Candide: Crash Course Literature #405

Hello and welcome to Crash Course literature,
the best of all possible Crash Courses, discussing the best of all possible novels here on the
best of all possible sets. I am the best of all possible John Greens—which
is saying something, because there are a lot of us. Today we’re discussing “Candide, or Optimism”
a work of fiction by the Enlightenment philosopher François-Marie Arouet, who went by the name
Voltaire, because wouldn’t you if you could pull off the one name thing? I’m feeling incredibly optimistic about
today’s video. So, let’s get started! [Intro]
So, Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694. His dad wanted him to be a lawyer. Voltaire wanted to be a writer. and not for
the last time, Voltaire won the argument. And Voltaire wrote a lot. Like, hundreds and hundreds of books and pamphlets
a lot. And okay, pamphlets are very short books,
but still. He wrote essays and poems and dramas. Much of it pretty satirical. He had a hilarious verse, for instance, accusing
the King’s Regent of incest with his own daughter, which landed Voltaire in the Bastille
prison for nearly a year.. Voltaire was big on two beliefs: Empiricism
and Religious Tolerance. Empiricism is the argument that knowledge
of the world is discovered through experience and evidence as opposed to philosophical speculation. And religious tolerance should be self-explanatory. Although it was not self-explanatory in 18th
Century France. Voltaire himself subscribed to the religion
of Deism: The belief that God is a clockmaker who set the world in motion and then stood
back to watch it tick. So, before we get into the philosophical context
and themes of “Candide,” which was written 1759 and published anonymously, because, you
know, Voltaire didn’t want to go back to the Bastille, let’s review the story in
the Thoughtbubble. When the book begins, Candide, a naïve young
man, is living an easy life on his uncle’s estate with his cousin Cunegonde, whose name
is sort of a dirty joke that we really can’t get into, and his tutor Dr. Pangloss, who
insists that Candide is enjoying the best of all possible worlds. When Cunegonde catches her chambermaid scoodilypooping
with Pangloss, she decides to kiss Candide, and that gets Candide kicked off of the estate,
forced into military service, beaten and nearly killed. Best of all possible worlds? (1) Then Candide escapes the army and is helped
by a nice heretic named James. On the street, he sees a poor victim of syphilis
with half his nose missing, and turns out, it’s Pangloss! Pangloss tells him that the army overran the
uncle’s estate and killed everyone. (2) Then he and Candide and James go to Lisbon
where James drowns, and then an earthquake hits. During the ensuing devastation, Candide and
Pangloss are arrested as heretics and Pangloss is hanged. But Candide escapes and meets up with Cunegonde,
who’s alive and the mistress to both a rich Jewish merchant and a Catholic inquisitor. Candide kills both the men and he and Cunegonde
escape. But then they separate, and Candide makes
his way to Buenos Aires and eventually to El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, and then
eventually, he makes his way to Constantinople, where he meets Cunegonde again, who unfortunately
is now ugly. In Voltaire’s world, there is seemingly
nothing worse. And everyone is pretty unhappy by this point
in the best of all possible worlds, until Candide and Cunegonde realize that maybe the
best thing to do is just farm the land they have. Candide says, “We must go and work in the
garden.” And then the weeding begins. Thanks, Thoughtbubble. It’s a lot of plot. Voltaire–never short on the plot. Lots of sex and travel and murder and not
murder. There are some reasons for all of this. So, Candide is an episodic novel, just like
it sounds, a form based on one episode after another. It’s also in some ways a picaresque novel,
which is a collection of adventures undertaken by a wily hero or heroine, although at the
same time, it’s kind of an anti-picaresque novel, because as you may have noticed, Candide
is not terribly wily, and also it ends not with an ongoing adventure but with gardening. Candide is also a version of a bildungsroman,
a term we’ve mentioned before, which is a novel of a young person’s education. Although we could debate how much Candide
actually learns. A big part of Voltaire’s satire involves
adopting these forms that he’s trying to mock, then turning them inside out. to that point, “Candide” is also an Enlightenment
novel that’s deeply critical of a lot of Enlightenment philosophy. It’s a parody of the classic romance—boy
meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, but now she’s been disemboweled.
also, they probably don’t live happily ever after. So how seriously should we take this book? Is it just a series of potty-humor parodies,
or is it a real intellectual inquiry? Well, I would argue it’s both, just like
the Captain Underpants movie. I mean, the book is definitely funny and extremely
rude. When it was first published, it was banned
in a bunch of countries because of the ways it mocked politics and religion. Even people who didn’t want it banned thought
that its humor was too dark. and that’s certainly one justifiable way
to read the book. But I think there’s more going on here than
just jokes about disembowelment. Oh, it’s time for the open letter? An open letter to disembowelment. Oh, but first let’s see what’s in the
secret compartment today. OH! Look at that. It’s a guillotine! Dear Disembowelment,
I’ve done a fair amount of reading on 18th century methods of French execution,
and wow, does it seem very close to the worst of all possible worlds when it comes to criminal
justice. Torture, was the rule, not the exception. Execution was a common punishment for all
kinds of different crimes, and you were lucky if you got hanged or beheaded. Because you could get burned alive, or disemboweled,
or both. By comparison, the guillotine seemed humane. In fact, it was designed to be humane. In short, disembowelment, when it comes to
you, I’m with Voltaire. I just don’t think you have any role to
play in the best of all possible worlds. Worst wishes, John Green. OK, so at the heart of all that rudeness,
is a big question. How do we understand evil in the world, and
What are we gonna do about it? Difficult questions, and also among the oldest
and most important for religion and for literature. And even though Voltaire was very smart and
deeply opinionated, he doesn’t pretend to have an answer, but he does want to negate
what he sees as bad answers. “Candide” is a direct response to Gottfried
Wilhelm Leibniz’s “philosophical optimism,” a strand of philosophy arguing that since
god is good everything must be for the best in this “the best of all possible words.” And this was a very common philosophical understanding
at the time, even though, you know, it seems a little bit ludicrous to us. I mean, the great thing about philosophical
optimism is that it solved the problem of what scholars of religious traditions call
theodicy–the problem of evil in a world that is ostensibly overseen by an all-powerful
and all-knowing god. Pangloss’s teachings are straight-up Leibniz. Pangloss’s name, by the way, literally means
“all talk.” This optimistic determinism was a big problem
for Voltaire so he makes it a problem for Candide, too. Quick pause for a bit of history: In 1755
there was an enormous earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, followed by a tsunami, followed
by a fire. The disasters killed an estimated 60,000 people,
nearly a third of the city. Voltaire of course used this in “Candide.” He also wrote about it in a poem called “Poem
on the Lisbon Disaster,” because Voltaire wasn’t the best at titles. He subtitled the poem, “An Inquiry into
the Axiom ‘All Is Well.’” And it’s clear that for Voltaire the earthquake
was really good evidence that Leibniz’s theory was deeply flawed. The poem reads:
“All is well,” you say, “and all is necessary.” What! Do you think this universe would be worse
Without the pit that swallowed Lisbon? And in the novel, Candide experiences similar
disillusionment, part of it in Lisbon. But good old Pangloss, half-dead from syphilis,
is still arguing that his syphilis is part of the best of all possible worlds. Christopher Columbus after all brought syphilis
a New World disease back to Europe. And Pangloss argues that if Columbus hadn’t
gone to the new world, and caught this disease, “which poisons the source of generations,”
we wouldn’t have chocolate, a New World food. Now I like chocolate. I also like lot’s of other New World foods,
like tomatoes, and corn and peppers and so on. But I don’t think any of that justifies
the horrible parts of the Columbian Exchange, and syphilis is just one of many. Voltaire proves this point, that we don’t
seem to be living in the best of all possible worlds, over and over in the novel, arguably
too often. He probably makes it most explicit when, one
of the novel’s few really good characters, James, drowns saving a terrible person. And yet I don’t think that Voltaire is arguing
for mere pessimism. Like, the old woman, a companion of Cunegonde’s
tells a really harrowing life story, which climaxes with one of her buttocks being cut
off. Because of course it does. But she ends it: “I have wanted to kill
myself 100 times, but somehow I am still in love with life.” Now, she goes on to call this desire to live
a “ridiculous weakness” and compares loving life to “fondling a snake that devours us,”
but still, the novel acknowledges and embraces that humans love life. And it also acknowledges that there’s plenty
to love about life, like candied fruit. And pistachio nuts. Just don’t get carried away thinking that
you’re in a full-on benevolent universe or anything. Tangentially related, Voltaire did not believe,
like the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau did, that the real source of the problems
is modern society. We know this because when Candide escapes
to the new world, things are still quite non-ideal, what with all the cannibalism and syphilis. And it’s worth mentioning that Voltaire
is anything but enlightened when it comes to his imagining of the new world. Voltaire’s racism and misogyny might reflect
his times, but his pseudoscientific justifications for them are worth noting in our times. So the final jab at the “best of all possible
worlds” thing comes late in the novel, when Voltaire takes us to El Dorado, the famed
city of gold, where the streets are lined with jewels. No one is hungry, no one is poor, no one is
oppressed. The king is nice to everyone and the enlightened
citizens just love philosophy and science. And guess what? It’s extremely boring. Candide can’t wait to leave. This novel is so dystopian even the utopia
sucks. At the end of the book, Candide is miraculously
reunited with all of his friends and together they buy a little farm. But again, they are very bored. They go visit a famous wise man in the hopes
that he can explain the meaning of life to them, but he slams the door in their faces. And then, on the way back, they meet a farmer
who seems happy enough and his daughters make everyone sherbet drinks. And then drinking their sherbet, Candide realizes
that he should go back to his farm and try to make it prosper and maybe not worry about
philosophy so much. And then comes the famous last line “We
should go and work in our garden,” or possibly, depending on your translation, “Let us go
and cultivate our garden.” It’s the “our garden” that’s the important
part. Like we should stop worrying about everyone
else’s garden. And I guess that seems sensible enough. A lot of people would probably feel better
if instead of worrying themselves sick about the problem of evil in their lives, and in
other people’s lives, they just grew some tomatoes and worked on their embroidery. But as a conclusion to this particular novel,
it does seem weirdly conservative? I mean, the ending is a return to a garden. What’s more Biblical than that? And there’s also this selfishness to that
choice. Our garden. I mean there is a huge earthquake in the novel,
but most of the suffering is inflicted not by a higher power but by humans upon one another. These humans rape and kill and disembowel
each other, and growing tomatoes may be a way of personally opting out of those social
problems, but I’m not convinced it does much to fix them. I guess Voltaire thinks those problems are
unfixable, and that people will be evil no matter what, but should we succumb to that
pessimism or should we try to work to change and improve this not-yet-best-of-all-possible-worlds? Is it enough to tend your own garden, or do
we have a responsibility to help our neighbors tend their gardens as well? I don’t know. But, I do think we should at least share our
vegetables. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next time.

48 thoughts on “Candide: Crash Course Literature #405

  1. I think Richard Taylor pointed out that there are 2 kinds of evil: natural evil and human evil. Human evil is explained by free will. Natural evil is explained by the laws of physics and biology. He then argued that without the laws of biology and physics, we would have a worse world, but as a result, car accidents and earthquakes happen.

  2. He left el Dorado because he wanted to see his beloved. He complains many times that he should have stayed, in the that, the best of all worlds! You guys messed up there! Or just you.

  3. Great video, on one of my all time favorite books of all time!

    Just one thing to expand on, which understandably isn't included in this video, as it's not literary per say.
    Deism doesn't subscribe to the clockmaker analogy necessarily, I feel it leans too heavily on determinism for Voltaire perhaps.

    The other 'mechanisms' that describe deism are perhaps better for insight into Voltaire's thoughts.
    Especially given the duality of someone who thinks empirically and yet believes in a deity.
    Keeping in mind that realism is in direct opposition to mysticism.

    The demiurge is one, wherein the mass collective of consciousness is what forms the nature of God. In the sense that God is the universe, or to retranslate back into our monotheistic interpretation 'God is everywhere, in everything and everyone'.
    In a more typically scientific metaphor; we are more akin to the cells that form the being we call God.

    Likewise, in Daoism there is a great focus on balance, where in said God acts as an 'invisible hand' to maintain a kind of existential equilibrium. An estranged example of this is 'we will be rid of politicians when we no longer need them' or 'if there are too much prey, the predators population will grow. If the predators population grows, the number of prey shrinks. The predators population declines'.

    I think deism focuses on God as more of an abstraction than an entity, and more a metaphor for the nature of existence.
    The nature of our internalised reality depends heavily on our perceptions, to which end we can describe everything as 'happening for a reason'. This doesn't mean that God decided this is how he wants things, no, it means we can perceive these events to have meaning, which better allows us to accept them. In a sense; optimism. Haha.
    We may not have free will, but I bet Voltaire knew much of volition.

    Perhaps I've given someone insight into the nuances of deism, or perhaps I'm simply just mad.
    Either way, great video!

  4. I like to think that cultivate our garden offers an alternative to Eden, the idea that one can better the earth rather than simply accept that this is as good as it gets. The idea of let us not accept that we have been excluded from paradise nor that we must find paradise but that we should build paradise.

  5. 10.00 "meet a famous wise man so that he can explain the meaning of life to them but he slams the door in their faces" – Fault in our stars reference??- Hazel and Gus go to visit the author of An imperial affliction but he doesn't give them any answers.

  6. Your ending seems weak. If Much of the evil in the work comes from people trying to till other peoples gardens ( saving heathens etc.) then it makes sense that you must tend to your own garden. Also realistically the Only actions you control are your own. that does not mean you cannot address social issues but you need to have your own garden well weeded first and be honest as to why you are 'helping'.

  7. Trust me the real meaning of Life is to " Love God with all our heart mind and soul and to love our Neighbours as ourself"…nothing more nothing less.

  8. Cunegonde does not contribute to the conclusion "We must cultivate our garden." She's a catalyst because she's absolutely terrible and cheats on Candide left and right, but she does absolutely no reasoning in the novel beyond "I can make out better here than with Candide". Martin is way more important than Candide.

  9. wow – Candide is one of the best of all possible literary works and has been celebrated through the centuries (just ask Kurt Vonnegut what he thinks of it!), but John Green is just 'meh' about that pesky lesson Voltaire was trying to teach us. lolz

  10. I had a totally different interpretation and the video missed my favorite part.
    My understanding was a critique of two pre-enlightenment ideas 1 – Everything happens for a reason and has it should be 2- leaders are worthy and people should live for the glory of their country, religion or identity.
    Voltaire or Candide's Statement that "we must take care of our garden" is to ignore those nationalist and religions philosophies and identities and take care of what is important. Garden means the real world, the one we live in.
    My favorite part was the meeting of former leaders gathered in a meeting all going through misery, showing that their former positions were purely arbitrary and meant nothing.

  11. Candide made that crazy long journey to meet Cungeon only to find her unfortunately now ugly. I literally lmao at hearing Cunegon who is now ugly, ok so why did she become ugly?

  12. WHEN ONE
    overture riff

  13. It’s a metaphorical garden. He is saying that the best of all possible worlds is our own, not the one we share with others. It is a dangerous act intellectually to take an allegory literally, one must merely look towards religion for a practical example on this. People commonly enjoy discussing how the world might be better if others change, how rare are those who are willing instead to remain silent and observe themselves and how they involved themselves upon what others do to instill their personal outlooks. Overall, one must be careful with these sorts of videos attempting to condense something that was meant to be read in its entirety. Perhaps we should support our loyal publishers who spend their valuable time making sure we have this literature at our disposals there than sitting down and watching a 15 min video after which we can say we think we know everything about a piece of philosophy to provoke others as dinner conversation.

  14. syphilis wasn't taken from the new world, it was genetically traced to have come from Africa, then it travelled to Europe, never had a name and spreaded due to massive rapes that happened in America to other Europeans

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