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Candide (Dover Thrift Editions)

Candide - Voltaire Poor Candide! He falls from one misadventure to another, getting kicked out of his home, drafted into foreign armies, gaining a fortune, losing a fortune, chasing the object of his desires the globe over, and almost burned at the stake as a heretic. All the while, his childhood teacher and traveling companion Dr. Pangloss rationalizes every turn of events as "for the best".The all-knowing Universe would never let anything happen unless it was for the best. This is, after all, the best of all possible worlds we live in.Did pirates steal your fortune? It's for the best! Those pirates were later attacked by other pirates, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Good thing you weren't on board with them!Did the governor of Buenos Aires steal your girlfriend?It's for the best! On your quest to win her back, you stumble on the lost kingdom of Eldorado, and win riches greater than all the monarchs of Europe.Did your family disown you and turn you out on the street, penniless? Great! It sent you on the road to find your own way in the world, and while you were away, foreign invaders slaughtered them all. That could have been you!The alternative title of this short novel is "Optimism", and it is Dr. Pangloss' perennially cheerful, glass half-full attitude which is the object of parody here. Sure, a certain amount of optimism is a good thing, but in too large doses, it becomes a secular "Opiate of the masses". Doesn't it seem weird to cast optimism in a negative light? Isn't it good to look on the bright side of things? Well... there's some nuance to that. Wallowing in self-pity and depression is probably not helpful, but I think Voltaire's point is that you can only meet so much adversity with sunny optimism before it becomes ridiculous and counterproductive. Barbara Ehrenreich seems to agree with me.COUNTERPRODUCTIVE?!Yeah, that's right. It's difficult to be optimistic and angry at the same time, and sometimes anger -if properly directed- is appropriate. It's a motivator. I'm not advocating violence here, which is a common unfortunate outcome of (improperly directed) anger; I'm saying that moral outrage- which seems to be the opposite of Pangloss' endless rationalizing- can be an impetus to change.Think of your heroes: people who changed the world for the better. Did any of them survey the injustices around them and then serenely pronounce that all the evils of the world were "for the best"? Of course not! They got angry! They were disgruntled! That doesn't mean they just lashed out indiscriminately; they channeled it, but they didn't just smile and accept their fate with good nature.Gandhi observed the poor treatment and exploitation of Indians, in their own homeland. Did he say "It's all for the best"? No way! He got angry, went on hunger strikes, and organized the Salt March.Rosa Parks was told to give up her seat on a bus, because of the color of her skin. Did she just stand up, shrug her shoulders, and declare "It must be for the best, since ours is the best of all possible worlds?" Hell no! She shoved back with the Birmingham Bus Boycott, which showed officials where the real power in the community was, and got the policy changed.When the British Parliament tried to tax its American colonists without representation, did Patrick Henry just smile and "try to look on the bright side"? Not even for a minute; he led the Virginia House of Burgesses in declaring the Stamp Act both illegal and offensive, and in giving Parliament notice that Virginia would not pay!The truth is that Pangloss' cheery nonconfrontational optimism implicitly accepts the status quo. It is an ethos of the passive.Our present-day pharmaceutical companies would have you believe that anger, stress and discontentment are unnatural, pathologic emotions, which must be expunged from modern life... chemically, if necessary. I don't want people to be unhappy per se, but I don't see things changing for the better when the public at large is overmedicated to an artificial state of docility. The DSM-V comes out in a few months, and I can't wait to see what it has to say. If the forewarning hype is true, the satire in Candide is about to get a whole lot more relevant.