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Cosmic Optimism Denied: A comparison of Voltaire's Candide and Pope's Essay on Man
March 12, 1996
Like so many other authors throughout history, Voltaire tends to focus on the bad and ignores the good in life. All too often, it is misery which engulfs a writer in the inferno of imagination. When this happens, a mysterious process occurs whereby the author tends to lose all consciousness of the happy times of moments past. While Voltaire presents many good points in Candide, he nonetheless succumbs to this disease and therefore presents a skewed view of life replete with the exaggerations of the despondent. On the other hand, one has Pope's Essay On Man with its extreme optimism. As with Voltaire's pessimism, extreme is an appropriate adjective for this philosophy. While Voltaire denies everything joyful, Pope seems to deny man's free will, which, like the second law of thermodynamics, tends towards destruction. Somewhere in-between these startling oversights a path can be cut from the thickets of their rhetoric which would encompass Aristotle's Golden Mean in a philosophic realism of sorts.
Pope's mistake comes in the second section of Epistle I. Here he posits that man is perfectly suited to his position in the universe. Pope asks, "First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,/Why formed no weaker, blinder, and no less?" (line 37). What Pope fails to realize is that the tapestry of human life is quite varied in scope and breadth, and as one man once sang, "some girls are bigger than others" (from The Smiths' song of the same name). There are differences between each human being; I am blinder than she who needs no glasses, and weaker with than the one who wrestles with dragons. One man may have more knowledge, a woman more wealth these are the distinctions of thrownness (see Martin Heidegger) that lead to the caverns of misery which Voltaire so exquisitely explores. Pope declares with stately grace that "Man's as perfect as he ought" (line 70). Now he has not only minimized the congenital differences of humankind, he has denied the dynamism of life that results from this race's liberty to choose. The concept of man's will to choose is not something that can be proved by empirical means; it is rather an intuited idea. However, it is accepted by a large proportion of humanity and seems to be the most logical and reasonable hypothesis we have on the subject. It is therefore seen that Pope's perfection and no-will must be rejected in the quest for the ultimate Truth as embodied in the concept of the Golden Mean.
Assuming the existence of as Supreme Being and/or Ultimate Reality, these are the only aspects which Pope clearly trips up on in An Essay on Man. Aside from these two conjectures, he offers an excellent description of the state of man's relations to the universe which can find consistency with many of the world's religions and philosophies.
Then we turn to François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire's famous novella Candide. This polemic serves as a more than adequate refutation of Liebnitz and Pope's absolute optimism; however, it plunges over the cliff edge in doing so. Voltaire brings up many fine and disagreeable examples of the evil in this man's absolute optimism; however, it plunges over the edge in doing so. Voltaire brings up many fine and disagreeable examples of the evil in this world, but in his exaggerations and immoderation he fails at accomplishing the paradigmatic goals of his day, which is also the purpose of this paper namely, sophrosyne. If only Voltaire would have painted the verdurous Andean forest in our minds, the brilliant seas that the protagonist sailed upon, or the magnificent splendors of Paris and Constantinople, then the reader would have caught a glimpse of the bigger picture that is life. There is no one wrong precept in the story; there is just a general over-wroughtness in the pessimism presented. The remedy is clear: pull away from the cliff edge of egregiousness towards the sanity of the middle path.
It remains to be seen, after a full life of experiences, whether this so-called realism is anything of the sort. Nevertheless, this seemingly-moderate philosophy culled from the pages of Pope and Voltaire seems to me to be one that serves as a well-thought-out and balanced view of life. By simply focusing on those aspects of Pope's aside from his ideas on perfection and free-will (as I perceive them) and combining them with the more negative views of the Frenchman, the Golden Mean can be reached. While this philosophy, like all others, may be strictly a metaphor for life, it nonetheless may uphold its purpose and thus help to further human knowledge and understanding. And that, I believe, is the overwhelming reason behind this life.