When satire gets serious about human rights: Encountering CANDIDE

lisbon1755hangingAs I mentioned in my last blog post, my friend Kathy and I are struggling through a very boring book for French class at a fancy private school in 1969…

Kathy has news for me about this book.

“It’s got cutting off asses in it,” Kathy whispers to me at the library.

“What?” I reply distractedly. I am not really listening because I am daydreaming about some boy or some outfit or some record or some movie.

Candide – it’s got pirates cutting women’s asses off. “

“No it doesn’t.”

“AND EATING THEM,’ was the triumphant rejoinder.

I pause and gaze at my classmate.

Kathy is one of the more unique students in our class. She is incredibly smart and talented. She rides a horse competitively, and she plays concert-level classical guitar. She hates math but loves science and is working on a private experiment with the chemistry teacher. She is an incredible artist. She also has a beautiful singing voice.

I figure that she has finally fallen off her horse during one of the higher jumps. Or maybe that high C has broken something in her brain.

Look, she says. She pulls a Modern Library translation of Candide out of her bag.

She points to this section:

“‘Only cut off a buttock of each of those ladies,’ said he, ‘and you’ll fare extremely well; if you must go to it again, there will be the same entertainment a few days hence; heaven will accept of so charitable an action, and send you relief.’

He had great eloquence; he persuaded them; we underwent this terrible operation.


I go home and telephone my mother about the ass-chopping variant to our textbook. She promptly procures a free copy of the English translation (she works for Random House). Comes home and compares our little French book with the longer English.

“Yes,” my mother confirms. “You are reading a sanitized, censored version.”

I go ahead and read the forbidden English.

And frankly, the cutting off and devouring of the ass cheeks is not the most disgusting thing that happens in Candide.

courtesy, Urban Dictionary
courtesy, Urban Dictionary

Voltaire’s 1759 novel reads like a high-toned, slightly archaic version of South Park. Complete with continual screaming, natural and unnatural catastrophes, idiotic declaiming by authority figures who have no idea what they are doing and multiple “deaths” and miraculous reappearances of numerous characters, Candide may be one of the most readable, and entertaining satires ever written. Just as South Park has managed to entertain and challenge and offend audiences for a decade, Voltaire’s novel presents you with one unspeakable, grotesque, violent, weird incident after the next with a merry, energetic tone. No wonder it was adapted into a musical. The protagonist of this book is the equivalent of Butters – completely naïve and yet strangely dangerous (do you remember the tap shoe that kills people when it flies off of poor Butters’ foot?).

Now — imagine Butters as a teenager in breeches at the castle in Germany paired up with a truly dopey teacher (someone like Mr. Mackie, who says “the best of all possible worlds” instead of “mmm-k?”) and you’ve got the basic characters for Voltaire’s book.

A quick reminder about satire: satire uses comedy and irony to criticize vice in society. These elements can range from the silly and slapstick-y to horribly violent and horrifying, There are many 20th Century examples: Preston Sturges’ beleaguered movie director Sullivan explaining to his producer why he wants to experience poverty all the way to the gleefully unrepentant Mack the Knife singing to you about how great it is to be an army man in The Three Penny Opera.

Let’s all go barmy

We’re in the army

See the world we never saw

And when we’re feeling down

We’ll wonder into town

And if the population

Should greet us with indignation

We’ll chop ‘em to bits because

We like our hamburger raw.

(Three Penny Opera, Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weil – transcribed from memory because I used to listen to the record when I was a kid [yes I know, weird])

Candide is remarkable because it is so modern in its relative speed of narration. It’s a short novel by 18th Century standards. And like South Park, it pulls out all the stops and is horrifying and funny in practically every chapter.

Who and what is Candide mocking?

Like most complex satiric art, Candide is mocking a host of people and practices including but not limited to:


  • The Catholic Church
  • Islam
  • Judaism
  • Organized religion in general, but especially the big 3 monotheisms
  • Priests religious leaders of any variety – in particular those belonging to Catholicism, Islam and Judaism
  • The vanity of women
  • The repressed homosexuality of the Catholic Church
  • Religious persecution
  • Militarism, in particular war
  • Forced military enlistment
  • The Germans — in particular Frederick the Great, whom Voltaire knew personally
  • The French – in particular Parisians
  • Political oppression
  • Colonialism
  • Slavery
  • Aesthetic snobbery
  • Academic pretention
  • The philosophy of Gottfried Leibnitz


I have taught Candide many times, and I always ask students if they experience the book, as racist, sexist, and homophobic. Because from a certain point of view, it is those things.

Usually students say something like this. “Well, yeah, but everyone gets it in the novel. Everyone gets mocked, and made to look ridiculous.”

This is true pretty much.

But there is one place where the rollicking narrative comes to a screeching halt. Here is an excerpt from that scene:

As they drew near the town, they saw a black man stretched upon the ground, with only one moiety of his clothes, that is, of his blue linen drawers; the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.

“Good God!” said Candide in Dutch, “what art thou doing there, friend, in that shocking condition?”

“I am waiting for my master, Mynheer Vanderdendur, the famous merchant,” answered the man.

“Was it Mynheer Vanderdendur,” said Candide, “that treated thee thus?”

“Yes, sir,” said the black man, “it is the custom. They give us a pair of linen drawers for our whole garment twice a year. When we work at the sugar-canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me.          . . . . Dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less wretched than I. The Dutch fetiches, who have converted me, declare every Sunday that we are all of us children of Adam—blacks as well as whites. I am not a genealogist, but if these preachers tell truth, we are all second cousins. Now, you must agree, that it is impossible to treat one’s relations in a more barbarous manner.”

“Oh, Pangloss!” cried Candide, “thou hadst not guessed at this abomination; it is the end. I must at last renounce thy optimism.”

“What is this optimism?” said Cacambo.

Alas!” said Candide, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.” (Chapter 19, CANDIDE, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19942/19942-h/19942-h.htm#Page_48 Note: I have altered the translation slightly, to read in a bit more of a contemporary way)

Before I say anything further I want to acknowledge that Voltaire was a man of his time, for sure. White, upper middle class, heterosexual – what we would call privileged, with a capital “P.” He is not an unbiased writer, and in a later post I’ll talk about his anti-Judaism, in particular.

But I want to notice how when we arrive at this scene in which a black slave meets Candide, the novel stops in its tracks. Voltaire gives the power of narration over to the black man who talks to the reader directly, and claims, not just a human parity, but indeed a close kinship to both Candide, and to “us” – Voltaire’s European (and predominantly white) readership.

Whenever I read this novel, and get to this moment, I am impressed by Voltaire’s push to think beyond his own historical context and beyond his own prejudices in order to make a serious plea for human equality. It is at this precise moment that the dense and dopey Candide realizes just how awful the world he lives in is. He cries to Pangloss (the Mr. Mackie equivalent in the book) a lot. But this time is different. For the first time in the book, Candide denounces and renounces “optimism” as a philosophy. He is beginning – albeit with painful slowness – to think for himself, and to analyze the world around him based on his own first-hand experiences and observations.

It’s also worth pointing out that this horrifying and heart-rending indictment of slavery (and the racism which [in this case] drives it) directly follows Candide’s visit to Eldorado, a utopian society characterized by the following:

  • Abundance
  • Equality
  • One Universal religion
  • Personal freedom


This combination of scenes allows us to glimpse the very real democratic passion that governs all of Voltaire’s writing. Voltaire’s novel exhibits a genuine wish for a more just society, where oppression based on class and race does not exist. His outrage at the present situation and his passion for something better shine out here.

With this in mind, I want to say something about the novel’s famous, very peculiar ending.

At the end of these insane adventures, Candide and his cohorts retire to the country, where they engage in farming.

“Il faut cultiver notre jardin” or “We must cultivate our garden” can be seen as a sort of act of resignation. Or is it? Critics have argued about its meaning for more than 200 years.

I think of four things as I reread the book again. They are out of order.

First of all, I think of Jefferson’s idea of the citizen farmer (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/yoeman/yman3.html).* I think of how a lot of 18th Century gentlemen in the American Colonies were farmers. John Adams was, for example (see my note on Jefferson and Adams at the end of this post). So, I think it’s important to remember that farming is work that matters, because without food to eat, you can’t live. I worked on a farm for two weeks between my junior and senior years of college. Farming is no joke. So “cultivating our garden,” isn’t a hobby, from that point of view, it’s a necessity. It signifies getting down to business, and getting your hands dirty (literally), and getting specific and tangible about your goals.

I think also of Voltaire himself. Voltaire lived for a time in Geneva because of his problems with the French authorities. He eventually bought a property right on the border with Switzerland, and when his political situation got too complicated, he would run over to Ferney and spend time on his lands. Sometimes we have to run away to stay viable, to stay safe. “Cultivating your garden,” may represent a respite from the authorities. It’s a way of keeping your eye on the exit sign.


But “cultivating your garden” may also provide a respite from the struggle for political justice. Perhaps it IS necessary when possible to take a break from the fight. I think about this a lot right now, as so many of us gear up to fight so many legal and political battles for LGBTQ+ rights, for immigrant rights, for abortion rights, the right to speak our minds freely and openly, the right to study and learn, and for the right to worship as we see fit. Or to be card-carrying atheists like my mother, who empowered a teenager to read a violent, sexual book in its entirety, rather than let her wonder why what she was reading seemed so disjointed and strange.

Candide’s wish to take a breather from the insane world he lives in makes a lot of sense to me.

Shortly after 09/11 I wrote a short story about a gardener. The title of the story is “Il Faut.” It is a riff on Candide. We need to grow our gardens however we can, wherever we can. We need to rest, we need to eat, we need to work, and we need to grow. Finally, we need to cultivate our minds. Voltaire understood this I think, which is why he creates a stupid character, who is not stupid at the end of the book. Candide is a person who is coming to know the world as it is. And this is something, we can all do, and that we all have both the right and the obligation to do, no matter what our circumstances are.

We must in other words “dare to know” the world as it is. This is, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, the motto of the Enlightenment.



To read Candide in the original French, click here. If you can manage the language, this is the best way to read the book.

To see an overview of translations of Candide into English, click here. I’ve read the Norton translation as well as the older Penguin translation. There’s a new Penguin/Random translation that I haven’t read yet.

  • Thomas Jefferson was reputedly a huge fan of Voltaire’s writing, and possessed multiple volumes of the French author’s work. He apparently lent his copy of Candide out to people according to the correspondences collected in the Jefferson Papers on the website FOUNDERS ONLINE. But other Founders liked the book too. Note this wonderful comment by John Adams in a letter to Richard Rush in 1814:  “I have lately read Rassilas, Candide, Zadig, Ionni, Scarmentado and Micromegas, and I think they unravel the World as well as Montesqueu or Lock.”  For the rest of the letter click here. It’s wonderful, and really shows how much Adams understood Voltaire’s work.

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