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In Our Time: Voltaire's Candide

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 17:05, Friday, 4 May 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Voltaire's Candide. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep. PMcD.

Voltaire's Candide



A few weeks ago I was wandering through Soho, which has become a real pleasure now that I have offices there. It's riddled with back alleys, slits in a wall which connect streets or run to dead ends, a sudden sheer prospect of a new block of flats and lots of dingy doorways (slowly being tarted up - tart is not a bad word in this context). It's a muddle and a mix and, in its way, just as good a part of London to be in as was the South Bank, where I happily hoofed up and down the Thames most working days for 33 years and got beyond Tower Bridge one way and up to Vauxhall the other way.

In this riddle and higgledy-piggle of Soho there is Chinatown, which is a thing to itself, especially when they put out their dragons and great lanterns, and all the gaiety of the East suddenly comes to the southern side of Shaftesbury Avenue. And if you take a left and a right through the main street in Chinatown you come to a place called Cecil Court, which has some wonderful shops of second-hand books, curious jewellery, oddities and the most marvellous shop (I don't suppose I should mention the name because this is a public service newsletter) which sells all manner of miniatures of all sorts, of lovely little boxes, of small bronzes, all displayed with magnificent precision and neatness and run by a most bonhomous man or his assistant, another even more bonhomous man.

Well, to get to the point (although sometimes it's very nice not to get to the point, especially when you wander round that part of London and see the stage doors of theatres and the inside of tattoo shops, and the heap of people seeming as aimless as I myself am and yet they must be doing necessary things to keep the world turning round), I like to go and have a sniff around this particular shop and buy, now and then, one of the little plaques that I sort of collect - I say 'sort of collect' because I'm not a collector I'm a magpie and when I think that particular part of the wall is full enough then that will do. But the point is, about three of four weeks ago, I came across a smashing little early 19th century rendition of Voltaire.

So there he was and I bought him because of 'Lettres Philosophiques' and 'Candide', which I'd read at university more than 50 years ago as (somehow) part of the course in Modern History (that is, 412 AD to 1832). I knew exactly where I wanted to put it at home. I have a few pieces of medieval English alabaster - necessarily on religious subjects - and one particular one, which still has some of the original colour, is of St Peter with his big key and his Book of Life, and I popped a little nail in the wall and hung the little medallion at the feet of St Peter. Voltaire, as it were, under the heel of the man who would admit all good Christians to Heaven, but at the same time undermining him and rather than looking up to him, looking away from him. It's all very childish, but it gives me a lot of pleasure to look at this juxtaposition.

So up comes 'Candide' and I read it again and discover that I'd forgotten most of it. I had no idea that so much could be packed into so little. When David Wootton said it was only 15,000 words long, I could scarcely believe it. There's so much action at breakneck Keystone Kops speed and so many references - historical, theological, philosophical, anthropological, etc.

Such an extraordinarily prolific man and so admired for being prolific. It's odd how fashions change, isn't it? Until fairly recently, to be prolific was to be admired; now to be prolific is to be suspected. Economy is all. Except on the markets.

I thought they were such a good bunch this morning and so sporting to let fly, which they did.

I think my time is up. Ingrid deserves a better bank holiday than this.

Not much walking at the moment. Sluicing with rain here and we all rather glumly say it's good for the country. It isn't much good for paddling around when you end up soaked in a barely heated office. Still, remember the flowers that bloom in May.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


  • Comment number 1.

    And to think how free of tedium are the whole of Voltaire's 15.000 words as others' only one page can be riddled through with the dead glut of it.

  • Comment number 2.

    Behind all Voltaire’s writing is his debt to Locke,whose message-“don’t blindly follow convention or authority.Look at the facts and think for yourself”.Voltaire lived his life propagating the ideas of Locke and Newton. For both Voltaire and the French Encyclopaedists,such ideas they proposed eventuated in the French Revolution.Voltaire’s years in England made him appreciate, after being imprisoned in France for satirising the
    Establishment,the political freedom there for writers like Swift,Pope,Steele and Addison.

    Voltaire satirised Leibnitz’s philosophy and that of Rousseau’s,the two notable philosophers of his day. "Tout est bien, tout va bien, tout va le mieux qu'il soit possible."God to Leibnitz being perfect, chooses the best of all possible worlds.This was pilloried in Candide as the philosopher Pangloss,prating that ‘everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’.Leibnitz’s point is that it is necessary that God exists and since He
    Is perfect that He chooses the best of all possible worlds.A necessary truth of reason is that the best possible world exists.To Rousseau,man is naturally good,civilization corrupt,he sent an essay about this to Voltaire, who replied:”Never was such cleverness used in a design of making us all stupid.One longs,in reading your book,of walking on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than 60 years…”

    Voltaire became suspicious of authority after several bad experiences and liked to live in a place where he could slip out of reach,Chateau de Ferney, on the borders of Switzerland,a large agreeable country house.There he planted a splendid avenue of chestnuts and a green tunnel of cut beeches.Hence the idea at the end of Candide that you should cultivate your garden.Voltaire remained a kind of believer though he saw that the Church had become a tied house-tied to property,status,defending its interests by repression and injustice.He was a forerunner of HG Wells and the dystopian SF school of literature. Candide can only find a semblance of happiness in El Dorado, a rich, hidden world in South America: in other words, happiness in real life can only be found in a utopia without a basis for reality.


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