Comparing Views on Life in Thoreau’s Walden and Voltaire's Candide
Is the glass half full or half empty? This clichéd measure of optimism versus pessimism describes our society's base understanding of possible outlooks on life. In Candide by Voltaire, ultimately Candide rejects both blind optimism and absolute pessimism. He goes on a quest to discover how to live well, which is the same thing Thoreau prescribes in Walden and Other Writings. For this paper, in accordance with Voltaire and Thoreau, "living well" means aligning one's actions with one's ideals in order to achieve satisfaction. Despite a distance in time of a century and in location of an ocean, Thoreau and Voltaire had incredibly similar views on life. A staunch individualism provided the framework for both men's thoughts. While they chose different lifestyles, the ultimate conclusion for the two men can be encompassed in the phrase that completes Voltaire's Candide, "we must cultivate our garden" (120).
Do not try to cultivate a garden with excessive surplus in order to barter for unnecessary goods or to store up for the future. "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity," Thoreau orders (173). Voltaire would agree that this is the essential key to living well. After traveling around the world and questioning every sort of person, Candide finally finds peace after seeing the simple life of the Turk on his modest farm with his children. "That good old man seems to have made himself a much better life than the six kings we had the honor of eating supper with," Candide remarks (119). At the end of his quest, Candide finally realizes that power, prestige, and all the other things most people seek indeed are not the answer to happiness. Thoreau wholeheartedly supports this view, demanding that "our lives must be stripped" (133). He encourages us to downsize our lives and our possessions. In order to really live we must narrow our scope, focus on what is literally right before our eyes, particularly nature. Such a focus proves quite difficult today with technology that allows connection across the globe in only seconds. Thoreau illustrates the beauty and divinity of the now by saying, "God himself culminates in the present moment" (177). Many of us spend our lives regretting the past and worrying about the future, and fail to realize our life is happening right now. Candide makes the mistake of placing his happiness on the future reunion with Cunegonde, yet when he finally finds her "she had become ugly" (115). His search for her, which had been his motivation and drive, bears unsatisfactory fruit. The lesson from Candide's journey and Thoreau's words of wisdom is to enjoy each moment of cultivating a small but sufficient garden.
Do not let anyone legislate about how you should cultivate your garden, but follow the guidance you know inside of yourself to be true. Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience has influenced many people, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to work...