Satirizing the Problem of Evil

Skipping around a bit in the list to learn some French, I picked up a dual-language (facing translation) edition of Voltaire's Candide. This edition is a cheap paperback. There are probably better editions of the French and better translations of the English out there. However, side-by-side translations are great for learning a new language. Glancing at the other page when you do not understand something is much faster than looking up a word in a lexicon or dictionary. The translation is serviceable enough, though even with my nascent French I spotted what I would call definite mistakes in the translation. The binding is good for a paperback. The margins are wide, a useful feature when marking up difficult passages. There are footnotes throughout but they are insufficient unless the reader is familiar with obsolete Portuguese currency, Ottoman military ranks, and the Italian for, "It's a shame that I no longer have my balls." Unless you are interested in the dual-language format, I would suggest finding a different translation with better notes.

Voltaire's Candide is a satiric response to parts of the German philosopher Leibniz's Theodicy regarding the problem of evil. One of the eternal questions of philosophy and theology is, if God is good and omnipotent, why do bad things still happen to good people? There are a few ways to answer solve this problem. Leibniz's method was to argue that given man's free will, God's general plan, and the physical limitations of our created universe, we actually live in the best of all possible worlds. While bad things may happen constantly, we will discover at the end of the universe that, given the aforementioned constraints, everything turned out in the optimal way. This may not be optimal from an individual perspective, but it would be optimal in a grand, universal perspective. Until we get near the end of the universe and start tallying up all the utiles, this argument is hard to prove but still interesting to think about.

A lot has been made of Voltaire's "attack" on Leibniz. However, Voltaire was a historian, essayist, and philosopher. He was quite capable of writing a serious refutation of Leibniz. And given the comedic nature of Candide, I have a hard time believing that Voltaire saw his work as much more than playful engagement. He did reject Leibniz's premise, believing that there was simply too much suffering in the world for it to be the best possible world. He also disliked the possibility of Leibniz's idea encouraging a sort of lazy fatalism in people. If we live in the best of all possible world already, why make improvements? In defense of Leibniz on this latter point, I would argue what is the best possible world today is not necessarily the best possible world tomorrow. Since, in Leibniz's framework, free will is one of the limiting factors in the optimality of the world, we can have some influence on it. And I do not want to spoil anything, but the last few lines clearly demonstrate how Leibniz could still be right, despite Voltaire's objections. One of the gifts of intelligence is being able to entertain ideas that one may not actually believe. It is the mark of true genius to be able to do so while making a few good jokes.

To demonstrate the level of suffering in the world, Voltaire has our title character, Candide, bounce all around the world through unlikely circumstances, witnessing the evils of Voltaire's lifetime, such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Candide, and other characters, visit France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, various parts of South America, and the fabled lost city of El Dorado. Despite all the unfortunate happenings of the book, or perhaps partly because of them, Candide manages to be one of the most genuinely funny books I have ever read. Some Great Books reading definitely helps with appreciating some of the jokes. Plato and Aristotle are particular prerequisites for getting the most out of Candide. Other jokes are perennial, such as Candide's remark that a critic is "someone who loathes the success of others, like a eunuch who hates those capable of enjoying sex." It would not have seemed exceptional before I read Candide, but I guess I am rather lucky to have the balls to be able to praise Voltaire's work.

In short, it is a quick read that both tackles serious metaphysical issues and provides some good laughs. I highly recommend to anyone with either a sense of humor or some metaphysical curiosity. Reading it should be a necessity for someone who possesses both.

Next up will likely be Moliere's Tartuffe and possibly his The Bourgeois Gentleman. My reading of Aquinas' Summa continues but, at the current pace, it will take another nine months to complete. I may review the three major parts separately, however.