“Let’s work without speculating; it’s the only way of making life bearable.” This sentence is found at the end of Voltaire’s novel, Candide. Written during the Enlightenment, the book is a scathing criticism of the most cherished ideal of the period – that the power of reason will lead humanity to happiness. In this video, we will discuss Voltaire’s attack on philosophical speculation, and his support for a life based on practical concerns.
Although historians describe the Enlightenment as a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries, the move towards rational thought and philosophical speculation began in ancient Greece. Perhaps the most famous philosopher of this movement is Socrates, who declared that the “unexamined life is not worth living.”
While modern academicians generally revere Socrates, some of his contemporaries considered his teachings foolish and impractical. Aristophanes, an ancient Greek comic playwright, lampooned Socrates in a play titled, The Clouds. He characterized Socrates as an absurd buffoon, who spends his days lost in the contemplation of the distance a flea can jump. In the play, Aristophanes argues that philosophical speculation is useless and that it ultimately has a corrupting influence on society.
Following in the footsteps of Aristophanes, Voltaire ridicules one of his own contemporaries – the 17th century philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. Specifically, Voltaire rejects Leibniz’s assertion that our world is the best of all possible worlds. In the novel, Candide and his tutor Pangloss, who espouses Leibniz’s philosophical mantra that “all is for the best,” encounter one disaster after another. Considering the suffering that Candide and Pangloss witness and experience, Leibniz’s position appears comical.
There is a very important distinction that must be made between the philosophical speculation that Voltaire criticizes and the philosophical speculation that leads to tangible progress. Voltaire was a noted proponent of Isaac Newton’s work in physics. Voltaire does not find fault with this type of speculation because it has practical applications. The speculation that Voltaire finds reprehensible is the type that is concerned with unanswerable or impractical questions – such as metaphysical questions about the existence of God, questions about objective morality, the distance a flea can jump, etc.
Unlike his Enlightenment contemporaries, Voltaire does not identify Reason as the supreme guide to happiness, but rather a simple life spent in practical pursuits. At the end of the novel, Candide and the other characters find happiness and relief from the troubles of the world by working on a small farm. The last line delivered by Candide reads, “We must go and cultivate our garden.” This is a biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden. Candide, and humanity in general, will find their paradise in practical labor, not in philosophical speculation. Just as Adam and Eve suffered when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, so too does humanity suffer when it investigates into impractical matters.