Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Discussion Questions on Voltaire, Adorno and Horkheimer

by Kate Eickmeyer

1. Candide’s famous source of salvation is “to work without theorizing,” and our heroes ultimately find refuge in relatively physical forms of labor: farming, cooking, embroidery, and carpentry. But what if one’s work, like ours, is theorizing? Voltaire, after all, is a writer and not a farmer. It seems to me that the real salvation Candide offers us isn’t just labor, but the redemptive powers of art and humor; the book itself delivers us from the despair of unnarrated suffering. Why doesn’t Voltaire allow the characters that same salvation through art or humor? And why does he turn to the solution of work so abruptly, without anticipating this idea anywhere earlier in the text?


2. “Not only is domination paid for with the estrangement of human beings from the dominated objects, but the relationships of human beings, including the relationship of individuals to themselves, have themselves been bewitched by the objectification of mind. Individuals shrink to the nodal points of conventional reactions and the modes of operation objectively expected of them.” (Adorno and Horkheimer 21)

In the context of World War II, the human tendency to be bewitched by the objectification of mind amounts to a willingness to blindly follow tyrants and be complicit in violence, horror and genocide. We can probably take it for granted that maintaining a just, peaceful society requires the political participation of an awake and educated population. But, on the other hand, maybe consumer culture, and the somatic, objectifying effects of radio, television, video games, and other forms of relatively passive entertainment actually promote peace; if we accept Voltaire’s view that a lot of people are savage, brutal hypocrites who will torture, murder and rape for fun, isn’t it better that many of our species are parked in front of the television instead of out wreaking havoc? Does the bread-and-circuses argument that entertainment (or soma, or materialism, or religion) lulls the people into accepting oppressive conditions hold up in the context of Candide, or can we argue that a lot of people would only use a keener awareness of their own subjectivities to inflict horrors on one another, instead of engaging in more thoughtful political engagement?


3. “The principle of immanence, the explanation of every event as repetition, which enlightenment upholds against mythical imagination, is that of myth itself. The arid wisdom which acknowledges nothing new under the sun, because all the pieces in the meaningless game have been played out, all the great thoughts have been thought, all possible discoveries can be construed in advance, and human beings are defined by self-preservation through adaptation—this barren wisdom merely reproduces the fantastic doctrine it rejects: the sanction of fate which, through retribution, incessantly reinstates what always was. Whatever might be different is made the same. That is the verdict which critically sets the boundaries to experience.” (Adorno and Horkheimer 8)

Is Candide an enlightenment or a counter-enlightenment text? Humor is generally the product of identifying the connections and sameness among phenomena, and Voltaire does this with great aplomb. The repetition of events in the book, the anticipation of one form of corruption and horror after the next, and the nearly universal failure of human nature is in itself a kind of fatalism with the flavor that there is nothing new under the sun. Is humor an enlightenment concept? Does Voltaire, so critical of the enlightenment’s hypocrisy, participate in its “principle of immanence?” Does he allow his characters subjectivity and uniqueness?


4. Eldorado seems to be the first true utopia we’ve seen, and Candide and Cacambo’s decision to leave is Voltaire’s statement that a real paradise might be possible, but if we found it, we’d be stupid enough to leave it. Yet the description of Eldorado is primarily visual and Voltaire offers us little in terms of its mechanics. Should we consider Eldorado as a device more than an actual utopia? What do we make of the (whimsical) red sheep? Are there other elements of Eldorado worth exploring in the context of our conversation about utopias?


5. Does one have to labor and produce in order to cultivate one’s garden, or does playing a thousand hours of Mario Kart or looking at pictures of breaded cats also count as cultivating one’s garden? Our culture continues to subscribe to Enlightenment ideas about work and leisure, success and failure, and those who have grown up entrenched in middle class mentalities about this find it very difficult to reorient. But does the CEO who earns $15 million a year actually contribute more to society than the $8 an hour barista? Does our fetishization of status and material culture simply give us something to do and a garden to cultivate? If labor is salvation to keep us clear of “boredom, vice and poverty,” can leisure perform the same service without the need for achievement?
6. How is it that so many grown adults are still walking around saying Panglossian things like “everything happens for a reason” and “you can do anything if you believe in yourself?” Is this the product of magical thinking, enlightenment thinking, cognitive failure, compartmentalization, or something else? Does it even matter that there are a lot of Panglosses walking around, since its better to be surrounded by Panglosses than murderers?

Candide Discussion Questions

by Rachel Eckhardt


Consider Pangloss’s absolute commitment to his belief that this is the best of all possible worlds. He asserts this belief even at the very end of the novel, after all he has suffered: “… in the end, I remain a philosopher. It wouldn’t be right for me to disown myself; Leibniz cannot have been wrong; and our world’s pre-existent harmony, furthermore, is the loveliest thing there is…” (122).

I had been operating under the premise that Pangloss represents a commitment to Reason and the intellectual, but after rereading this quote I started to consider how irrational he is. Is Pangloss’s faith actually a spiritual and not intellectual belief? Is Pangloss attached to the contemplation of the beauty of perfection because otherwise the nature of God and the world would be too devastating? Or out of sheer loyalty to Leibniz? Is philosophy, in Voltaire’s view, just another, less violent, violent religious practice of asserting faith?


Even as Candide comes up against example after example of reasons to question the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, he also experiences Eldorado, a tiny isolated utopia where the gems and minerals are commonplace and everyone seems very content. Despite its peace and ease, Candide choses not to stay in Eldorado. Can we conclude from his decision to leave that even the seemingly perfect garden paradise is lacking something important, kind of like the way the initial paradise in Rasselas was unsatisfying? Or is he just anxious to spend all those coins?

The Old Woman

Can we consider the Old Woman the first voice of (actual) reason or is she just negative and pessimistic when she suggests that everyone will have their own miserable story? Both she and Pangloss (and everyone in the novel) experience physical suffering but her philosophical perspective is informed and shaped by the suffering of her body. Is there significance to her being a woman, tied into traditional concepts of femininity being more connected to the body?

Violence & Physical Trauma

There is so much violence that it is comical, excessive, and over the top. How does violence function to both lighten and darken the mood? What purpose do rape and loss of limbs serve when posed as light-hearted comedy?


At the conclusion, do self improvement and physical work, and refraining from theoretical thinking, represent a real utopia? Maybe we should be ignoring questions or just not answering them when they arise. It seems like a cute ending but can we consider it as an actual philosophical proposal based in the body and material reality over thinking too much?


Secondary Source for The Concept of Enlightenment

by Aramis Miranda-Reyes

Bronner, Stephen Eric. “Interpreting The Enlightenment: Metaphysics, Tradition and Politics.” Reclaiming The Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. ix-16.

“…historical epochs can generate an ethos, an existential stance toward reality, or what might even be termed a “project” uniting the diverse participants in a broader intellectual trend or movement.” – Peter Gay, The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment (1954).

From the very first page of Reclaiming the Enlightenment, Stephen Bronner states his purpose clearly and unambiguously – “What follows is an attempt to reclaim the Enlightenment” – he says. But, we might ask, reclaim it from what? Does the Enlightenment need reclaiming? And what in fact does this reclaiming entail? These are the essential questions Bronner attempts to answer in his text. His quest begins first and foremost by yanking the Enlightenment movement and its participants out of the clutches of what he calls “the late brand of critical theory associated with Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno” (x). In fact he goes as far as stating that to view Enlightenment intellectuals as “utopians or totalitarians is philosophically untenable and historically absurd” (x). And though he recognizes the remarkable power of the work and the enduring effect it has had over the past half-century, the truth is it is “neither a work of history, anthropology, sociology, nor politics” (2). Instead it is an interdisciplinary experiment that resulted from “a period marked by previously unimaginable slaughter of two world wars, the emergence of mass culture, bureaucratic states and…the concentration camp universe” (2). In essence, Horkheimer and Adorno’s seminal work was a product of a particular point in history through which its authors expressed their existential crisis.

As such, Bronner argues, if we are to reconnect with the Enlightenment in a context that is apropos of the 21st century, we first have to set aside the pronouncements of those like Horkheimer and Adorno that characterize it as some sort of a disembodied ideology or “a historical epoch grounded in an anthropological understanding of civilization that, from the first, projected the opposite of progress… [in service of] the totally administered society” (3).   Subsequently, we need to understand and acknowledge the invaluable contributions the Enlightenment made to modern political discourse. After all, some of the most important political products and paramount values in the modern world are rooted in the Enlightenment, such as – liberalism, socialism, political liberty, social justice, and cosmopolitanism.   Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are to frame the Enlightenment for what it actually was, a socio-political and intellectual movement set on protesting the status quo and declaring a re- conception of physical and social realities based on new discoveries of the time. As Bronner states “…the philosophes were clear about the basic values underlying their enterprise. They shared a fundamental concern with constricting the exercise of arbitrary institutional power and expanding the realm of individual autonomy” (8). In other words, they were attempting to reform and redress the dogmas of the old feudal order, its prejudices and traditionalism in favor of a more egalitarian approach to government and life.

For that purpose Bronner, much like Enlightenment philosophes did before him, further removes the concept of enlightenment from the language of “pseudo-universalism” he attributes to Horkheimer and Adorno and places it within the vernacular so as to properly allow “the subject under discussion (politics) to define the language in which it is discussed” (5). In other words, he engages the subject of enlightenment in the proper political and linguistic terms so as to situate, identify and clarify the subject (political history) being discussed rather than confusing the issue by “substituting the affirmation of subjectivity, through aesthetic-philosophic criticism” (6). This lack of linguistic engagement with the subject at hand and the inherent separation of politics and philosophy in their critical analysis of the Enlightenment led Horkheimer and Adorno (and other post-modernists of the same ilk) to their two gravest mistakes. First, is their lack of acknowledgement of the simple fact that “different practices and ideals are appropriate to different spheres of activity” and second, they ignored “the institutional preconditions for the free exercise of individual capacities” (6). In simple terms, by refusing to directly engage with the subject of politics by using political terms and political language, Horkheimer and Adorno failed to grasp the essence of the subject and thereby take into account the obstacles existing (conservative and dogmatic) state institutions would form on the way to reforming or “enlightening” western societies at the time. This conception is key to the application of political theory and philosophy at any given time.

Ultimately, Bronner’s reclamation project is as much a reconstitution of the Enlightenment movement, in and away from the generic philosophical musings of Horkheimer and Adorno as well as a concrete recontextualization of its importance to modern political thought. Its ideals, its achievements and its failures on the whole still provide the template from which modern Western democratic thought still functions. In a nutshell, reclaiming the Enlightenment must be accomplished based on the political and social realities of the time, the movement’s ideals and what it essentially tried to achieve. Two of the best examples of Enlightenment’s goals are: “Attack upon received traditions, popular prejudices, and religious superstitions” (2) and decensoring of “…intellectuals who debated first principles in public, who introduced freelance writing, who employed satire and wit to demolish puffery and dogma, and who were preoccupied with reaching a general audience of educated readers…(5)” There is no question that such aspirations are still very much relevant today.

Secondary Source: “Candide Shoots the Monkey Lovers: Representing Black Men in Eighteenth-Century Visual Culture”

by Sophia Natasha Sunseri

Bellhouse, Mary. “Candide Shoots the Monkey Lovers: Representing Black Men in Eighteenth-Century French Visual Culture.” Political Theory 34.6 (2006). 741-784.



In this reading, Bellhouse explores the visual construction of black male identity in France during the long eighteenth century. She conveys how European perceptions of black men changed drastically after the Haitian Revolution of 1791, in which slaves rebelled against their owners. Prior to the Revolution, artists often depicted black men as inferior and child-like whereas after, they depicted them as violent and virile. Bellhouse delves deeper into this distinction by comparing two sets of illustrations of Voltaire’s Candide, which were both drawn by Jean-Michael Moreau. The first set was composed before the revolution, in 1787, and the second was composed after, in 1803. The differences that emerge between the two ultimately reflect a growing cultural anxiety about interracial relations between Europeans and blacks during this time.

From the late seventeenth century until 1789, black men were portrayed as emasculated in French visual culture. When they appeared in paintings and illustrations, they often embodied one of two roles: exotic servants in metropolitan France or plantation slaves in the colonies. It was not uncommon for them to be depicted as infantilized, servile, or maimed. Atoine Coypel’s painting, Young Black Holding a Basket of Fruit and a Young Woman Stroking a Dog (1682) is a prime example. In this work, a sumptuously attired dark skinned boy dons a white turban adorned with feathers, emphasizing his otherness. The black man-as-child was thus presented as relatively harmless: he was not yet regarded as sexually threatening “and the emergent taboo of the black man and white woman [was] avoided” (744).

After the 1790s, however, portrayals of black men as inferior and dependent were replaced by images of black men as violent and sexually threatening. Such images included: “oversized genitalia” as well as depictions of black men as “…armed attacker[s] …and bestial rapist[s] who chase after white women” (742). This shift in visual representation can be attributed to cultural anxiety that came about as a byproduct of the Haitian Revolution. The uprising resulted in many horrific atrocities, news of which eventually made its way to Europe. Anxiety increased in France as reports of black men raping white women circulated.

The change in the way in which black men were visually represented is exemplified in Moreau’s illustrations of Candide.

Moreau’s 1787 illustrations depict black men as non-threatening. One scene that Moreau chose to portray is the episode in Chapter 19 when Candide and Cacambo visit Surinam and encounter a maimed slave. Moreau’s illustration endows Candide with several phallic artifacts suggesting masculine prowess: a walking stick, a rifle, upright legs. The slave, by contrast, is lying down horizontally in the shadows, his peg leg and crutch visible. As Bellhouse surmises: “In Moreau’s illustrations, light skin colour is linked to multiple signifiers of ‘phallic’ power, while dark skin is linked to dismemberment” (758).

 Moreau’s 1803 illustrations are markedly more violent than his 1787 illustrations. In one of them, Candide is shown navigating his way through a field of white bodies that have been scorched, raped, and disemboweled.

Of particular interest to Bellhouse, however, is the scene in which Candide shoots the Monkey Lovers. Here, Moreau revises aspects of Voltaire’s narrative. In Voltaire’s text from 1759, Candide risks being cannibalized but in Moreau’s illustration from 1803, he is portrayed as saving the young women from immanent danger. Moreau’s depiction of skin colour and European facial features were also decisions of his own making. Rather than depict the “naked girls” as indigenous, as Voltaire does, Moreau depicts them as European-looking. He also makes the monkeys appear especially menacing—an interpretation that sharply juxtaposes earlier illustrations by artists such as Charles Monnet whose 1776 illustrations portray the monkeys’ faces as “benign” (774). Monnet’s monkeys are “pictured with prominent tails, [that] look like toys. One monkey is almost smiling” (776). Interestingly, Moreau’s monkeys from the 1803 illustrations are given darker fur than the monkeys in his 1787 set and are drawn to look more muscular. By the time in which Moreau selected the monkey scene for illustration, debates about cross-species breeding had been complicated by intensifying anxiety about interracial sexuality and by years of war in what is now Haiti. The mixing of races in Haiti produced many contentious and heated debates, which are made apparent in comparing Moreau’s two sets of illustrations.

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