“Oedipus the king” by Sophocles and “Candide” by Voltaire Essay Sample
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“Oedipus the king” by Sophocles and “Candide” by Voltaire Essay Sample
“Oedipus the king” by Sophocles and “Candide” by Voltaire are two different aspects of the same human question of Predictability and Fate. Sophocles tries to imply that there is no free will and all events are guided by fate towards a fixed destination. Voltaire through satire and humor tries to imply that the notion held by some that this is the best possible world is a farce and the happenings of the world are certainly not the handiwork of a benign deity guiding our lives. The overwhelming pessimism of Oedipus and the implied pessimism by attack on Leibnizian optimism in Candide are warnings to human kind to be wary of life and tread a path of righteousness with some pragmatism towards predesigned failures.
Oedipus Vs Candide
Sophocles wrote Oedipus in 429 BC and after two millennia Voltaire wrote Candide. The common thread that connects these two disparate and different classics is the fact that they have the angst or concern of the two writers towards the fate of human kind. Sophocles philosophizes about the overwhelming power of fate over man, which guides the actions of human kind but at the same time leaves enough ambiguity in the plot to think that man does have his choices. Voltaire does a scathing comment on the philosophy of Leibniz through his satire and has all the readers question the overpowering optimism which Leibniz has us believe. Voltaire’s magnum opus is a kind of question thrown at the optimists among philosophers – “You say that god created the best possible worlds for Man! Now, do you?”.
Oedipus, apart from becoming popular for a Freudian theory of psycho analysis raises pertinent questions about the role of man in the tightly woven grid of his fate. There are several theories that the prophesies are self fulfilling because they set Oedipus on the course of actions, although unknowingly, which lead him to fulfill his destiny as prophesied. It is almost a challenge thrown at man, “If a man as great in ideals and talents like Oedipus who conquered the Sphinx cannot escape the clutches of Fate, what consequence are we all?” Oedipus wanted with all his heart and soul to avoid being his father’s killer and the one who defiled his mother’s bed and sired kids through her. His anxiety to avoid such circumstances led him away from his foster parents and on the path that led him to a direct confrontation with his father under circumstances, which any Greek would consider legitimate to kill his opponent. He also had to marry the queen of Thebes as he had freed the country form the clutches of Sphinx and it seemed like a natural course of action. However, the lasting impression of Oedipus is that he is a fair man who has the good of his people in his heart as he, not knowing that he is cursing himself, curses the killer of the ruler to exile and when he finds out that it is him, he insists on imposing the same on himself.
In contrast Candide is a long and exotic journey of the protagonist which several improbable, almost absurdly impossible happenings through which the hero is led to question the philosophy of Optimism learnt from his mentor and teacher Dr.Pangloss. As the name is supposed to indicate Candide is like a white paper. Readers who want to compliment Candide think of him as a person as clean and ingenuous. It can also be interpreted by others as somebody who does not have any own convictions and is easily influenced by people around him. For good measure Voltaire puts Candide through several critical and fatal encounters and he does rescue him form most of them when the readers give up hope. It is also interesting to note that most characters declared dead (and even killed by the hands of Candide himself) come back to life, make their miraculous escapes and re-enter the story at unexpected points. Candide is described as an idealist who is indeed good at heart and he shows glimpses of his geneoristy and righteousness by doling out money to his teacher’s ex-lover (who gives Dr.Pangloss Syphilis) and marrying his lady love Cunegonde even after she becomes ugly and his love for her is extinguished.
The overriding question of Candide is whether Life is as good as it gets. Candide’s life is full of exciting events. He is captured, he is exiled, he is almost sacrificed for holding uncommon beliefs. He is also rescued and saved. He is rewarded for his valor, for his wit and he is given a lot of money . He goes through all possible scenarios in relation to love and social success and failure. He endures all of them with the help of his belief in his master’s teaching of Optimism and a benign God looking to make the world around him as hospitable as possible. But towards the end of the long and arduous journey, he gathers the courage the question the correctness of his beliefs. The satire of the story is that after all the travails and the end of a considerable quest, candied changes his philosophy and outlook towards life, not for something seemingly profound but for something that appears to be very mundane. He decides that it is best to cultivat your garden because it helps keep out the three evils – Boredon, vice and Poverty. Though his master Pangloss tries to convince him everything turning out to be good was a predesigned destiny by a benign God who ordained everything to tbe the best it can, given the circumstances only draws a response from Candide that they should cultivate their garden with each of them doing their specified tasks. The end is not befitting the racy and adventurous happening of the thirty chapters of Candide but help in bringing out one more satirical element of the work by giving an unforeseen, common, and often seen as senseless.
“Fear? What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random, best we can.” (Sophocles Lines 1068-1072)
Sophocles tries to justify that man need no fear for the future, not because there is a benevolent diety taking care of you but because worrying will not change anything. In this quotation, Oedipus is implored to live like there is no tomorrow.
“Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron’s castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. —It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.” (Voltaire(translated by Butt 20)
This satirical, subtle humorous quote form Candid is a take on Leibniz by Voltaire. It is widely believed that many philosophers of the day including Voltaire were disillusioned with Leibnizian Optimism after the earthquake that shook Lisbon on All saints day. Voltaire decried the philosophy that describes the world as the best possible world in another poem “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” apart from Candide. The direct attack on the optimistic premise is found in the chapter that deals with Lisbon Earthquake, where it is described as the “worst possible disaster in the best possible world”. (Butt 28)
Voltaire also goes on to create situations where the actual sufferers would not be able to believe in a benevolent deity even if it were advocated by any lofty philosopher because the pain and angst of loss makes people shun any lofty ideals. Candide and Pangloss’s fate of being almost executed for their beliefs is almost a suggestion that Portuguese might not take lightly to arguments of a loving God if they were told about him in the wake of their tragedy and even Leibniz might find the going rough if he tried to prove this point there. A direct dig at the philosophy Voltaire set out to disprove through his satire.
The most important themes of Oedipus the king are the limits of free will and the willingness of human being to ignore the complete truth and fall for the convenient versions of truth. Prophecy is a central part of Sophocles writing (at least in Oedipus). Since the readers know the truth long before Oedipus even suspects anything, it seems inevitable to the readers that there is no way Oedipus can escape his fate. This helplessness generated in the minds of the readers is the desired effect. But the chronicle also manages to evoke continuing interest in the fact that Oedipus does kill people (especially those older than him) and does marry (especially somebody older than him) when simply avoiding these could have made him escape his prophesied fate. Oedipus continuously tries to flee his fate and it catches up with him. The readers are left to wonder in what ingenious ways would his fate catch up with, because they already know that catch up, it would.
One enduring motif of Oedipus is the blindness and sight. The prophet that can see the visions of future is almost blind. When he finally sees the ugly truth of his plight, Oedipus chooses to blind himself using his mother and wife Jocasta’s shoulder pins. Sophocles seems to suggest that man has the intellectual ability to look beyond oneself and into future but the most intelligent of men can be so shortsighted and subject to silliest of follies.
One more interesting symbolism of Sophocles is the three way cross roads. Oedipus is subjected to the dilemma of choice where he takes a path which to him appears the best at that point in time but it finally leads to his ultimate fulfillment of prophecies haunting him from his birth.
“You are perfectly right, said Pangloss; for when man was put into the garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, so that he should work it; this proves that man was not born to take his ease. —Let’s work without speculating, said Martin; it’s the only way of rendering life bearable. The whole little group entered into this laudable scheme; each one began to exercise his talents. The little plot yielded fine crops . . . and Pangloss sometimes used to say to Candide: —All events are linked together in the best of possible worlds; for, after all, if you had not been driven from a fine castle by being kicked in the backside for love of Miss Cunégonde, if you hadn’t been sent before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t traveled across America on foot, if you hadn’t given a good sword thrust to the baron, if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be sitting here eating candied citron and pistachios.
—That is very well put, said Candide, but we must go and work our garden” (Butt 140)
This is the perfectly mundane ending to a tale of great adventure spanning more than one continent and a lot of exciting lives. But he take away from this story to the readers is that most human beings might or might not believe in living in the best possible worlds, but still would continue doing what they ought to because life goes on. Luck favors not only th4e brave but also the naïve. Voltaire not only makes fun of the whole optimism philosophy but also states that it does not provide any answers to the day to day questions of human existence.
The connection between Oedipus and Candide is that the heroes are vastly different in the fact that one is an acknowledged Hero with great wisdom, but cursed by his fate to endure inhuman (or sub human) sufferings which are against the very grain of his character, while the other is a naïve, not so bright normal human being who is favored by luck and circumstances to survive and get the riches and peace of life though philosophical enlightenment eludes him. There is wide spread belief that Voltaire was a great admirer and an ardent student of Sophocles’ Oedipus the king which is brought out by the fact that a controversial claim of Oedipus’ s innocence is put forward by him. Though debatable, there is arguments, that, since the versions of the shepherd and Oedipus differ on the killing of Laius, his father.
This detailed study of fatalism in Sophocles might have influenced Voltaire in creating counter point of a hero who did not possess any philosophical values of his own but could survive the travesty of time just by instinct.
For most readers, Candide, appears to offer an example of Leibnizian optimism. In reality it is an effort to state that optimism is a safety device used by man to think that he is in the best possible world so that it creates fear of anything different form his existence. This limiting of choices which is another way of making people kneel before fate and accept its ultimate supremacy is against the idea of Voltaire’s renaissance ideals of individualism.
But both Oedipus and Candide succeed in putting forward the ideas of life being a complicated maze which can be navigated only by a combination of intellect and naiveté.
Sophocles. The Oedipus trilogy. NewYork : Kessinger Publications, 2004
Translated by Butt, John Everett. Candide by Voltaire. NewYork : Penguin Classics 1947
Dawe, R.D. Sophocles : Oedipus Rex. London: Cambridege University Press, 2006
Translated and edited by Weller, S. Candide by Voltaire. NewYork : Courier Dover Publication, 1991