François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was an author, philosopher, and provocateur extraordinaire. Rooted in a fervent belief in freedom of thought, he repeatedly broached subjects deemed forbidden by authority, and became the living embodiment of secular Enlightenment values. Candide was the novella that earned him his eternal infamy. The scorn he directed at the Catholic Church would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, but other aspects of the novel would arguably be just as, if not more scandalous now if he attempted to publish it today. In addition to its brutal depictions of rape and violence, Candide is a vicious satire of Leibniz’ philosophy of optimism. It’s filled to the brim with barbed criticisms of religious leaders, military culture and government officials, but delivered under the breezy veneer of a simple romantic adventure.
With Candide, Voltaire set out to skewer what he perceived to be the false piety and facile moralizing of the institutions and authorities of his day. He was one of the original trolls of Western civilization who canonized a spirit of irreverence that’s found throughout the ages in the works of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Lenny Bruce, and presently, Milo Yiannopolous. Though Milo is routinely compared to Voltaire, I believe this comparison to be only partially true. Voltaire’s provocations are analogous to Milo’s in the sense that he offended prevailing sensitivities, but the targets of his ridicule, specifically his barbs directed at Jesuits and Christianity, feel like Maheresque precursors of the now shopworn clichés of atheists and the Left.
Though superficially a bildungsroman, the ultimate object of Voltaire’s ridicule was Leibniz’ Theodicy which was expressed through Candide’s mentor, Pangloss. “This is the best of all possible worlds,” Pangloss tells Candide from the luxurious confines of Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh in the kingdom of Westphalia. After being banished from the castle for getting a little too hot and heavy with the Duke’s niece, Cunégonde, Candide is beset by one misfortune after another as he traverses through Europe and the New World. Candide finds the naïvete of his wordview repeatedly challenged as he tries to reconcile the message of his mentor with the cruel reality of life outside castle walls.
Though he was a professed deist, the religious dogma, fanaticism, and hypocrisy of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all sent to Voltaire’s literary guillotine throughout the book. Candide leaves no religious cow un-slaughtered.
Candide translates to “optimism”, and above all else, Voltaire sought to poke Leibniz’ vision of optimism squarely in the eye. Voltaire saw this philosophy as hopelessly naïve and an inadequate lens through which to view the horror and depravity of the world. One can certainly appreciate that this work was deeply transgressive in its day, but Voltaire’s critique feels like little more than a petty gripe rooted in a failure to grasp the essence of Leibniz’ message. Of course the world is filled with depravity, suffering and hardship. These phenomena exist because they test the faithful. Rather than being an excuse to engage in self-deception through recitations of vacant aphorisms, I suspect Leibniz promoted this philosophy as a way of embracing the totality of life, good and bad. It’s far more challenging to find reasons to be hopeful about humanity when you’ve seen it at its worst. Can you find a reason to be hopeful after your home has been devastated by an earthquake? Can you find forgiveness and happiness after you’ve been brutally violated? Voltaire eventually resolves this conflict with a very modest aphorism of his own, but he seems to view this philosophy as something shallow, enervating and mind numbing rather than being a lens through which to view even the worst human suffering.
Voltaire is particularly scathing in his treatment of the Jesuits. Upon arrival in South America, Candide and his manservant, Cacambo, avoid being served as the main course in a tribal cannibal feast after calmly explaining to them that neither was, in fact, a Jesuit and that he had just impaled his Jesuit brother. On these grounds alone, Candide and Cacambo are spared this gruesome fate. It’s droll gallows humor, and he’s obviously having a bit of rude fun at the expense of the numerous Jesuit missionaries who ventured to South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, but he also appears to hold that appeals to reason are universal regardless of cultural or language differences. This strikes me as proto-SJW Kumbaya fantasy.
Voltaire’s view of Islam was largely negative, and the one aspect of the story that would most assuredly arouse a shitstorm of scandal to this day would be his portrayal of the Muslims. Candide is eventually reunited with Cunégonde only to discover that she was raped and maimed at the hands of the Bulgars. But just when you think it can’t get any worse, their new companion, the illegitimate daughter The Princess of Palestrina and Pope Urban X, tells her tale of woe. Known only as the old woman, she recounts a blood curdling tale of her rape by a “loathsome Negro”, and her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of the Muslims. Since Islam and the effects of Muslim immigration remain a political third rail, this aspect of the book would easily arouse controversy today if anyone in any academic setting were actually reading it.
But that’s not the only thing that would draw the ire of the contemporary Thought Police. His treatment of Don Isaachar has drawn accusations of antisemitism and that most ghastly of contemporary ThoughtCrimes: RACISM. Don Isaachar is one of Cunégonde’s early captors, and is portrayed as greedy and immoral. I don’t find it particularly antisemitic since it’s not out of the question that Jews like Don Isaachar existed. Voltaire is an equal opportunity offender and he is just as harsh on the Catholic Inquisitor and the Muslims. Besides, like every other manufactured outrage, it doesn’t make sense to judge yesterday’s art against today’s warped standards of Social Justice propriety.
Candide’s arrival in the fabled land of Eldorado certainly suggests that Voltaire was sympathetic towards socialist thought and had utopian notions of his own around how society could look if Enlightenment ideals could be expressed in his ideal monarchy. The citizens of Eldorado have an advanced economy with a dedicated scientific class, public institutions, housing, and art. They have access to precious stones and metals, but they are unmotivated by the accumulation of wealth and give them freely to Candide. In this respect, one detects the unmistakable seeds of proto-progressive economics, scientism and other related doctrines of social reform.
When Candide finally meets the one man who allegedly “has it all”, Signor Pococurante, Voltaire uses it as another opportunity to make fun of another coddled elitist, but it also betrays a certain cynicism towards the philosophical and cultural legacy of the West which now pervades the modern Left. Candide is dumbstruck as Signor Pococurante dispenses one blistering criticism after another towards every art form and philosophical work of importance. Voltaire wants to tear away at what he perceived as a false veil of deference towards these allegedly Great Works, but like his treatment of Leibniz, it feels slightly misplaced. Signor Pococurante sounds like a jaded hipster or academic progressive who listens to NPR, acquired a liberal arts degree, and has very specific, and mostly negative opinions about everything in the cultural sphere. One could take all of Signor Pococurante’s snide remarks, drop in a couple references to bell hooks, Howard Zinn and Judith Butler, and he’d sound just like a garden variety, Tumblr ready, Social Justice Warrior preparing for a career writing for Vox. This cynicism towards the cultural legacy of the West is now the norm. Within the cloistered halls of academia, so-called “educators” openly cultivate an active hostility towards Western thought as the font of all human opression.
Just like the numerous contemporary atheist critics of Christianity who’ve fancied themselves the torchbearers of Voltaire’s flame, Voltaire was a moralist at heart and his literary jabs were designed to expose the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be arbiters of morality. Whether taking shots at the sexual indiscretions of Catholic clergy, the brutality of the Inquisitors or the Jesuits who do not practice the teachings of Christ they preach, Candide rightfully inferred that the ordained guardians of morality should live by the standards they imposed on the laity.
Society needs people like Voltaire in order to shock people out of complacent obedience and expose social taboos to sunlight. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Islamic world needs its own Voltaire in order to ignite a reformation within the Islamic faith. Institutional power, whether state, religious or academic, rarely lives up to its responsibility to uphold the truth or live by the standards it imposes on the public. Yet, people crave the truth, and above all else, crave both a sense of moral certitude and to see hypocrisy exposed. Since the truth often dies within the walls of power, the responsibility to stand up for the truth always redounds to the individual. Humorists and satirists like Voltaire have often been the catalysts of change that puncture the seal of propriety that the self-appointed arbiters of morality have so assiduously tightened.
Voltaire was the court jester of his time who sought to answer ancient moral conundrums by poking fun at what he perceived to be the strictures and limitations of prevailing orthodoxy. Some of Candide still would arouse controversy today, but his overall posture of enlightened contempt towards the conservative attitudes and institutions of his time has become its own orthodoxy of progressive chic. The poles of entrenched thinking have reversed, and what was controversial in its day is blasé today. There’s nothing even remotely transgressive or edgy about ridiculing Christian morality, institutions or the broader legacy of Western philosophy in 2017. Milo draws comparisons to Voltaire today because today’s elites are, in many ways, the intellectual progeny of Voltaire himself. Whatever validity there was in Voltaire’s quest for a secular moral order in its day has devolved into the smug wisecracking of Bill Maher, the proto-neurofascism of Sam Harris, and a postmodern academic hegemony of absolutist relativism. All of whom are eagerly marching towards Gomorrah, but still doggedly cling to the delusion that Eldorado is the final destination.
While Candide may be showing its age, Voltaire’s spirit is evergreen because Puritanism knows no ideology, and people know who the busybodies are. Candide’s message of “tending one’s own garden” is a sufficiently universal ethical and moral principle, but the modern progressive intelligentsia have very specific ideas about what you can plant, how big it can be, and what pronouns you can use while tending it. Russell Brand, Bill Maher and John Oliver may imagine themselves to be the secular dragonslayers of hypocrisy who descend directly from Voltaire’s sacred order, but they’re actually the effete royalists who tacitly defend the new priesthood. Voltaire’s flame burns most brightly in the shitposting of Milo, the trolling of Steven Crowder, the savagery of Bearing and the meme magic of 4Chan. Candide is both of its time and timeless because there will always be priests, politicians, academics and self-appointed behavior cops and thought police who deserve to be exposed, and there’s no better weapon than satire and ridicule.