Voltaire’s Candide–2003

                                                                                                      Candide’s Travels to the New World

 

 

Voltaire’s view of America as expressed in Candide is a pessimistic one, but also one that shows a lot of potential.  The Americas are corrupted at this point by the European powers and their exploitative nature.  Despite this fact, America is shown as a place where there is great opportunity for both good and evil acts.  The descriptions of the various European inhabitants of America are derisive and show how a greedy and self righteous person could profit greatly from exploiting the land and the people who live on it.  The story of what happened to Candide in El Dorado is a comment not only on what the Americas were like before colonialism but what could be accomplished by a society regulated by enlightened thought.  Voltaire’s utopia is not a place that could exist but is the idea that great things could be done with America both for the inhabitants and new settlers if the right approach were made.  El Dorado could also be seen as an endorsement of the merchant system but is actually support for a simple egalitarian system. The other view Voltaire presents on the Americas is concerned with religion and the impact of the Jesuits in particular.  The Jesuits are seen in a terrible light throughout the book and their presence in the Americas is no exception.  He also tries to express the natives might have felt with the scene where the natives are clearly very excited to eat a Jesuit.(Voltaire p.74)  It is clear that the Catholics have done very well in America with regards to conversion and control, something Voltaire is extremely critical of.

            The first person we encounter in Buenos Aires is the pompous Dom Fernando d’Ibarra y Figueora etc. and seems to be an apt representative of the ruling class in the Americas.  His noble distain is even more pronounced than his European counterparts mainly due to his having so many names and is a jab at the nobles who inflate importance by the attachment of titles.  Although the lord is quite a buffoon, he seems to wield some power and is even described by the old woman as the “greatest lord in South America”.(Voltaire p. 66)  This view is the first glimpse of the Americas for Candide and the characteristics of the rulers is consistent with Voltaire’s view of Europeans in power.  This shows the kind of opportunity that any European of noble descent can have in America and the results are not looked upon favorably by Voltaire.

            An important theme in Candide is the general wisdom and loyalty of Cacambo because this is a common position of a “quarter-breed” in the Americas.  In other words, the kinds of opportunities presented to someone of even partial native heritage are very different than those presented to Europeans.  The natives are shown in greater detail later, but with the exception of the people of El Dorado, they are naïve and exploited.

            The power and authority wielded by the Jesuits is massive in America and show the kind of society than can be created by people motivated by conversion and control.  The padres are mocked throughout the book but only in America do they have temporal authority to match their religious authority.  Cacambo’s initial description of the priests in his native lands is somewhat contradictory because while praising them, he acknowledges that “the Padres have everything, the people nothing”. (Voltaire p. 68)  The praise for the catholic missionaries could be construed as extremely sarcastic, however, and their hypocrisy is exposed as well.  Cacambo comments that the priests kill people but send them to heaven so as not to feel bad about it.  The Jesuits take full advantage of every opportunity and their success is great, though a kind of success that Voltaire does not admire.  Voltaire expands on this distain by emphasizing the differences between the social standing of the priesthood and the standing of the native peoples. For example Candide is served from gold vessels while the natives eat “corn out of wooden bowls”. (Voltaire p. 69)  Catholicism is certainly very important and successful both in conversion and power maintained by war, but given Voltaire’s opinion of the Catholics, he is highly critical of those taking advantage of an opportunity to spread their religion.

            As Candide and his valet escape into the American wilderness, they encounter a land that is pure and seemingly untouched by civilized hands, a clean slate to be written on for good or ill.  The natives have some strange customs but are not ill willed unless they encounter a Jesuit.  Voltaire goes even further when Candide remarks that the situation among the natives is the “pure state of nature”. The largest problem these native have is simply that they are a “people who have not been educated”. (Voltaire p. 73)  Since the natives have already been exposed to education by the Jesuits, it follows that the kind of education Voltaire is referring to is an enlightened one.  The priests have had an opportunity to educate and convert these natives but given the response, “lets eat Jesuit”, it is clear that a different kind of instruction is necessary.  It is not directly implied that Voltaire thought the revelations of the enlightenment would be suited to the minds of Native Americans, but the idea of an uneducated people would be very appealing to someone trying to spread their philosophy.  This is also supported by the fact that both Voltaire and the natives are not on the best terms with the Catholic Church.

            The journey to El Dorado is a testament to the diversity of the American landscape and the city itself is an exaggerated version of Voltaire’s utopian vision. What we first encounter in El Dorado is the capitalist utopia because everything is catered to facilitate trade.  There is no mention of what the currency in El Dorado might be, but free food and lodging to help trade and gold being as common as flies would make any merchant salivate.  Points are also made to support the idea of corruption by Europe when the king states that the Incas who tried to fight the Spanish all died and that El Dorado was a city “safe from the greed of European nations”. (Voltaire p. 79)  The Native Americans are clearly in different states of development but worse off than they were before the Europeans came to make money and converts.

             Most of the ideals the people of El Dorado live by are very much in tune with the ideals of the enlightenment.  It could be interpreted that the kingdom of El Dorado is a constitutional monarchy but the word consent could also mean that the king is just honoring the pact between monarch and the subjects, a reciprocal relationship supported by the enlightenment.  This is supported by the fact that Voltaire was a supporter of “enlightened absolutism” (Gordan p.7) as supposed to democracy.  The government of El Dorado is an example, albeit exaggerated for effect, of a society that is free of the conventional European oppression and is ruled according to principles that Voltaire agreed with.  This enlightened society is the only place in the world where everyone is happy all the time, and this is reflective of what could be done if enlightened thinkers took the opportunity the new world presented.  It is really the religion of El Dorado that most impresses Candide and is also the most significantly enlightened.  The idea that everyone is a priest and religion is actually participated in by all is an idea in stark contrast to the religious institutions found in the rest of the book.  This is most clearly seen in the astonished question by Candide, “you have no monks who lecture, debate, govern, conspire, and burn people who don’t believe in them?”, the king replying, “we would be crazy if we did”( Voltaire p. 79).  In this way the possibility of a society free from religious tyranny and hypocrisy is created.

            Throughout the book, we see the role of Europeans in America as exploitative while it is also shown that there are also great possibilities to do good in the new world.  Europeans used the opportunity presented to them by an uncivilized world to increase their own wealth and sense of self righteousness at the expense of the people living there as well as slaves brought for work.  Fortunately for America, there are still parts of the new world that are not corrupted by Europeans and could become influenced by revolutionary thought.  Voltaire presents the new world as a place where opportunities for advancement in most things are possible but up until this point has only been used with selfish motives.

                                   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works cited

Gordon, Danial ed. Candide by Voltaire. Bedford/ST. Martin’s. Boston, MA. 1999

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2 Comments

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