire and others was steadfastly against aristocratic rule, despite the fact that what emerged was a form of Enlightenment that allowed monarchies to nevertheless remain in power, will fostering an environment of free speech, increased social and political tolerance and the right to private property. The principal inspiration behind Enlightened monarchies – like that fostered by Catherine the Great – was nothing short of a watered-down version of what the Honest Turk embodied. Though in some respects, administrations were changed. Financial systems of property allowed to develop amongst the middle class, there was still far from the total abolishment of serfdom across Europe and what monarchies did instead, was to channel the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers into existing aristocratic political frameworks. The ideas seemingly espoused by the Honest Turk, relayed by Candide, of tending to one’s own garden seem, at least on the surface, to mirror the appropriation of Enlightenment thinking by monarchs to their own ends. This would suggest that while it may seem apolitical to dedicate oneself to toiling away on a simple, hardworking level, that ultimately even in this act there is a willful ignorance here that is certainly far from indifferent towards politics. Instead, it seems what Voltaire is saying is that we are all responsible for manifesting out our own political utopias, which in a sense mirrors the individual’s ideas of liberty and freedom espoused by most Enlightenment thinkers (even the so-called “Enlightened monarchs” who in turn appropriated their ideas).
One figure who exemplifies the real-life notion of the Enlightened monarch, perhaps more so than any other, is Catherine the Great, who took over the Russian throne in 1762. Catherine the Great not only gave asylum to several Enlightenment thinkers during her over 3-decade long reign, but also was in frequent correspondence with Voltaire through letters where they expressed mutual sympathy with each other. Catherine’s ‘enlightened despotism’ made fanfare with renegade thinkers such as Voltaire, whose pointed criticism of the French monarchy, their greed and corruption, found a sympathetic ear in Catherine, whose rule over a barely modernized Russia prompted her to enact, reforms designed at integrating with an Enlightened Europe, a top priority. In turn, many of her qualities are arguably present in the Honest Turk: someone who is reformist, willing to accept change and modification of social and political systems, free from religious doctrine, open, inclusive, hardworking and dedicated, qualities which certainly Voltaire saw in Catherine as well.
In crafting the Honest Turk in such a way so as to create a sense of merit and value in small, mundane and even menial tasks required to “cultivate one’s own garden,” Voltaire seems to privilege a form of Enlightened absolutism that others such as Catherine the Great took up with keen interest. As such, the Honest Turk is someone who does not evade his past, his inheritance, or his fortune, but rather is someone who sees value in the merit, bounty and freedom of hard work on a personal and individual level. Thus, it was through satire that Voltaire was able to release and expand upon these philosophical ideas – central to the Enlightenment – that hard work was not exactly an apolitical gesture, but to the contrary that self-fulfillment and attainment make for earnest changes at the political level. For when one is able to make changes unto oneself, the personal becomes political.
References: Voltaire. (2005). Candide. Simon and Schuster.
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