Cultivate Your Own Garden

You might not be able to be great, but you can be good; you may not be able to save everyone, but you can save yourself. This is the central message found at the end of Voltaire’s inspired 1759 text Candide.

It is not for nothing that the subtitle of this work was Or, Optimism, because Voltaire was seeking to undermine the conviction – prevalent at his time, but no less so today – that things can ever be perfect. The world, like the humans who inhabit it, will always be absurd, contradictory, flawed and messy; the best we can hope for is to try to live well and be good, however insignificant our acts may be.

While in Constantinople, the three protagonists of the book (Pangloss, Candide, and Martin) hear that two Viziers and the Mufti had been strangled and several of their friends had been impaled. As they leave the court, they come across an old farmer sitting under an Orange tree near his farm.

Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was argumentative, asked the old man what was the name of the strangled Mufti.

“I do not know,” answered the worthy man, “and I have not known the name of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I am entirely ignorant of the event you mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits of the garden which I cultivate.”

The old farmer understood a noble truth: his life was not grand, but its simplicity taught him to be humble; he was not in a position of power, but this protected him from vice and wickedness; he was not wealthy, but his twenty acres which he worked protected him from want. The farmer did not try to change the world around him, he merely tried to find a place for himself in the world as it was; and for that he achieved peace and protection ‘from three great evils – weariness, vice, and want’.

Unlike the garden I cultivate with care and affection, Voltaire was being more metaphorical when he said ‘we must cultivate our own garden’. In one sense, he was saying that we must keep ourselves busy. ‘Idle hands do the devil’s work’. But, he was also sharing with us his belief that we need to keep a separation between ourselves and the world. We must be careful not to get too caught up in the trials and tribulations of what is going on around us because, most likely, there is nothing we will be able to do to change it. If we pin our thoughts according to public opinion and feelings upon what is going on in the world, we will be liable to develop a schizophrenic mind and to cry constantly.

Voltaire was not telling us to be pessimistic or to give up, but instead, to looks at the world clearly and with good judgement, and be optimistic about the things you can change, and to not be caught up in the things you can’t.

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