Voltaire wrote Candide in 1758, and it is timelier today than nearly four centuries ago. This is what makes a classic novel: it defines a problem, a predicament and basic human traits so profoundly, so exactly, that they are as true – and indeed truer – centuries later than at the time when it was written. The overwhelming majority of people whose views are formed and expressed by the mass media, believe that we are at the zenith of human development – we have planes, computers, the internet, human rights, the progress of medical science, etc. that we live in a better world than any previous generation and mankind’s prospects, but for climate change, can only improve.
Voltaire’s time, too, people were optimist, and there was no question that people were better off in the middle of the 18th century than in primitive world of human sacrifices, as we are better off than most people in the 18th century, but human stupidity is still all powerful, callousness, rape, bombings, beheading and genocide are still the favoured means to show one’s superiority to everybody else. There is a philosophical background to this, but the German philosopher’s arguments and learned Church fathers’ theological tomes were but an earlier version of what most people still believe - i.e. we live in the best of all possible worlds.
One of the wittiest writers of Western literature, Voltaire produces swift and amusing portraits of the main vices of the human race, but the greatest human failings embodied in Candide’s tutor, Panglos who survives being burnt by the Inquisition, robbed, cut to pieces by marauders – in short, subjected to all too many indignities, cruelties, injustices but still believes that all is for the best. Panglos embodies, like no other character in literature, the greatest fatal failing of the human race: the inability to learn from experience.
It is dangerous to believe in white lies: books which peddle them may reassure you, but they render your defenceless against conmen, authorities and demagogues who give you hope and lead you to disaster. It is best to be forewarned. If you read Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain you will be less likely to fall victim to trickery. And I could never have written If Only about our world without the inspiration of these giants.