Book written by Voltaire
Poor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz! I know, I know- you were thinking the same thing just the other day! He gets ripped off on the credit for inventing calculus, which he did all by himself. Then, it turned out that Isaac Newton had come up with calculus at the same time all by himself. And it was just easier to tell stories about Newton and that apple falling from the tree and, by the way, this guy who “invented” gravity also invented calculus, leaving Leibniz out of all future discussions (not really, but we do not do well giving credit for inventions to more than one person, which is pretty lame).
Moreover, Leibniz is a philosopher, an area that thoroughly overlapped with mathematics and science in those days. So, he goes and explicates this idea that our world must be the best of all possible worlds because it was created by an all-knowing and all-powerful God. At least he gets credit for that one: Leibnizian optimism.
In the other corner, we have Voltaire, that bon vivant of French life, who spent most of his life away from French life. I think it must be easy to envision anyone who attacks Leibnizian optimism as someone who retorts to a greeting of “Good morning!” with a “What’s so good about it?”, but that is rather far from the truth. Reportedly, Voltaire could not stomach the idea that any all-powerful being would inflict natural disasters on humanity and take so many innocent lives.
The book takes the form of a journey with various adventures along the way ending with a homecoming, much like the Odyssey. After Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels, a reader really has to wonder when those early fiction writers were going to discover some new plot devices. For me, the humor with which these authors embued their work speaks to a certain universal acknowledgement of the folly of trying to place a structure on our journey through life. An Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Spaniard sit down to write a book and cannot help but chuckle to themselves.
Of course, Candide is Voltaire at his best, so we are not talking about some dreary diatribe or any easy answers. (Voltaire at his worst, struggled with prejudices that he recognized in himself as well as a few he felt were justified.) A lot of words have been written about Voltaire’s insistence on not providing a clear alternative to Leibnizian optimism, which makes me wonder about the larger artistic question. Other than because we like closure at the end of a story, how much does an artist owe the audience? Are you only allowed to create art that asks questions as long as you provide answers also? Maybe the artist will come across as whiny and be open to criticism for poor work, but that hardly seems the case with Candide. The real accomplishment here is the admonishment to seek life’s answers in our own experiences and not in paths that are well-trodden. Being told to think for ourselves is never really a wrong answer for an artist.
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