On reading Voltaire’s Candide

While prepping for my Great Books class on the conclusion for Voltaire’s Candide, I stumbled, by way of the Washington Post, onto this Slate article that uses the occasion of a study on college student unhappiness to imply that a significant cause of said unhappiness is social media.

As I’ve found that one way to increase student interest is to suggest that great works of literature offer lessons with regard to social media—I am shamelessly topical even the only social networks of which I am a member are scholarly discussion groups and societies—I plan today to offer Candide’s great advice, “we must cultivate our garden,” as a route to individual happiness.

But social media does not seem to me a useful garden to cultivate. As Facebook was catching on four or five years ago, a student once wrote he had spent 70 hours on the site in the previous two or three weeks. And it occurred to me that anything that could sop up 3 or 4 hours of one’s time every day was a danger to be avoided, a danger to one’s mental health and, for an academic, to one’s professional life. Despite the rumors that saturate public discourse about lazy professors only spending 3 hours a day in the classroom, I work at least 12 hours a day to try to be a good teacher and research scholar. And if I want to do those things well, I just don’t have time to waste 30 minutes per day recording my personal life for public consumption.

There’s no way such a time sink of the self-promotion of social networking could contribute to happiness. Rather than spending time on cool digital technologies—about which I’m obtuse and can’t afford anyway—spend two hours of your life feeding your mind with insights like these from Voltaire.

When the philosopher Pangloss asks the Turkish dervish why man has been created, and Candide points out that there’s a lot of evil in the world, the dervish replies: “When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry whether the mice on board or comfortable or not?” (73)

When Candide asks whether men have always been “liars, traitors, ingrates, thieves, weaklings, sneaks, cowards, backbiters, gluttons, drunkards, misers, climbers, killers, calumniators, sensualists, hypocrites, and fools,” Martin (the cynic) responds: “Do you believe … that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they could get them?” (46)

If like for Voltaire’s Turks pistachio sherbet makes you happy, by all means go for it. The trouble with individual happiness as a goal is that it does nothing to address social injustice. I hang with C.S. Pierce, that that any sense of ethics would insist that the seeking for personal happiness cannot shield you from moral responsibility to care for one’s fellows in the joint stock company of civic life.

But Voltaire’s insight about what humans are is the rub. Any social efforts to expand rights, ameliorate pain and suffering, reign in gun lunacy, exercise collective bargaining, or tax the wealthy or highly paid will need to be fought for with righteousness backed by tooth and nail. Because you can expect that others are going to act like human beings. In solidarity with my union brothers and sisters in Ohio, at least until the end of the week, when the hawks plan to munch on some pigeons.

Voltaire. Candide, or, Optimism. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert M. Adams. Trans. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1991. Print.

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3 Responses to On reading Voltaire’s Candide

  1. Just a brief note! I’m trying to write a blog which refers to Candide and covers some similar ground to your comments here. I’m retired now and have time both to think and act and the challenge is how to use these opportunities in the best way. What a world this is – and how amazing the new communication tools. Thanks!

  2. Joel says:

    “I hang with C.S. Pierce, that that any sense of ethics would insist that the seeking for personal happiness cannot shield you from moral responsibility to care for one’s fellows in the joint stock company of civic life. ”

    Why should we care for our fellows? On what authority do you base this moral responsibility? Who says care for others is better than the pursuit of personal happiness and why should I follow their directive?

    • wraabe says:

      I did not say that caring for others is “better than the pursuit of personal happiness”: I said that both were connected. But as for authorities, psychological researchers have connected personal happiness with giving to others. See Dunn, E. W., et al., ” Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness” Science 319, 1687-1688 (2008). http://www.sciencemag.org/content/319/5870/1687. According to Christian scripture, Jesus advocated treating others as one would wish to be treated: “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). In my post I cited the philosopher C.S. Pierce as an authority advocating shared social concern over the biblical call to sacrifice the world for one’s own eternal happiness, and he argued that logic is rooted in what he named the “social principle” (80-81) in “Grounds of Validity in the Laws of Logic,” The Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Vol. 1 (1867-93), Eds. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992, 56–82. These are some authorities, but the topic is too large to pursue with rigor in a blog comment. If I follow my principles, I am obligated to care for my fellows. Unfortunately for others in their time of need, I may fall short of my stated ideal. If you follow your principles, you are not so obligated. Fortunately for you if you fall on hard times, others may fall short of your implied ideal.

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