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Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

The longest word in the chapter is also the silliest: ‘metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology’. The narrator plays with words, like a child learning the language. And this gives us a child-like perspective on events, as we spy on the grown-ups having sex in the park. But this is an old story, as old as Adam and Eve in fact. In the beginning was the Word: and it is the words – ‘cause and effect’, ‘sufficient reason’ – that we enjoy here. But is learning the language the same as learning the meaning of words? Or is it child’s play? It seems that the more we play with these terms, the more they lead a life of their own.

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‘Intelligent design’ is a phrase we hear a lot now, especially since a key US Supreme Court ruling of 1987 concerning the teaching of ‘creationism’ in American schools (discussed in the Wikipedia article on ‘Intelligent design’). In fact the idea is an old one that predates Darwin and the theory of evolution.

In the early 18th century, it was common to argue that the ‘design’ of the universe made it clear that there had to be a divine ‘designer’. Here is Voltaire making fun of the argument from design. To say that ‘the nose has been formed to bear spectacles’ is funny because of the upside-down Alice-in-Wonderland logic. But what Voltaire also shows is how man pretends to argue a general and disinterested point, while in fact arguing from his own personal position.

Look at the choice of examples here: spectacles, stockings, stones (for building a castle), and roast pork: it is the portrait of the Baron sitting down to dinner. His mental universe extends no further than his physical domain: both are rather limited. No philosophical example is innocent, and the give-away here is ‘Pigs were made to be eaten’. The pork-eating German baron, wearing his spectacles and stockings and sitting complacently in his castle, doesn’t seem to know about Jews, or Moslems: why didn’t God design the world for them too? The argument from design is meant to prove the existence of God: here it only proves the existence of German barons.

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After the sudden disappearance of the first narrator, here is a second story-teller: the Baron tells stories (‘des contes’ in the French original) to his servants – who laugh because he pays their wages. Story-telling is getting a bad name here.

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The story begins like a fairy tale, ‘Once upon a time…’. But the mood does not last long: it has already soured by the end of the paragraph, with the ironic reference to the snobbishness of the Baron’s sister. And nothing is quite what is seems – the story of Candide’s birth is an obvious rewrite of the birth of the hero in Fielding’s Tom Jones, a novel which came out only a few years before Candide.

But the single oddest word in this opening paragraph is ‘I’. Who is it who says ‘I apprehend’ (‘je crois’, in the French original)? Presumably some sort of narrator who is telling the tale? For a moment we seem to be in a conventional fairy tale, where the narrator takes us by the hand and leads us reassuringly through the events. Fair enough – except that after this one appearance, he, or she?, disappears… The narrator leaves us on our own after this brief and apparently pointless appearance. We are not, after all, to be guided through the story; the narrator has let us down by stealing any old plot from Tom Jones; nothing is quite as it seems; and we are on our own, left to make sense of things as best we can…

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