What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cultivate Our Garden”: An Animated Introduction

“Voltaire’s goal in writ­ing [his 1759 satire Can­dide] was to destroy the opti­mism of his times,” says Alain de Bot­ton in the School of Life video above, “an opti­mism that cen­tered around sci­ence, love, tech­ni­cal progress, and a faith in rea­son.” These beliefs were fol­ly, Voltaire thought: the trans­fer of faith from a prov­i­den­tial God to a per­fect, clock­work uni­verse. Can­dide sat­i­rizes this hap­py ratio­nal­ism in Doc­tor Pan­gloss, whose belief that ours is the best of pos­si­ble worlds comes direct­ly from the philo­soph­i­cal opti­mism of Got­tfried Leib­niz.

The pre­pon­der­ance of the evi­dence, Voltaire made abun­dant­ly clear in the novel’s series of increas­ing­ly hor­rif­ic episodes, points toward a blind, indif­fer­ent uni­verse full of need­less cru­el­ty and chaos. “Hope was, he felt, a dis­ease,” de Bot­ton says, and “it was Voltaire’s gen­er­ous goal to try and cure us of it.” But as every­one who has read Can­dide (or read a sum­ma­ry or brief notes on Can­dide) knows, the nov­el does not end with despair, but on a “Sto­ic note.”

After endur­ing immense suf­fer­ing on their many trav­els, Can­dide and his com­pan­ions set­tle in Turkey, where they meet an old man sit­ting qui­et­ly under a tree. He tells them about his phi­los­o­phy, how he abstains from pol­i­tics and sim­ply cul­ti­vates the fruits of his gar­den for mar­ket as his sole con­cern. Invit­ed to feast with the man and his fam­i­ly, they remark upon the lux­u­ri­ous ease in which they live and learn that they do so on a fair­ly small plot of land.

Voltaire loved to goose his large­ly Chris­t­ian read­ers and delight­ed in putting the novel’s part­ing wis­dom, “arguably the most impor­tant adage in mod­ern phi­los­o­phy,” in the mouth of an Islam­ic char­ac­ter: Il faut cul­tiv­er notre jardin, “we must cul­ti­vate our gar­den.” What does this mean? De Bot­ton inter­prets the line in the lit­er­al spir­it with which the char­ac­ter known only as “the Turk” deliv­ers it: we should keep a “safe dis­tance between our­selves and the world.”

We should not, that is, become over­ly engaged in pol­i­tics, and should devote our­selves to tend­ing our own liveli­hood and wel­fare, not tak­ing more than we need. We should leave our neigh­bors alone and not both­er about what they do in their gar­dens. To be at peace in the world, Voltaire argued, we must accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be, and give up utopi­an ideas of soci­eties per­fect­ed by sci­ence and rea­son. In short, to “tie our per­son­al moods” to human affairs writ large is to invite end­less mis­ery.

The phi­los­o­phy of Can­dide is not pes­simistic or nihilis­tic. A hap­py, ful­filled human life is entire­ly pos­si­ble, Voltaire sug­gests, if not human hap­pi­ness in gen­er­al. Can­dide has much in com­mon with the ancient Roman out­look. But it might also express what could be seen as an ear­ly attempt at a sec­u­lar Bud­dhist point of view. Voltaire was famil­iar with Bud­dhism, though it did not go by that name. Bud­dhists were lumped in, Don­ald S. Lopez, pro­fes­sor of Bud­dhist and Tibetan Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, writes at the Pub­lic Domain Review, with the mass of “idol­aters” who were not Chris­t­ian, Jew­ish, or Mus­lim.

Yet the many Jesuit accounts of East­ern reli­gion reach­ing Europe at the time cir­cu­lat­ed wide­ly among intel­lec­tu­als, includ­ing Voltaire, who wrote approv­ing­ly, though crit­i­cal­ly, of Bud­dhist tenets in his 1764 Dic­tio­n­naire philosophique. As the sec­u­lar mind­ful­ness move­ment has done in the 21st cen­tu­ry, Lopez argues, Voltaire sought in the age of Enlight­en­ment to sep­a­rate mirac­u­lous leg­end from prac­ti­cal teach­ing. But like the Bud­dha, whose sup­posed biog­ra­phy Voltaire knew well, Can­dide begins his life in a cas­tle. And the sto­ry ends with a man sit­ting qui­et­ly under a tree, more or less advis­ing Can­dide to do what Voltaire had heard of in the “reli­gion of the Siamese…. Med­i­tate in pri­vate, and reflect often on the fragili­ty of human affairs.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Voltaire: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher of Plu­ral­ism & Tol­er­ance

Voltaire: “Those Who Can Make You Believe Absur­di­ties, Can Make You Com­mit Atroc­i­ties”

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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