Saturday, February 15, 2014


Monticello Gardens, VA

Voltaire’s satiric novella Candide has been listed as one of the most influential books ever written. The story line follows the misadventures of a naïve and impressionable young man who leads a sheltered and easy life. He is being tutored by Pangloss, a staunch follower of Leibnizian optimism. The Leibnizian mantra of the time was “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Once these two have suddenly been cast out into the real world, disillusionment slowly follows as they are confronted with the realities of this broken world such as devastating natural disasters and mankind’s incomprehensible inhumanity.

One of the most quoted examples of Voltaire’s satire occurs when the two vagabonds witness the execution of an admiral on the deck of his own ship because he failed to engage a French fleet. The classic explanation was “to encourage the others”, a satiric quote heard ‘round many corporate board rooms after experiencing more than one consecutive quarter of low earnings.

I studied Candide in my college days and it made an impression. The conclusion of the book has been the subject of many academic papers and it’s still regarded as both enigmatic and contentious. Candide and his motley crew finally arrive on a farm which Candide purchases with the last of his once considerable finances. They’ve all experienced the fleeting possession of earthly riches—wealth, intellect, beauty, freedom, health, youth, prestige, and blind optimism. There they encounter a man working on a small farm with his family who shares his life’s plan; keeping occupied to be “free of three great evils: boredom, vice and necessity”.

As the story comes to a conclusion, we find Pangloss philosophizing to Candide that everything turned out for the best due to necessity. And Candide famously replies “Excellently observed, but we must cultivate our garden”. Academicians have speculated that the work’s focus is on the problems of Leibnizian optimism, the existence of evil, man’s inhumanity, environmental uncertainties, etc. My view hasn’t changed too much since college days—there’s nothing in this broken world that can be sustained; the best of all possible worlds cannot be found in this life but in the next; nurture and place your trust for survival within yourself and your Creator and not the external trappings of this volatile world; today’s treasures can be lost overnight, but any investment you make between your ears can never be taken away; passive retreat from the world is not the answer, but active industrious participation will help see us through so that we can hopefully leave this world a little better than we found it.

And I’ve always liked the ancient gardening practice of a small order of monks who planted one row of vegetables for the body followed by one row of flowers for the soul. We reap in this life what we cultivate.

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