Monday, February 24, 2014

A Defense of Literature by Default

Candide is an argument against just about every single institution that humans hold dear. Philosophy, religion, militarization, and even optimism are all defamed in Voltaire’s satire. As the work is literature itself, literature is, naturally, excluded from this mass condemnation of human traditions. In banning the book, however, there is an implication that there is some element of accuracy and therefore danger to social norms in what Voltaire writes. It is not uncommon to see religion and military questioned by literature, but I found it surprising to see Voltaire take a stab at philosophy and optimism. These two aspects of society, unlike religion and militaries, are rarely sources of conflict and it is therefore more difficult to see why these concepts might be troubling to Voltaire.
The answer I found, through Candide’s experiences, was that both philosophy and optimism give a false sense of experience and understanding to people who may not know the reality of the world. When we assume that everything is for the best the way it is, we lose reason to change and progress. If we are to believe that philosophy has prepared us for real life issues, were may be sorely disappointed. Candide can only retain the belief that everything is for the best while his life is untried and untested. It is only after experience that he begins to realize that “all goes as well as possible” (Voltaire 65). Candide’s mistake in trusting his life to philosophical principles becomes obvious during his time on a ship in a storm. While Pangloss is busy describing the a priori reasoning behind Anabaptist’s death, many people die. It is obvious only to the reader that it is absurd to be concerned about philosophical principles while real life is going on. In this life or death scene, Voltaire emphasizes the problematic nature of relying on philosophy as a guide for life.

Through literature, however, we are able to see human experience in the many ways that it truly is and can be. The understanding gathered through literature, including Candide, is what allows us to become experienced without truly experiencing.

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