Lessons from Candide by Barbara Ardinger

Candide, ou l’Optimisme (in English, Candide, or Optimism) is a satirical, picaresque novel published in 1759 by François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, who was possibly the smartest author of the Age of Enlightenment…but he annoyed so many courtiers and public officials that he was forever traveling around Europe to get away from their threats of arrest and bodily harm. A picaresque novel is an adventure novel with a clever, tricky hero who somehow survives and makes us like him. Voltaire wrote his novel primarily to criticize the optimism of the German writer Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who said that because God is always benevolent, everything that happens is always for the best. This presumably includes the bloody Seven Years War (Protestant vs. Catholic, fought mostly in Germany and France) and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which occurs both in Lisbon and in the novel. Even though Voltaire was accused of blasphemy and heresy, among his other sins and crimes, Candide was enormously popular throughout Europe, a popularity that continues to this day.

In 1956, playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (who had been persecuted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and HUAC) proposed to composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein that they turn Voltaire’s novel into a Broadway musical. Bernstein composed some of the most beautiful music ever written for this show, which has been produced as an opera, an operetta, and a musical comedy. Hellman’s libretto turned out to be weak, so Bernstein turned to the poet Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim, among others for new libretto and lyrics. It’s been through numerous revisions, and every time it’s staged, it’s different. I have four or five versions on DVD. My favorite is the New York Philharmonic staged concert written and directed by Lonny Price and broadcast on PBS in 2004.

Now for the story. (I’m focusing more on the musical than the novel.) Candide (a tenor) is the illegitimate son of the Westphalian Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh. (Westphalia is a real region in northwest Germany.) He’s in love with the baron’s daughter Cunegonde (a soprano) (her name is a pun on French and Latin word for female genitalia), and she loves him, too. Their teacher is the famous Dr. Pangloss, who says that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The foolishness of this unthinking optimism is (obviously) the point of both novel and musical—this is not the best of all possible worlds. As we all know, awful things happen.

The baron’s family says their daughter cannot marry a bastard. The next thing that happens is an invasion by Bulgarians. The family is killed, Cunegonde is raped and killed, Candide and Dr. Pangloss are captured. This is the best of all possible worlds? Well, says Dr. Pangloss, what worse things might have happened to the baron’s family had they survived? Candide and his teacher are soon separated, and when they come together again, Dr. Pangloss has syphilis, which he sings about as a blessing. Sometime around now they go to Lisbon and arrive just in time for the great earthquake. They are captured by the church. Candide is flogged and Dr. Pangloss is hanged (praising the rope) during a tuneful “auto da-fé.”

But Cunegonde wasn’t killed. Candide next finds her in Paris, where she’s living the high life as mistress of the Archbishop and the Chief Rabbi (on alternate nights). This is when she sings about the joys of collecting jewelry.

More adventures follow. Most of the formerly dead people travel to South America, where Cunegonde and the Old Lady (one of whose buttocks was eaten by pirates) (don’t ask) become part of the household of the lusty governor of Montevideo, and Candide and another character named Paquette (former mistress of the baron) go to El Dorado, a peaceful land surrounded by mountains and filled with gold and happy sheep. But Candide and Paquette get bored. More adventures and—remember, it’s all for the best in the best of all possible worlds—they end up in Venice at Carnival time. This is where Candide finds Cunegonde again; now she’s employed in a gambling palace. They recognize each other (again) and finally travel back to Westphalia.

By this time, the characters been flogged, raped, cheated, and killed so many times they come at last to see that the Panglossian—and Leibnizean—optimism is nonsense. They visit a wise man (who turns out to be Pangloss in disguise) and ask him what life is really all about. What is man’s proper function? Man’s proper function, says the wise man, is to work. In the novel, Voltaire put it this way: “…when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.” In Bernstein’s musical, the reunited characters agree that humankind’s foremost job is to “make our garden grow.” Candide sings, “You’ve been a fool and so have I….”

Yes, the lesson of Voltaire’s novel and Bernstein’s musical is that unthinking optimism is both foolish and dangerous. (I think we can equate this optimism with the “normalizing” of the Ogre-in-Chief.)

That’s the primary lesson. The other lesson, as I see it, is that you and I should plant our own gardens and make them grow. By garden, I mean (a) a real garden with plants and veggies in it, (b) an indoor garden of houseplants that bring beauty to our rooms, (c) a “guerilla garden” that brings beauty to some spot that is barren and ugly until we (without permission) plant and tend a flower or two, and (d) a metaphorical garden. Or all four. As I wrote in my book Pagan Every Day, maybe the latter should be called a karmic garden. The word “broadcast” comes from the way farmers once sowed seed. They’d take a handful out of the bag over their shoulder and fling it out across the ground to fall where it might or be carried away by the wind. Let’s think about the seeds we’re broadcasting as we speak or write or post or protest. Some of our seeds fall close to home, but many fly across the net and the web and end up who knows where. That makes for very big gardens and some unexpected blooms. But you know what they say—what goes around comes back around. As you sow, so shall you reap. It seems to me that this FAR community is creating a karmic garden, for we are all broadcasting our intentions to restore human rights to a city, state, nation, or world very much in need of, among other things, kindness and charity. Let us all make our gardens grow. (And do listen to the song again.)


Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every DayFinding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Categories: Activism, Art, General, Literature, Music

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13 replies

  1. Love this post, Barbara. Makes me want to see the musical somewhere live and in person on stage. Certainly agree with you that “…unthinking optimism is both foolish and dangerous.” In my experience, this idea was cloaked in religious language. “Just have faith…it’s all in God’s hands.” Of course, that meant that a particular and narrow understanding of deity insured that all would be well in the end.. Scattering and planting karmic seeds are good things to do. There are no guarantees of benevolence, nonetheless, it’s a good choice.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fabulous, Barbara! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As Esther says there are no guarantees of benevolence but I think it does matter if we act on our integrity.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this wise and delightful post! I believe I attempted to read Candide in French in high school but comprehended very little, so thanks for the plot refresher. My French teacher (who overestimated our language skills) always addressed me as Mademoiselle Cunegonde. (Cunegonde in the first clip you shared is a stitch!) I appreciate Candide’s call–and yours–to tend all kinds of gardens.


    • Since I learned what Cunegonde means (Voltaire seems to have invented the name) I’m not sure I’d want to be called by that name……….. I read Candide in French when I was in college and again in graduate school.


  5. Excellent post for me today. Some of the citizens in our small-ish Canadian city feel that protesting a homeless camp is a good way to “celebrate” the Sabbath. And they have invited the Soldiers of Odin to come in and join them. Where the h e – double hockey sticks do they expect homeless people to go?
    Will “good” come out of it? Well, the extreme right in town has revealed it’s presence, which I think is better than having them festering unknown and invisible. And I’m hoping that “protectors”, those of us who have supported the homeless camp, will outnumber them and stand non-violently with all who are vulnerable as the protesters march by – and hopefully keep going.
    Please send prayers, or energies, or however you support what is good, our way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gee, that’s awful. Homelessness is difficult here in Long Beach,, CA, as well as in Los Angeles. Yes, let’s all send prayers and energy. But not foolish optimism!


  6. Barbara, wonderful post. Bernstein’s Candide is one of my favorite pieces of music. The PBS concert is absolutely spectacular. Chenowyth and Lupone are a hard act to follow. I didn’t grasp the depth of Voltaire’s satire until I was middle-aged (read it in French class in college)but it certainly has its place in today’s upside-down world. Thank you for the post and may we all tend our own gardens to make the world a better place.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Like a lot of other commenters, I also read Candide in French in school , and I completely missed the point until reading your post and having a few decades of experience to better understand it. I love the concept of the Karmic Garden – a wonderful metaphor for what so many people are trying to do in these troubled times, and the best chance we have for creating a better world, I think – growing and nurturing the best in us so that fear and hate cannot take root as a community, society, or planet. A big task, but only by getting at what is the core of the causes of all that is happening, like the protests of the homeless community Barbara C mentioned, can we as individuals or a community make lasting progress. By coincidence, I just saw the movie about Fred Rogers “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” which is a wonderful example of a Karmic Gardener. Completely off topic – one of my favorite memories if of singing the neighborhood song with Mr. Rogers, along with about 10,000 other people, at my graduate school commencement…

    Barbara C – sending lots of prayers positive energy your way …


    • I loved Mr. Rogers. I watched his show with my son. You’re right–he was (maybe still is?) a Karmic Gardener.

      Yes, Candide is not a children’s book. But does anyone ever read children’s books or YA books in high school English classes? The point of making us read novels like Silas Marner and Moby Dick and plays like Julius Caesar–which I read in high school–is wholly to introduce us to The World’s Great Literature as determined by educational “experts” and committees. Reading said literature is part of the Educational Experience. Or at least it was when I taught high school English. I have no idea what kids read in English classes now.


  8. This is a holiday week-end in Canada (3 days off!) and this evening I listened to a live-stream broadcast of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra playing … yes! Bernstein’s Candide. And I knew what it was! Thanks Barbara A!

    Protectors out numbered the Soldiers of Odin today, which renewed my hope in our city. Nothing was resolved of course, but no one got killed or injured. Hopefully those looking for trouble will stay home or leave town tonight. Thanks you for your help! And know that I hold all our southern neighbours in the Love of the Creator of all.


    • Hooray for the protectors! Down with the Soldiers of Odin!

      I’m glad you got to listen to a performance of Candide. It’s been produced in a number of different versions, including the concert performance in England in 1989 conducted by Bernstein himself. It was his last public performance. He died in 1990.


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