VOLTAIRE: Ferney: Candide

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 6 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


VI. Ferney: Candide

Lea Délices had been a temporary home, a centre from which Voltaire might prospect to find a shelter of more permanence. He found it in 1758 at Ferney, just inside the Swiss line near France; here he would be secure from the French power, 

and yet near to French refuge if the Swiss Government should trouble him. This last change ended his Wanderjahre. His fitful runnings to and fro had not been all the result of nervous restlessness; they had reflected, too, his ubiquitous insecurity from persecution; only at sixty-four did he find a house that could be also his home. There is a passage at the end of one of his tales, “The Travels of Scarmentado,” which almost applies to its author: “As I had now seen all that was rare or beautiful on earth, I resolved for the future to see nothing but my own home; I took a wife, and soon suspected that she deceived me; but notwithstanding this doubt I still found that of all conditions of life this was much the happiest.'” He had no wife, but he had a niece—which is better for a man of genius. ”We never hear of his wishing to be in Paris. … There can be no doubt that this wise exile prolonged his days.”

At the age of sixty-four, Voltaire finally settled at Ferney, just inside the Swiss line near France, where he felt more secure. 

He was happy in his garden, planting fruit trees which he did not expect to see flourish in his lifetime. When an admirer praised the work he had done for posterity he answered, ”Yes, I have planted 4000 trees.” He had a kind word for everybody, but could be forced to sharper speech. One day he asked a visitor whence he came. “From Mr. Haller’s.” ”He is a great man,” said Voltaire; “a great poet, a great naturalist; a great philosopher, almost a universal genius.” “What you say, sir, is the more admirable, as Mr. Haller does not do you the same justice.” “Ah,” said Voltaire, “perhaps we are both mistaken.”

Votaire had a kind word for everybody, but could be forced to sharper speech.

Ferney now become the intellectual capital of the world; every learned man or enlightened ruler of the day paid his court either in person or by correspondence. Here came sceptical priests, liberal aristocrats, and learned ladies; here came Gibbon and Boswell from England; here came d’Alembert, Helvetius, and the other rebels of the Enlightenment; and countless others; At last the entertainment of this endless stream of visitors proved too expensive even for Voltaire; he complained that he was becoming the hotel-keeper for all Europe. To one acquaintance who announced that he had come to stay for six weeks, Voltaire said: ”What is the difference between you and Don Quixote? He mistook inns for chateaux, and you mistake this chateau for an inn.” “God preserve me from my friends,” he concluded; “I will take care of my enemies myself.” 

Ferney now become the intellectual capital of the world; every learned man or enlightened ruler of the day paid his court either in person or by correspondence.

Add to this perpetual hospitality, the largest correspondence the world has ever seen, and the most brilliant. Letters came from all sorts and conditions of men: a burgomaster wrote from Germany asking “in confidence whether there is a God or not,” and begging Voltaire to answer by return post; Gustavus III of Sweden was elated by the thought that Voltaire sometimes glanced at the North, and told him that this was their greatest encouragement to do their best up there; Christian VII of Denmark apologized for not establishing at once all reforms; Catherine II of Russia sent him beautiful presents, wrote frequently, and haped he would not consider her importunate. Even Frederick, after a year of doldrums returned to the fold, and resumed his correspondence with the King of Ferney. 

“You have done me great wrongs,” he wrote. “I have forgiven them all, and I even wish to forget them. But if you had not had to do with a madman in love with your noble genius, you would not have gotten off so well. … Do you want sweet things? Very well; I will tell you some truths. I esteem in you the finest genius that the ages have borne; I admire your poetry, I love your prose. … Never has an author before you had a tact so keen, a taste so sure and delicate. You are charming in conversation; you know how to amuse and instruct at the same time. You are the most seductive being that I know, capable of making yourself loved by all the world when you choose. You have such graces of mind that you can offend and yet at the same time deserve the indulgence of those who know you. In short, you would be perfect if you were not a man.”

Letters came from all sorts and conditions of men. Even Frederick, after a year of doldrums returned to the fold, and resumed his correspondence with Voltaire. 

Who would have expected so gay a host to become the exponent of pessimism? In youth, as a reveler in Paris’s salons, he had seen the sunnier side of life, despite the Bastille; and yet even in those careless days he had rebelled against the unnatural optimism. to which Leibnitz had given currency. To an ardent young man who had attacked him in print, and had contended with Leibnitz that this is “the best of all possible worlds,” Voltaire wrote, “I am pleased to hear, sir, that you have written a little book against me. You do me too much honor. … When you have shown, in verse or otherwise, why so many men cut their throats in the best of all possible worlds, I shall be exceedingly obliged to you. I await your arguments, your verses, and your abuse; and assure you from the bottom of my heart that neither of us knows anything about the matter. I have the honor to be,” etc. 

Persecution and disillusionment had worn down his faith in life; and his experiences at Berlin and Frankfort had taken the edge from his hope. But both faith and hope suffered most when, in November, 1755, came the news of the awful earthquake at Lisbon, in which 80,000 people had been killed. The quake had come on All Saints’ Day; the churches had been crowded with worshippers; and death, finding its enemies in close formation, had reaped a rich harvest. Voltaire was shocked into seriousness and raged when he heard that the French Clergy were explaining the disaster as a punishment for the sins of the people of Lisbon. He broke forth in a passionate poem in which he gave vigorous expression to the old dilemma: Either God can prevent evil and he will not; or he wishes to prevent it and he cannot. He was not satisfied with Spinoza’s answer that good and evil are human terms, inapplicable to the universe, and that our tragedies are trivial things in the perspective of eternity. 

I am a puny part of the great whole.
Yes; but all animals condemned to live,
All sentient things, born by the same stern law, 
Suffer like me, and like me also die.
The vulture fastens on his timid prey,
And stabs with bloody beak the quivering limbs: 
All’s well, it seems, for it. But in a while
An eagle tears the vulture into shreds;
The eagle is transfixed by shafts of man;
The man, prone in the dust of battlefields, 
Mingling his blood with dying fellow men, 
Becomes in turn the food of ravenous birds. 
Thus the whole world in every member groans, 
All born for torment and for mutual death. 
And o’er this ghastly chaos you would say 
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice, 
Mortal and pitiful ye cry, “All’s well,” 
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a hundred times your mind’s conceit. …

What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes. 
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud, 
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate;
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes, 
Guided by thoughts, have measured the faint stars. 
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ourselves we never see, or come to know.
This world, this theatre of pride and wrong, 
Swarms with sick fools who talk of happiness. …

Once did I sing, in less lugubrious tone,
The sunny ways of pleasure’s general rule;
The times have changed, and, taught by growing age, 
And sharing of the frailty of mankind,
Seeking a light amid the deepening gloom,
I can but suffer, and will not repine.

Voltaire became more pessimistic as he aged. Persecution and disillusionment had worn down his faith in life

A few months later the Seven Years’ War broke out; Voltaire looked upon it as madness and suicide, the devastation of Europe to settle whether England or France should win “a few acres of snow” in Canada. On the top of this came a public reply, by Jean Jacques Rousseau, to the poem on Lisbon. Man himself was to be blamed for the disaster, said Rousseau; if we lived out in the fields, and not in the towns, we should not be killed on so large a scale; if we lived under the sky, and not in houses, houses would not fall upon us. Voltaire was amazed at the popularity won by this profound theodicy; and angry that his name should be dragged into the dust by such a Quixote, he turned upon Rousseau “that most terrible of all the intellectual weapons ever wielded by man, the mockery of Voltaire.” In three days, in 1759, he wrote Candide. 

Voltaire was aghast at the tragedies unfolding in Europe and the justifications provided for them.

Never was pessimism so gaily argued; never was man made to laugh so heartily while learning that this is a world of woe. And seldom has a story been told with such simple and hidden art; it is pure narrative and dialogue; no descriptions pad it out; and the action is riotously rapid. “In Voltaire’s fingers,” said Anatole France, “the pen runs and laughs.” It is perhaps the finest short story in all literature. 

Candide, as his name indicates, is a simple and honest lad, son of the great Baron of Thunder-Ten-Trockh of Westphalia, and pupil of the learned Pangloss. 

Pangloss was professor of metaphysicotheologicocosmonigology. … “It is demonstrable,” said he, “that all is necessarily for the best end. Observe that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles … legs were visibly designed for stockings … stones were designed to construct castles … pigs were made so that we might have pork all the year round. Consequently, they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing; they should have said all is for the best.” 

While Pangloss is discoursing, the castle is attacked by the Bulgarian army, and Candide is captured and turned into a soldier.

He was made to wheel about to the right and to the left, to draw his rammer, to return his rammer, to present, to fire, to march. … He resolved, one fine day in spring, to go for a walk, marching straight before him, believing that it was a privilege of the human as well as the animal species to make use of their legs as they pleased. He had advanced two leagues when he was overtaken by four heroes six feet tall, who bound him and carried him to a dungeon. He was asked which he would like the best, to be whipped six and thirty times through all the regiment, or to receive at once two balls of lead in his brain. He vainly said that human will is free, and that he chose neither the one nor the other. He was forced to make a choice; he determined, in virtue of that gift of God called liberty, to run the gauntlet six-and-thirty times. He bore this twice.

Candide escapes, takes passage to Lisbon, and on board ship meets Professor Pangloss, who tells how the Baron and Baroness were murdered and the castle destroyed. “All this,” he concludes, “was indispensable; for private misfortune makes the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the greater is the general good.” They arrive in Lisbon just in time to be caught in the earthquake. After it is over they tell each other their adventures and sufferings; whereupon an old servant assures them that their misfortunes are as nothing compared with her own. “A hundred times I was on the point of killing myself, but I loved life. This ridiculous foible is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics; for is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry continually a burden which one can always throw down?” Or, as another character expresses it, “All things considered, the life of a gondolier is preferable to that of a doge; but I believe the difference is so trifling that it is not worth the trouble of examining.”

The urge to survive is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics, a foible.

Candide, fleeing from the Inquisition, goes to Paraguay; “there the Jesuit Fathers possess all, and the people nothing; it is a masterpiece of reason and justice.” In a Dutch colony. he comes upon a negro with one hand, one leg, and a rag for clothing. “When we work at the sugar canes,” the slave explains, “and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off a hand; and when we try to run away, they cut off a leg. … This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.” Candide finds much loose gold in the unexplored interior; he returns to the coast and hires a vessel to take him to France; but the skipper sails off with the gold and leaves Candide philosophizing on the wharf. With what little remains to him, Candide purchases a passage on a ship bound for Bordeaux; and on board strikes up a conversation with an old sage, Martin. 

“Do you believe,” said Candide, “that men have always massacred one another as they do today, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites and fools?” 

“Do you believe,” said Martin, “that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?” 

”Without doubt,” said Candide. 

“Well, then,” said Martin, ”if hawks have always had the same character, why should you imagine that men have changed theirs?” . 

“Oh!” said Candide, “there is a vast deal of difference, for free will—“ 

And reasoning thus they arrived at Bordeaux.

We cannot follow Candide through the rest of his adventures, which form a rollicking commentary on the difficulties of medieval theology and Leibnitzian optimism. After suffering a variety of evils among a variety of men, Candide settles down as a farmer in Turkey; and the story ends with a final dialogue between master and pupil: 

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide: 

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle; … if you had not been put into the Inquisition; if you had not walked over America; … if you had not lost all your gold; … you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.” 

“All that is very well,” answered Candide; ”but let us cultivate our garden.” 

Candide attacks the passivity inspired by Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism through the character Pangloss’s frequent refrain that circumstances are the “best of all possible worlds”.


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