Candide, the master piece by Voltaire, which is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, is generally regarded as one of the sharpest critiques at optimism and hope. And indeed, it is. Candide is perhaps the first novel to point at the failures of modernity, to recognize the disastrous consequences of the general optimism brought up by the Age of Revolutions. Voltaire recognizes that the world is indifferent to our decisions, to our hopes and even to our intentions. The sheer brutality of facticity is delivered in its bare form at Candide, who insistently offers his other cheek. Candide is the perfect Illuminist, and he is also the perfect idiot.
Generally, we consider Voltaire to be criticizing one form of ideology, that of Leibniz, and the ‘ best of possible worlds’ . However, it seems to me that Voltaire was more incisive than that. Voltaire was indeed aiming at the isms, be it modernism, illuminism or fatalism. The idea of a general doctrine that would encompass life was the focus of Voltaire’s mockery and disdain – and Candide simbolizes the man who follows doctrines, even more, the man who hopes and trusts the effectiveness of ideas about the world.
In this sense, 250 years later, Voltaire is more actual than ever. If he had the great Earthquake of Lisbon to deliver a message of a God that simply couldn’t care less, we have Katrina and the sound prospect of a incoming climate change with disastrous consequences. If Voltaire had Leibniz to mock for trusting monadic intentions, we have a impotent claim to universal rights – that are always claimed but always dropped when faced with the reality of the plurality of isms and ideology.
Ideology and utopic claims at reality and at the way the world should be are still held, nevertheless. Even though they are yet to be in any way possible, and what Candide tells us is that they have always been imposible. But why? Because they make no sense, and they couldn’t make any sense – of course! How could they ever make sense if they are an attempt to tame a world that is obviously minding its own business? That is working regardless of our attempts to make sense of it?
In this, Voltaire offers us an idea of freedom that is paradoxically critical of modernity while at the same time is only possible in modernity. I’ll argue that what we are faced with when we read Candide is the most radical and dangerous form of being-free, it is a freedom that is a result of the incomprehensible nature of the World, that is even discovered as we realize we are not bound by any ism, that our “louable dessein”, our plans and expectations, are always actually impossible as anything more than a desiderato, anything more than a hope. And in this sense, they are stupid.
Voltaire’s freedom is precisely the realization that because the possibilities are always open we are free, because we can not know the future, we can not know sense, freedom is possible. And this must be embraced. El Dorado is an illusion, whatever we get there, we eventually lose. So we might as well not even search for it.
It is interesting to note that the great intellectual of the French Revolution was actually skeptical of the place of isms for the modern man, and it is even more interesting, as we read his master piece again, to realize that he was probably right. After a couple of centuries marked by the failure of ideologies and the insistent resort to new ones as forms of explaining the world, we keep on listening – not necessarily in this order: ” it is not universalism! it is communitarianism!” ” it is not communitarianism! it is communism!” “it is not communism! it is liberalism!” , ” it is not liberalism! it is alterity!” . It seems that more than ever Voltaire is smiling from his grave at all the fools that keep searching for El Dorado, and missing the point of what being free brings – what is at stake when we talk about liberation.
And perhaps answering the question directly is part of the problem. Because there is nothing special at stake about liberation or on being free, freedom is not something we can identify- it is something we are. It is also out of control, because everything might be going according to plan, according to how we had idealized when we thought our actions (that we also thought freely), and suddenly the walls crash. Suddenly the leeves break. Suddenly bombs fall. If things could indeed go according to plan, if we could erase the element of openness and absurd out of life, if this could indeed be the best of possible worlds – well, it would be a pretty impossible world.