The Panglossian dilemma

“Candide” by Voltaire

This is an insanely rich story plot that includes many characters and adventures, in multiple countries across 3 continents, including one secret road to a hidden fabled city. It involves love, murder, chase scenes, perilous sea journeys and even a canibalistic tribe, and exposes the contrast between comfort and discomfort, riches and bankruptcy, freedom and slavery, beauty and ugliness, about trust from a stranger and betrayal by the most unexpected, and colourful friendships and enemies made along the journey.

It is a story set in a chaotic world filled with civil and religious wars, blatant prejudice, racism, slavery, despotic rulers, plague, sexual diseases, cruel capital punishment of innocent victims, just like it was in 1759 when the book was written. And the best part is? It is less than 180 pages, although I swear it feels much longer due to the magnanimity of the story. It’s astonishing how Voltaire could possibly wrote all of this in just 3 days.

With the attempt of not spoiling too much of the narrative, let me just say that the plot begins with a calm and friendly environment just like the situation with the Starks at the first episode of the Game of Thrones. The plot then progressed into a wild mix of Les Miserables + Around the World in 80 Days, with one distinctive philosophical question that has since entered the English language dictionary: Panglossian.

Pangloss was a mentor for Candide, and he taught Candide that he lived in “the best of all possible worlds,” and that “since everything is made for an end, everything is necessary for the best end.” But then the tremendously rich life journey that Candide eventually had, prove otherwise. That people are cruel and life is not fair, that the world was “very mad and very abominable”, according to an anti-Panglossian character named Martin (an eternally pessimistic person). And slowly but sure Candide begins to question Pangloss’ naive optimistic view on life, where he eventually said “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.”

But is it really naive? Over the development of the story we witness the philosophical interpretation about the nature of suffering, where Pangloss himself argued that all unfortunate events eventually led to somewhere more desirable and thus the suffering is a crucial stepping stone towards something more optimistic, a strength that can only be obtained through overcoming obstacles. Moreover, as the book makes it painfully obvious, it was not blind optimism but his naive judgements towards people’s intentions that led Candide into troubles. And so, being optimistic is one thing but risk management is another one, and we cannot blame optimism for the sorrow that comes from our poor risk management.

This, obviously, is not a definitive interpretation and this “Panglossian Dilemma” is what makes this book one of the most influential contributors to the Age of Enlightenment in France. It forces us to think and it is still open for a debate even today some 200+ years later.

And the conclusion that I get from what Voltaire is trying to say in this book is that we cannot be happy – even if we’re literally living in a paradise with all the riches – if we cannot spend it with the ones we love. All the luxuries and the beauty that we own will mean nothing if we can’t appreciate it, in fact it could become a burden of misery to us (just like the senator in Venice). And perhaps more importantly, in real life there is no distinctive black and white, as even a kind good natured person can kill few people under precarious circumstances, or we can still choose to be kind despite the awful things that happened to us (like the old lady).

Indeed, people are incapable of fully understanding the evil in this world and life can be cruel, but at the same time we also tend to forget that suffering is optional and temporary. So, in the end our happiness or misery really depends on our outlook in life: we can still able to be an eternal optimist even under the worst possible circumstances, or we can be miserable even when surrounded by all the goodness life has to offer. And all of these deep philosophical thoughts are illustrated in the most imaginative way possible by Voltaire. Incredible, incredible book.