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“Candide” by Voltaire

All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Or is it? In this 1759 philosophical fable, French author Voltaire examines the theory of Optimism and finds it wanting. At just 85 pages this is one of the shorter books on the 501 List, although my edition included a few other stories by Voltaire which I also enjoyed.

The tale follows a young man called Candide on a variety of adventures around the world, including a stop in an utopian Eldorado. As he learns about the world and the people in it, he is educated and enlightened about what really matters in life. The tale was placed on the list of banned books by the Vatican in 1762 and Voltaire kept no manuscript copies or mentions of the story in his journal and letters so that he could avoid arrest. I was expecting a scandalous tale.

Of course what was scandalous in the past isn’t always so in the present. But I’m not surprised he rattled a few cages as the increasing desperate straits of Candide’s fall from life in a castle to slavery, conscription, shipwreck etc illustrate a clear satire on philosophical systems in general, and optimism in particular. Having read Jean Jacques Rosseau (an enemy of Voltaire’s) elsewhere on the 501 list I can see that the 1700s French took their philosophical arguments very seriously indeed. His criticisms of various clergymen in the story won’t have made him popular in the Vatican and his criticism of the aristocracy won’t have won him any friends either.

Although this book is 250 years old, it still has plenty to say that applies to modern life and should be on the must-read-list of any student of philosophy. As for the rest of us, well it’s short and rather funny in places.¬† I’m happy to recommend it as an entertaining and though-provoking read.

(read December 2012)

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