Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Humor and Original Sin

The satirical wit that Voltaire presents in his novel Candide provides for sharp criticism of various aspects of society, including politics, wealth, love, religion, and more. Through the naïve character of Candide, his teacher Pangloss, and the philosopher Martin, we are provided with various perspectives on the idea that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” The stark contrast between optimism and pessimism is played out through Candide’s absurd adventures and through the characters he meets. Candide defines optimism as “the passion for maintaining that all is for right when all goes wrong with us,” and all certainly did go wrong for Candide in the quest for his beloved Cunégonde (86). A reoccurring theme that I found to address many targets of Voltaire’s critique as well as the satirical humor employed is the concept of Free Will.

After describing the horrors that have befallen him, Dr. Pangloss assures Candide that things could not be otherwise, as “all this is a manifestation of the rightness of things…for it is impossible for things not to be where they are, because everything is for the best” (35). To this an officer of the Inquisition objects, claiming that original sin invalidates this explanation, and he questions Pangloss’ theory by bringing up Free Will. Pangloss’ explanation of Free Will is that it is “consistent with Absolute Necessity” and is “Determined,” but he was cut off before fully completing his argument (35). The role of Free Will, not only in terms of optimism and pessimism but also in satire itself, was intriguing to me. The idea that everything is for the best implies a sort of predestination, which doesn’t factor in the capability of man to change his/her fate simply through the ability to make decisions out of free will. In Candide, it almost seems as if Pangloss implies everything is predetermined and will end up all right no matter who or what intervenes. Candide buys into this theory, as he believe it is his “duty” to love Cunégonde, even though she has become ugly, and doesn’t realize his right to choose the path he wishes to take.

This satirical view of humanity and Free Will speaks to the morality and spirituality of humans by their nature, referring all the way back to Adam and Eve, culminating in the garden (Eden) at the end. Playing on the idea of Free Will speaks to Voltaire’s method of humor as well, as in his brilliant satire he exercised his own Free Will which sparked great controversy about the accepted ideals of the time. I think the concept of Free Will is evident in other forms of humor as well, and is played upon in Tales of Tikongs as well as the theories of the philosophers we read. We choose to feel superior to someone, or to laugh at ourselves, or to see the truth in parody, based not only on our Free Will but because of our human nature. After all, original sin is what corrupted man, and gave him the faults that comedians magnify and the rest of us laugh at. To me, this underlying idea of human nature and Free Will bolsters Volatire's satirical critiques and asks a deeper question of not just optimism versus pessimism, but of the nature of man itself.

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