Lessons from Voltaire: How to Find Purpose in Life

Based on insights from the French philosopher's most notable work.

photo credit: Joanna Kosinska

Few philosophers have made so great an impact on French philosophy as Voltaire. Born in 1694, Francois-Marie Arouet spent his early years in Paris, France. He was educated in the classics by Jesuits at the College Louis-le-Grand.

After finishing school, he wanted to become a writer. His father, though, wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. To appease him, Arouet pretended to pursue law while he wrote.

Arouet became popular amongst his peers for his satire and wit. Unfortunately, these same attributes soon landed him in hot water. After mocking the government, he was imprisoned in the Bastille for nearly a year. When he was released, he decided to adopt the name “Voltaire”.

Like many philosophers during the Enlightenment, Voltaire advocated individual liberty, reason, and a questioning of religious doctrines. Arguments with authority figures led him to exile from France. As a result, he travelled to England, Brussels, and eventually Prussia.

Voltaire wrote largely plays and poetry, along with historical and philosophical works. His writing fell into one of three categories: a few were incredibly popular, many were flops, and a notable number angered people around him. His life reflected this pattern as well. He would be welcomed to new lands, only to be driven out.

In Geneva, he was once again welcomed with open arms. Yet, his works provoked a number of Swiss intellectuals, and his plays were soon stopped. Bickering and criticism ensued.

A tired Voltaire retired to Ferney, a French village located at the Swiss border. It was here in the countryside that he experienced one of the happiest and most productive periods of his life. At this time, he wrote his most well-known work, Candide.

The Story of Candide

Published in 1759, the fictional work begins in a baron’s castle in Germany, where the young Candide lives peacefully. His tutor, the optimist Dr. Pangloss, teaches him that “everything is for the best.”

Through a series of events, Candide travels throughout South America and Europe, where he sees and experiences misfortunes ranging from natural disasters to unjust acts of violence. He starts to question whether all is for the best, and the meaning behind the terrible events he witnesses.

Candide is a philosophical critique on aspects of the Enlightenment, the hypocrisy behind religious leaders, and inhumane actions carried out in the name of justice. Real events are referenced, such as the Seven Years’ War, the disastrous 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and the execution of Admiral John Byng, which outraged many at the time.

The book is a short, entertaining read. But don’t be fooled by this deceptively light piece. Behind the veil of satire and humor, serious points are made — some of which are still relevant today.

Here are three dangers the story discusses:

1. The danger of optimism.

Throughout the story, Pangloss reminds Candide that all is for the best. Pigs were made to be eaten, which is why we eat pork. Legs were meant to wear shoes, which is why we have shoes. And finally, the Bay of Lisbon was created in order for the character Jacques to drown in it.

While Pangloss’s rationalizations are over-the-top, his character was used to mock philosophers who believed that everything happened for a specific reason. The danger of optimism, according to Voltaire, was that it led to inaction. When Candide tries to save Jacques from drowning, Pangloss stops him to prove that Jacques was meant to drown.

This sounds illogical to us. But still, we fall victim to the belief that positive thinking is a core ingredient for success. We think that if we can just be positive, things will work out the way they were meant to. Unfortunately, studies have shown that fantasizing about a certain outcome can actually hinder action.

Instead of simply focusing on the end result, start with the action. Planning out a meal today works better than aspiring to be a specific weight. Practicing an instrument will get you farther than imagining yourself in front of large audiences.

Starting small is a simple, but effective method.

2. The danger of success.

Everyone likes success. We strive for it, talk about it, and are attracted to it. Unfortunately, success can attract people for the wrong reasons.

Candide finds a fortune of gold, jewels, and sheep. He later barters with a traveling merchant, who swindles him. Candide also attracts friends who befriend him for the sole purpose of receiving jewels and money before disappearing.

His journey shows how his newfound “success” has both a good and a dark side. He manages to purchase the freedom of his friends and finds genuinely helpful people. Unfortunately, he also attracts people who only want resources from him, dampening his optimistic view of life.

The story teaches us that success, in its various forms, doesn’t live up to its promise. As Candide learned, reaching success doesn’t mean that your problems disappear. Instead, they change into a different set of problems.

3. The danger of inaction.

Candide’s quest to find meaning was also a quest for happiness. At a few points in the story, Candide reaches somewhere that should make him happy, but only brings dissatisfaction. For instance, he miraculously finds himself in El Dorado, a peaceful land paved with riches. But he can only think of returning to his homeland with his fortune.

When Candide is reunited with his friends and beloved, once again, he should be happy. They’re free from wars, violence, and natural disasters. But they grow restless and bored. It is only when Candide meets a hard-working farmer that he realizes the one thing they need: purpose.

Candide says, “We must cultivate our garden.” So, they stop sitting around and decide to work together by performing various tasks. They are satisfied at last.

Many of us aspire to a day when we can finally stop working. We get tired of the everyday difficulties and hardships. But when we stop, we also lose our sense of purpose.

Candide shows the danger of philosophizing without doing. It’s easy to get caught up in things outside our control. When we think about what other people are doing or the latest gossip, we lose sight of how to improve our own situation.

Tend to your own garden instead.

Cultivate Your Garden

After Voltaire moved to the quiet countryside, he didn’t stay peaceful for long. In classic Voltaire fashion, he riled up the villagers with his opinions.

He continued to fight for the rights of individuals, championed religious tolerance, and became involved in local politics. Eventually, the locals cheered his efforts and the village of Ferney was renamed to Ferney-Voltaire.

After 28 years of exile, Voltaire finally returned to Paris. He came back celebrated and praised. By cultivating his garden, Voltaire found reward and meaning in his work.

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Originally published at medium.com

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