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All Possible Worlds, Haiti, Biblio File

Candide in New York (or the Problem of Evil)

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In 2003 I began work on an edition of Candide for Broadview Press that was published in 2009. For the cover image, I suggested a photograph of the twin towers in flames. I also had an idea for an image to balance it on the back cover: the famous snap from Abu Ghraib of a hooded man standing on a box, arms outstretched and apparently in mortal fear of electrocution. If you find that poor taste, or cannot conceive of why I would choose those images, please read on.

Though it is a comedy, Candide is also about what philosophers have called "the problem of evil." In Voltaire's time and before, the problem was framed in terms of God's role in evil. The problem gets its classic, clear characterization in philosophy as a tangle of problems authored by the Roman-African scholar Lactantius (240 - ca. 320 CE), who attributes it to the Greek thinker Epicurus (341-270 BCE). Lactantius writes:

"God, says Epicurus, is either willing to remove evil, and is not able: or else he is both willing and able. If he is willing and not able, he must then be weak, which cannot be affirmed of God. If he is able and not willing, he must be envious, which is likewise contrary to the nature of God. If he is neither willing nor able, he must be both envious and weak, and consequently, not God. If he is both willing and able, which only can agree with the notion of God, whence then proceeds evil?"

After Epicurus, philosophers also divided the argument further by making a distinction between two types of evil: physical and moral. An earthquake – like the one that occurs in the fifth chapter of Candide – is an example of physical evil, of suffering for which God is the sole author.

 Port-au-Prince, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010 (AP Photo/Carel Pedre)Earthquake in Haiti: Port-au-Prince, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010 (AP Photo/Carel Pedre)Earthquakes appear to produce great undeserved suffering for which humans cannot be blamed in the least – not before the era when seismology and building codes were feasible, anyway. But war, rape and torture – which are found throughout Candide – seem to be of our manufacture. Though a physical evil of pain is bound up within them, we ourselves choose to inflict that suffering. We are responsible for such moral evil, but are humans the only source? How could a good God present us with the choice of evil, and how could a good, all-seeing (omniscient) and all-powerful (omnipotent) God allow the victims to suffer, rather than foresee and forestall our damaging choices?

Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) re-acquainted Europe with these arguments at the end of the seventeenth century. He wrote in a compelling fashion that prompted a chain of response and discussion over more than half a century by Gottfried Leibniz, Alexander Pope and many others, including Voltaire. (By the way, a collection of such writing accompanies Candide in the Broadview edition). Voltaire was one of a few thinkers who, giving a nod to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), attempted to remove God from the tangle of evil. Voltaire's writing suggests that he retains a role for a creator of the universe, but he expects that human happiness is not the point of that universal order and he suspects that our ideas of good and evil might not be present to the creator's mind. If either holds true, then we should not expect that this is the best of possible worlds.

Voltaire finds that all is decidedly not well, but if we sever the Gordian knot that links God to good, the problem becomes much simpler. The natural evil in the make-up of the world we might never understand, but we can use our reason to produce sensible building codes to limit the damage done by earthquakes. Human-made evil we can also prevent or avoid. Voltaire attempted to prevent it by writing Candide and other criticism of his society, and his character Candide attempted to avoid it by tending his garden.

Broadview Press did not go with my suggestion: they decided instead to feature a melancholy photo of the wasted city of San Francisco following the earthquake of 1906. It suits the tone of lament found in Candide as well as the aesthetics of the book jackets of the series within which the volume was published. It will raise fewer alarms than a snap from Abu Ghraib, but I think Voltaire is more concerned about the moral evil we willingly do to each other than the natural evil we suffer from the unforeseen hazards of nature.

Explore Eric Palmers annotations in Candide 2.0 »

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