Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

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?


Logic & Perfection

by Rachel Eckhardt

A question occurred to me while reading Candide: Is Pangloss only a critique of Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds tautology, or is Pangloss a walking critique of logical thinking itself? My current thinking is that Candide is a more ambiguous discussion of the nature of human existence, where physical suffering is used to debunk the so-called perfect world, but also human longing leads to the abandonment of the nearly perfect Eldorado.

Logic, a favorite of enlightenment thinking, is what Pangloss is using in his assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds. Reminiscent of the contemporary new age assertion that everything happens for a reason, I am interested in the discussion as it highlight the impossibility of perfection, in fact it reveals the absurdity of the idea of a perfect society. Yet 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 Europeans view as riches are not seen as anything special. Despite its peace and ease, Candide choses not to stay in Eldorado. We could conclude from his decision to leave that even the seemingly perfect garden is lacking something important, kind of like the way the initial paradise in Rasselas was unsatisfying.

So then I was wondering if Voltaire is using the three gardens, at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, to argue that at least happiness is possible in this world. Maybe seeking perfection is the enemy of happiness. Candide gets kicked out of the first garden, enjoys the Eldorado garden but chooses to leave, and finally is resigned to the third garden where manual labor allows for some contentedness and freedom from philosophical speculations.

Adorno and Horkheimer assert “On their way toward modern science human beings have discarded meaning. The concept is replaced by the formula, the cause by rules and probability. Causality was only the last philosophical concept on which scientific criticism tested its strength, because it alone of the old ideas still stood in the way of such criticism, the latest secular form of the creative principle” (3). The formulaic nature of the assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds is exactly where meaning is lost: Because this is the world that exists, it is better than any imaginary world.

Logic is central to utopian thinking because so much of utopian thought is about system building. The argument seems to be that if we could just be more rational, we would arrive at our destined perfection. But it is the emotional that is lacking, or maybe even the non-rational. It is certainly illogical for Candide to leave Eldorado, so why does he do it? Because the idea of returning to Europe with great wealth is irresistible, or the idea of living without his love spoils what is otherwise a paradise? Either way, it is not logic that he persues, and maybe the suggestion that while a perfect society is possible, it is not actually desirable.

What is most promising to me about this investigation is the question of alternatives to logic. If logic and perfectability fail us, what choice to do we have other than to be content with society as it is? Or to pursue non-rational approaches to living together as a society? This suggests other ways of knowing. Adorno and Horkheimer describe Bacon’s idea of enlightenment “The “happy match” between human understanding and the nature of things that he envisaged is a patriarchal one: the mind, conquering superstition, is to rule over disenchanted nature” (2). Investigating the irrational could suggest explanations for why we always leave the perfect garden. Contrary to Enlightenment thinking, the perfect society for humans would have to have space for the irrational, but is Candide’s abandonment of philosophy an argument for the non-rational society? It seems more like a survival tactic for all the the trauma he faced throughout the novel.

The Blazing World of Feminism and/or Dictatorship

by Rachel Eckhardt

A foray into a few secondary sources on Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World reveals scholars examining and disagreeing over the text as forward-looking and feminist, or retrograde and affirming of patriarchy even with a feminine voice. One the one hand, we can see the 1666 novel as a feminist revision of the relatively new utopian genre, yet on the other hand, as a move backwards in its support of monarchy, suffocation of disagreement, and evocations of the contemporary racist thinking of its times. Multiple meanings are contained within the Blazing World, not only the contradictions in its internal coherence as a utopia, but in what it accomplishes as a utopian novel.  Read the rest of this entry »

Utopian Conference in NYC Oct 25 & 26

by Rachel Eckhardt

Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth

Date & Time
10/25/2014 – 10/26/2014
10:00 am – 6:00 pm

Co-sponsored by the New York Open Center & the International Forum on Globalization

Vandana Shiva • Bill McKibben • Ralph Nader • Wes Jackson • Jerry Mander • Andy Kimbrell Winona La Duke • Helen Caldicott • Richard Heinberg • Helena Norberg-Hodge • Ralph White • Langdon Winner • Kirkpatrick Sale • Clive Hamilton • Severine von Tscharner-Fleming & others

*Please note that October 25th’s schedule will run from 10am-10pm and October 26th’s will be from 10am-6pm.

Forty-five leading scholars, authors and activists will convene at The Great Hall of Cooper Union for a public “teach-in” on the profound impacts — environmental, economic and social — of runaway technological expansion, the tendency to see technology as the savior for all problems, and on the urgent need to change directions, returning the welfare of Nature to the center of economic and social decision-making.

Speakers will include: Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, Ralph Nader, Wes Jackson, Jerry Mander, Andy Kimbrell, Winona La Duke, Annie Leonard, Richard Heinberg, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Langdon Winner, Kirkpatrick Sale, Clive Hamilton, Severine von Tscharner-Fleming and 30 others; plus films and workshops.

This event comes at a crucial moment. Ecological systems are near collapse — global climate, soils and fertility; fresh water supplies; deep ocean life, forests, biodiversity; global food production; and unprecedented rates of species extinctions. Human life is similarly threatened by expanding wars over scarce resources, unsustainable development, shocking rates of economic inequality, and increased alienation from the natural world. But proposed solutions rarely stray off-message: “Technology will solve our problems.”
We do not share this optimism.

Corporations see the situation as economic opportunity. New technologies are being rapidly rolled out to create substitute nature: Re-seeding the heavens to install artificial climates (geo-engineering); re-arranging the genetics of food (GMOs), animals and trees; inventing artificial life forms (“synthetic biology”), as well as new basic molecular structures (nanotechnology); introducing mass robotic production on farms and in factories (eliminating workers!); and marketing drones, driverless cars, Google glasses, app after app, and ever more instruments for cyber-envelopment of our consciousness and everyday lives. Did anyone ask for these? All are expressions of science in service to profit and growth. Meanwhile, human experience — now embedded within a global technological cocoon — is in danger of losing its awareness and connection with the natural world. This will not solve our problems.

What is needed is New Consciousness, and New Economic Strategies that break from the assumption of human dominion over nature and the planet (“anthropocentrism”), while reforming our economies toward renewing a balance with nature. Tweeting won’t save us. Alternative ideas, policies and programs will be presented and discussed in detail.

Location: Cooper Union, 7 East 7th St., New York, NY.
Scholarships available email: skasten@ifg.org

Saturday, October 25, 10am–10pm
$45 (No Discount) / $20 for seniors or students
Early Bird rate $35 by October 1
Click HERE to register for this single day.

Sunday, October 26, 10am–6pm
$40 (No Discount) / $15 for seniors or students
Early Bird rate $30 by October 1
Click HERE to register for this single day.

Combined price $75 for both days
when registering for both at same time

Combined price $25 for seniors or students
when registering for both days at same time

HERE to register for this special combined rate.

For further information, contact the International Forum on Globalization: www.ifg.org • 415.561.7650 • info@ifg.org


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