Experience and Actuality: Voltaire’s Criticism of Armchair Philosophers (Part 3 of 3)

Candide and friends learn the importance of living the simple life (Photo by anoldent via Flickr)
Candide and friends learn the importance of living the simple life (Photo by anoldent via Flickr)

Yet, after putting the full hypocrisy of humanity on display, after chastising the armchair philosophers of his time, Voltaire offers a path of hope to those who wish, much like Candide does, to find a way to go through this life and find enlightenment. At the end of Candide, the ramshackle group of wanderers have found their way back together and end up on a little farm, living, as it were, from hand to mouth. Having lost so much and suffered so terribly, how can they find any truth from this desolateness? The turning point comes when the Old Woman ponders aloud, “‘I should like to know which is worse: …to undergo all the miseries we have each of us suffered – or simply to sit here and do nothing?’ – ‘That is a hard question,’ said Candide” (Voltaire, 91).

With this new question in mind to ponder, they seek out a dervish, a wise man who lives near them. Pangloss, the fallen philosopher, leads the way, sure that here some reasoning out of life will lead to happiness. “‘Master, we have come to beg you tell us why so curious a creature as man was ever created.’ – ‘And what has it to do with you?’ answered the dervish. ‘Is it any business of yours?’ … ‘So what must we do?’ said Pangloss. – ‘Keep your mouth shut,’ said the dervish” (Voltaire, 92). Again and again, in these last few pages, Pangloss is dismissed and rebuked, all his philosophizing coming to nothing until finally, Candide discovers that  “‘All I know…is that we must cultivate our garden.’…‘Let us set to work and stop proving things,’ said Martin, ‘for that is the only way to make life bearable.’” (Voltaire, 93). Here, Voltaire has delivered his final pronouncement to his “Enlightened” brethren: learn by experience, go out and seek and test and find, do not sit and reason out with false evidence, dare, as Kant would say, to know – not merely to surmise. Once Candide and the other’s resolve to set their energies to making a life for themselves, all, at last, starts going right. They all find happiness in their own ways, finding fulfillment and knowledge in using their talents and intellects to unlock the little secrets of the world.

Voltaire, painted by Maurice Quentin de la Tour in 1737
Voltaire, painted by Maurice Quentin de la Tour in 1737

The movement of the Enlightenment brought many great thinkers to the forefront of history. Among them, perhaps the greatest was Voltaire. He was a man who seemed always ready to question and challenge concepts and people with whom he did not agree. Even his fellow philosophers did not escape his gaze. His novella Candide was a direct attack on the sedentary nature he saw growing in his compatriots, “enlightened” thinkers who had forgotten one of the most fundamental aspects of the Enlightenment: the importance of experience in human learning. They had become no better than the “vicarious travelers” of Eastern Europe, sitting in their salons and postulating, without ever bothering to explore the raw truth for themselves.  In Candide, Voltaire stands resolute in his belief that experience is the true philosophy and the only way to lead the world out of darkness. The dialogue he carried on with his personal Panglosses goes as follows: “Sometimes Pangloss would say to Candide: ‘All events form a chain in this, the best of all possible worlds.’… ‘That is well said,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.’” (Voltaire, 93-94).

Works Cited

Voltaire. Candide, or Optimism. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. Print.

René Descartes, The Discourse on Method and Metaphysical Meditations, trans. G.B. Rawlings (London: Walter Scott, 1901), pp. 32-35, 60-61, 75-76.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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