“What is optimism?” said Cacombo – “Alas!” said Candide, “it’s the mania of maintaining that all is well when one is wretched.” – Voltaire, Candide (19)
I am a big believer in the power of optimism to knock you on your ass. My brain is highly susceptible to positive thinking. I have a tendency to feel inexplicable reoccurring episodes of positivity. Over and over again with relentless purity. Still, each time the legs of the chair called optimism are cut out from under me – it hurts. Where, oh nascent psychology student, is the conditioned response?
“It’s a great pity,” said Candide, “that the wise Pangloss should have been hanged contrary to custom in an auto-da-fé; he would tell us wonderful things about the physical evil and the moral will that cover the land and sea, and I would feel enough strength in me to dare, respectfully, to make some objections.” (103)
I have some objections. Not least of all the “inspirational” “power of thinking” that leaves one feeling worse for having failed to positively think themselves out of a housing dilemma, low paying job, or sick family member.
“You are very harsh, ” said Candide.
“That’s because I have lived.” said Martin. (237)
Voltaire uses grotesque exaggeration to make his amusing point, but I think he would probably throw-up if he knew how much more ridiculous the cult of optimism has become. As much of a romp as it is to read Candide, I can’t help a creeping disgust at how depressing it is that things have changed so little. Whywhywhy?
“My fair lady,” replied Candide, “when you are in love, jealous, and whipped by the Inquisition you are beside yourself.” (69)
True, true. I will collect myself, Candide suffered far worse. I don’t think he would have chosen me as worthy of his pity. But he would have to forgive me for my Pangloss moment:
“I flatter myself,” said Pangloss, “that I might briefly discuss cause and effect with you, the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and pre-established harmony.” At these words the dervish shut the door in their faces.
But wait! I really do. I, perhaps by sheer necessity, pursue Voltaire’s prescription to “tend to ones garden,” in other words: look to work to “keep away from us three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” (295) It is a good strategy. But why have the ability to think if that is the cause of the harm? I wonder about a philosophy, or strategy, however simple and “effective,” that at its root is avoidance of introspection; avoidance of contemplating the world as it is. Is a “work” ethic really so different in essence from prayer meditation positive thinking visualization incantation? Don’t they all just refocus the mind elsewhere? Of all methods, (could just be my absorbed Protestant mentality) I’d certainly go with work for the added benefits, but who among us doesn’t pause in their steps at moments and say – why? What’s so great about work? Nothing. It’s purpose and meaning that satisfy, if work provides that, then it fits the philosophy, if not- you didn’t work hard enough. Or at least work so hard that you didn’t have time to notice that boredom, vice and need are also forms of creative impetuous, and…interest.
“If we don’t find a pleasant place, we will at least find new things.”(141)
Why can’t people make a cult of kindness? Be kind. That’s all. Of course, given the many men and women, far wiser than me, whom have espoused an ethic of kindness- some of whom have many a shrine built in their name – I am not optimistic.
I wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most baleful inclinations; for is there anything more foolish than to want to bear continually a burden that one steadily wants to throw to the ground? To hold one’s being in horror, and to cling to one’s being? In a word, to caress the snake that devours us until it has eaten our heart? (99)
*Voltaire’s Candide A Bilingual Edition translated and edited by Peter Gay
** Title from page 225