Ignorance: Far from Bliss
Violence and other cruelties are such a large part of the world that they can never be fully rooted out, no matter how hard the effort is to remove them. A common coping mechanism of handling the tragedies of everyday life is to ignore or to attempt to conjure a “bright side” of the situation. In Voltaire’s Candide, the main character’s faith in the philosophy optimism is shaken. With the struggles of the novel, Voltaire most strongly denounces blind, philosophical optimism through the use of hyperbole, litotes, and symbolism.
This blind, philosophical optimism can best be described as believing that everything is alright and refusing to believe that the universe would not allow for suffering if it were not for some better outcome. Voltaire heavily satirizes this concept through the use of exaggeration, or hyperbole, with Candide, the main character, and his favorite philosopher, Pangloss, as advocates for the fact that they live in “the best of all possible worlds” (15). With the tragedies that occur, this claim is a purposeful overstatement used to mock the optimism by attempting to bring cruel, satiric humor to such a description in order to bring attention to the lunacy of it. It is for that reason that Voltaire describes everything as the best it can be, such as describing Candide as “the gentlest of characters” (15) and the baron’s castle as “the most magnificent of castles” (22). This use of hyperbole illustrates the perspective of the optimists, yet it also serves the purpose of showing that optimism makes one foolishly restricted in their views because it proves these characters’ ignorance of the world outside of their homes. The overstatement of small details effectively argue the logic of optimism because it brings attention to a strange perspective of life.
Not only does Voltaire utilize overstatement, but he also makes use of its antithesis: understatement, or litote. With the twisted perspective of straight-forward philosophical optimism, while small, unimportant details are exaggerated, the important, impacting ones are abridged or are merely passed off as “daily occurrences.” For example, after the account of all the horrors that happened to the old woman in her past, Candide states, “‘It is a great pity… that the sage Pangloss was hanged contrary to custom at an auto-da-fé; he would tell us most amazing things in regard to the physical and moral evils that overspread earth and sea…” (46). Rather than expressing concern or sympathy for the old woman’s tragic past, Candide overlooks it and does not dwell on the horrible nature of the events, understating them, by expressing that it is even more so a pity that Pangloss is not there with them to express his thought on how yet, they live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Even when the tragic event is happening directly to Candide, like when he is about to be eaten by the Oreillons, he says, in the same manner, “‘We are certainly going to be either roasted or boiled. Ah, what would Dr. Pangloss say if he saw what pure nature is like? All is well, I won’t argue about it; but I must admit it’s a cruel fate to have lost Lady Cunegonde and then roasted on a spit by Oreillons’” (56). These understatements are vital to illustrating the idiocy of philosophical optimism because the true horror of these events are merely being accepted without a fight.
From overstatement to understatement, Voltaire denounces the optimism that Candide and Pangloss actively attempt to run their lives by, and, to fully denounce it once and for all, he uses symbolism. At the end of the novel, after trials and trials of attempting to break Candide’s faith in optimism once and for all, Candide finally releases his relentless hold on the philosophy, responding to Pangloss’s reiteration of the same notion that they live in “the best of all possible worlds” with, “‘I also know… that we must cultivate our garden” (113). This “garden” is symbolic of life, meaning that each person has control of their “garden,” rather than it being governed by the notion of always wishing for the best possible outcome, as optimism also implies. Finally, Candide has rid himself of blind optimism, and Voltaire uses the symbol of the garden to represent that there are better ways and more reasonable ways to live life. These ways are in the characters’ powers, meaning that “cultivating a garden” is within their skills of what they can accomplish. Unlike how philosophical optimism encourages “reaching for the stars,” Candide ultimately realizes that optimism is “…a mania for insisting that everything is all right when everything is going wrong” (69). His notion to “cultivate our garden” is his final acceptance of blind, philosophical optimism’s foolishness. Voltaire’s use of this symbol is the last way that he denounces optimism by providing a better outlook on life than the one optimism provides.
In all, Voltaire effectively targets optimism as the main core detail in Candide with almost subtle literary devices. While the overstatements, or hyperbole, not only bring humor but, more importantly attention, to the twisted perspective of optimism, the understatements, or litotes, also bring attention to it as well as more forcibly emphasizing how ridiculous it is to overlook such drastic and tragic events for the sake of the philosophy. The symbolism of the garden is Voltaire’s last way of showing the flaws in optimism because it gives definitive ways of living life, rather than a way consisting of constant unknowing but wishfulness that usually results in more tragedy. Instead of pretending it does not occur, Voltaire advocates that accepting and working with the violence and cruelties of the world is more effective than optimism.
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