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James Morrow, author The Last Witchfinder, The Philosopher's Apprentice

“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what then of the others?” Perhaps the most famous line from the novella, fourteen words worth a thousand pictures.

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“For rejecting the bacon which larded a chicken they were eating.” In other words, the two Portuguese were Jews.

The “paper mitres” are facsimiles of bishops’ hats. A “san-benito” is the ornamented smock worn by a condemned Inquisition victim as he or she marched to the stake or gallows. Such garments were named after Saint Benedict, who introduced them. While the san-benito of a Jew or an alleged witch displayed a Saint Andrews cross front and back, ordinary heretics sported shifts decorated with devils and Hellfire, the flames pointing downward in the case of those who’d repented.

Evidently Candide’s error of listening “with an air of approbation” was sufficiently innocuous that the tribunal decided to award him a penitent’s habit and spare him the noose, whereas Pangloss, who committed the crime of speaking his mind, is clothed as a full-fledged heretic. It’s not entirely clear why the Holy Office loses track of Candide following his whipping. Presumably the officials are too absorbed by the burnings and the hanging to notice our hero’s escape.

“The same day the earth sustained a violent concussion.” Evidently the sages of Coimbra – the oldest university in Portugal – did not give the Inquisition such good counsel after all.

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In a bit of casuistry worthy of Pangloss, the administrators of the Inquisition applied the bland Portuguese phrase auto-da-fé, “Act of the Faith,” to the public burning of heretics.

Sad to say, Voltaire once again has his facts straight. On June 20, 1756, the city of Lisbon actually staged an auto-da-fé with an eye to canceling any divine plans for additional earthquakes.

Inevitably one thinks of the way that many frightened people, both learned and unlettered, responded to the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century. Certain that the scourge traced to the wrath of God, Christian mobs sought to placate Providence by persecuting non-Christians. In 1348, nine hundred Jews were burned alive in Strasbourg, France, in an effort to halt the plague at the city gates.

In the Leonard Bernstein musical-comedy adaptation of Candide, Richard Wilbur and John La Touche’s lyrics for “Auto-da-fé” quickly reach a sardonic Voltairean pitch. The song begins with the crowd in a festive mood.

What a day, what a day
For an auto-da-fé!
What a sunny summer sky!
What a day, what a day
For an auto-da-fé!
It’s a lovely day for drinking
And for watching people fry!

As the song progresses, the spectators grow more venomous.

When foreigners like this come
To criticize and spy,
We chant a
pax vobiscum
And hang the bastard high!

Finally, the mob reveals its malice in full.

At last we can be cheery,
The danger’s passed us by.
So sing a
Dies Irae
And hang the bastard high!

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Connoisseurs of Monty Python’s Flying Circus understand that “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” We can safely assume that Candide and Pangloss did not anticipate running afoul of either the Spanish Inquisition or, as it happens, the Portuguese Inquisition. Also known by the innocuous term “Holy Office,” the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church was empowered to root out forces inimical to the welfare of the faith, burning Jews, heretics, and supposed witches alive when necessary.

In a compelling scholarly work called Inquisition, Edward Peters of the University of Pennsylvania invites us to make a sharp distinction between the historical institution of the Holy Office and “the myth of the Inquisition.” Peters contends that, while its Spanish and Portuguese editions were indeed brutal and disgusting in the extreme, the Inquisition per se was not in fact “a single, all-powerful, horrific tribunal, whose agents worked everywhere to thwart religious truth, intellectual freedom, and political liberty.”

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Candide and the “Familiar” – the particular term for a Roman Catholic Church officer charged with arresting suspected heretics – are here debating the second great theodicy developed by Christian thinkers over the years. Just as the “ontological defense” attempts to account for God’s ostensible acquiescence to earthquakes, tornadoes, syphilis, cancer, and other sorts of “natural evil,” so does the “free will defense” seek to absolve the Almighty of any complicity in “moral evil”: war, rape, torture – the whole spectrum of human cruelty. If God routinely constrained us from eating forbidden fruit – or committing atrocities – our free will would be illusory. In fact, we would be little more that Heaven’s puppets, robots of circumstance, lacking the glorious gift of liber arbitrium.

Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers were as impatient with the free will defense as with the ontological defense. If liber arbitrium is such a valuable commodity, why does Providence distribute it so erratically? A world containing so many blind, lame, sick, hungry, and impoverished people hardly seems the handiwork of a Deity who puts a premium on individual freedom.

When the Familiar asks, “Sir, you do not then believe in liberty?”, we are not getting an ideal translation. In other editions of Candide, the key term is more appropriately rendered as “free will.”

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“If there is a volcano at Lisbon it cannot be elsewhere.” Precisely sort of acerbic aphorism – why is it not more famous? – that has inspired many readers to judge Candide the most satisfying of all possible satires.

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Playwright Lillian Hellman called Candide “the greatest piece of slap-dash ever written, at the greatest speed.” But not every moment is hectic. Consider the poignant image of the relief workers moistening the bread with their tears.

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A classic Voltairean juxtaposition: the stricken Candide begging for oil and wine – that is, for last rites – while the pedantic Pangloss scolds him on his choice of words. Ignoring his pupil’s plight, the philosopher insists that his correlation of the Lima quake with the Lisbon quake is not just “probable” but utterly demonstrable – though in fact Pangloss’s seismology is pseudo-scientific nonsense.

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When the sailor claims to have trampled on the crucifix, he is alluding to an actual 17th and 18th century practice. So great was the Japanese government’s antipathy toward Western religion that all European merchants and sailors were required to stomp on the cross, shed every trapping of the Church, and swear that they were not of the Christian faith.

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“The Last Day.” That is, Judgment Day – the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath – when the last trumpet will summon all souls before the throne of God, the saved to be delivered and the unsaved cast into eternal flames.

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This description of the cataclysm is sufficiently vivid that it’s reasonable to suppose Voltaire had access to eyewitness accounts. Some scholars suggest that the Lisbon earthquake led to the birth of modern seismology. Not long after the shocks subsided, the Portuguese prime minister ordered a formal query into the event. The Marquis of Pombol’s initiative resulted in the first objective scientific description of the causes and consequences of an earthquake.

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When Doctor Pangloss endeavors to prove a priori that “the Bay of Lisbon had been made on purpose for the Anabaptist to be drowned,” Voltaire is again accentuating the impotence of ordinary metaphysics when confronted with the problem of evil. In Western philosophy, a priori arguments proceed on the basis of things already known or easily assumed, as opposed to a posteriori arguments, predicated on observed facts. Placed in the eternally mobile mouth of Pangloss, all such terms, whether Latinate or not, become feeble sources of solace indeed, if not sheer gobbledygook.

The drowning of the virtuous Anabaptist underscores the novella’s main thematic obsession. In Voltaire’s view, we inhabit a world utterly bereft of retributive justice. Our collective condition is one in which villains may expect to prosper, while good souls like James should anticipate only stones for bread.

“The sheets were rent.” Not the most astute translation, since the “sheets” on a wind-driven ship are the ropes used to change a sail’s position. In other editions the sentence reads, “The sails were torn.”

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When Voltaire has Candide and company run afoul of an earthquake in Lisbon, he is not indulging his fancy. On the morning of November 1, 1755, a terrible seismic event shook the Iberian peninsula. Somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco were crushed by falling walls, consumed by fires, or drowned by the tsunami. A few estimates place the death toll as high as 100,000.

More than any single event, the Great Lisbon Earthquake crystallized the Enlightenment critique of conventional Christian thought. Why would a benevolent Deity permit such a calamity on All Saints Day, when so many people would be demonstrating their love for him by attending Mass? Why did God allow the earthquake to destroy a cathedral, a convent, and dozens of basilicas?

Today it’s impossible to read Voltaire’s account of the Lisbon earthquake without thinking of the cataclysm that recently devastated the country of Haiti, leaving at least 200,000 dead and one million homeless. The January 12, 2010, disaster also occasioned theological speculation, with the American evangelist Pat Robertson ascribing it to a compact that the Haitian people’s ancestors allegedly made with the Devil. The renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins offered a different view: “We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, un-premeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.”

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The conversation between Pangloss and the Anabaptist concerning our species’s predatory impulses foreshadows a forthcoming scene in which Candide and an Inquisition officer tangle over the question of human free will. Pangloss’s perverse argument that “the general good” is well served by “private misfortunes” weirdly anticipates the Utilitarian ethics of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Who but Voltaire could manage to satirize a school of thought before it existed?

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The notion of Pangloss being effectively treated for syphilis is not far-fetched. Although total cures were rare prior to the advent of antibiotics, patients sometimes enjoyed remissions thanks to mercury taken orally or intravenously. Pangloss was probably subjected to a mercury regimen, though in some cases arsenic was the preferred therapy.

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“Taking a glister.” That is, receiving an enema.

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“P-x-d.” For some reason, our anonymous 1918 translator felt skittish around the word “poxed.”

In describing the proliferation of syphilis, and the concomitant dispersal of chocolate and cochineal (red dye from insects), Pangloss presents a narrative with which many historians would agree. It is generally thought that the bacterium Treponema pallidum was present among indigenous New World peoples prior to the arrival of Europeans, and the “Columbian exchange theory,” which holds that Christopher Columbus and Marin Alonso Pinza brought the spirochete back from the West Indies, has been corroborated by genetic studies. But other scholars cite evidence that the disease has thrived in both hemispheres from prehistoric times.

Ever since the novella’s appearance in 1759, Candide aficionados have agonized over whether to accept Pangloss’s argument that the raptures of chocolate are well worth the ravages of syphilis.

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Among the highlights of Leonard Bernstein’s musical-comedy adaptation of Candide is “Auto-da-fé.” Although most of the song concerns the public execution of heretics, other lyrics elaborate on Pangloss’s account of the syphilis spirochete’s fabulous odyssey – a journey that, one might argue, parallels the peregrinations of Voltaire’s hapless characters. In the 1989 CD recording from Deutsche Grammophon, Adolph Green, playing Pangloss, performs Richard Wilbur and John La Touche’s verses with acid panache.

Oh my darling Paquette,
She is haunting me yet
With a dear souvenir I shall never forget.
‘Twas a gift that she got
From a seafaring Scott,
He received she believed in Shalott!

In Shalott from his dame
Who was certain it came
With a kiss from a Swiss
(She’d forgotten his name),
But he told her that he
Had been given it free
By a sweet little cheat in Paree.

Then a man from Japan,
Then a Moor from Iran,
Though the Moor isn’t sure
How the whole thing began;
But the gift we can see
Had a long pedigree
When at last it was passed on to me!

Well the Moor in the end
Spent a night with a friend
And the dear souvenir
Just continued the trend
To a young English lord
Who was stung, they record,
By a wasp in a hospital ward!

Well the wasp on the wing
Had occasion to sting
A Milano soprano
Who brought home the thing
To her young paramour,
Who was rendered impure,
And forsook her to look for the cure.

Thus he happened to pass
Through Westphalia, alas,
Where he met with Paquette,
And she drank from his glass.
I was pleased as could be
When it came back to me:
Makes us all just a small family!

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“How could this beautiful cause produce … an effect so abominable?” A swipe at Leibniz and perhaps even Aristotle, whose Physics famously distinguishes among material, formal, efficient, and final causes.

As a Deist and a Newtonian, Voltaire certainly believed in a universe of cause and effect, with God functioning as kind of divine clockwinder or prime mover. According to a famous anecdote, Voltaire and a companion once climbed a mountain to observe the dawn. Beholding the beautiful sunrise, Voltaire dropped to his knees and declared, “I believe, I believe in you, Powerful God, I believe!” But then, getting to his feet, he added a characteristic coda. “As for Monsieur the Son and Madame His Mother, that is another story.”

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In Pangloss’s defense, we might note that “venereal disease” can be paraphrased as “the disease of Venus,” that is, “the disease of love” – with apologies, of course, to the Roman goddess.

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“Sufficient reason.” Another dig at Leibniz, who opined promiscuously on two cardinal laws of thought, “the principle of sufficient reason” and “the identity of indiscernibles.”

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“Ah, best of worlds…” That mordant refrain again, which somehow never quite overstays its welcome. For many scholars and theologians, the ultimate vindication of God – that is, the quintessential theodicy – is the biblical story of Job, a man whose sufferings are commensurate with those endured by Candide and his comrades. Throughout the previous century this great dramatic poem inspired numerous poetic riffs and modern-dress retellings, among them The Trial by Franz Kafka, The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel, A Masque of Reason by Robert Frost, and Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein. The most powerful Job iteration to date is probably Archibald MacLeish’s verse drama J.B., which features a mordant refrain of its own: “If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God.” Voltaire would have smiled approvingly.

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A chapter dealing largely with the indelicate matter of venereal disease. Enamored as always of his own genius for sophistry and euphemism, Doctor Pangloss declines to name explicitly the infection he has contracted. Left untreated, of course, syphilis will typically torture its victims with lesions, pustules, blindness, loss of facial flesh, and the other physical horrors Candide observes in the “beggar” who materializes at the end of Chapter 3.

In having Pangloss rationalize syphilis as part of a divine plan, Voltaire accomplishes his most savage attack thus far on the worldview of philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). It is to Leibniz that we owe not only the character of Pangloss but also the concept of a “theodicy” – a formal attempt to explain the Supreme Being’s seeming indifference to human suffering. Leibniz’s particular theodicy is sometimes called the “ontological defense” of God’s goodness. Pain and disease are inherent in the Creator’s decision to bless us with a physical universe. Our bones, for example, must be light enough to allow movement, but this necessarily makes them vulnerable to breakage.

In other words, when Leibniz insists that ours is “the best of all possible worlds,” he would have us emphasize the word “possible.” He was not claiming that we inhabit the best imaginable world or the best conceivable world.

Voltaire and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers saw the flaw in Leibniz’s reasoning. If we can envision a superior world that nevertheless operates by natural laws – a Peruvian Eldorado, say, or a planet on which famine is unthinkable because fruit trees grow everywhere – we have come close to demonstrating that ours is not the best of all possible worlds.

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