"Of all the follies of men, to reason is the one that harms the human race the least”. Of all the numerous quotations wrongly (and in this case mischievously) attributed to Voltaire, this one seems to catch him at its best. Penned by the sworn enemy of his later-life, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in an attempt to out Voltaire as the author of a particularly scurrilous anti-clerical tract, the idea of reason as both a human folly and human right runs deeply through his work.
Candide, the fable par excellence of the folly of reason and of the way in which intellectual abstractions can make for moral blindness, is of course the most celebrated exemplification of this strand of Voltaire’s thinking. When Candide and his happy household settle down after witnessing the full extent of life’s absurdity, human depravity and, more importantly, humanity’s ill-suitedness to actualised perfection, the lesson to learn is first and foremost a pragmatic one.
It’s hardly surprising then that Voltaire held British intellectual and political traditions in such high regard, nor that the feeling has by and large been mutual, testimony to which comes from the constant availability of various English translations available of ‘contes philosophiques’ of which Candide is the most famous.
Few translations, though, have served the original as well as Roger Pearson’s 1990 translation for Oxford’s World Classics, now recently reissued in an enlarged and revised edition. The new volume occasions a fresh reintroduction to the delights of Voltaire’s Rousseauan satire, The Ingenu, and his succinct sci-fi masterpiece Micromegas. Pearson’s sense of the quick-fire pace of Voltaire’s prose rhythms makes for a reading experience equally as bristling and fluent as the original.
The only thing completely new is the translation of the verse tale, What Pleases the Ladies, included for the somewhat synecdochic purposes of reflecting the continuity between Voltaire’s ever popular ‘contes-philosophiques’ and other, less well-known aspects of his oeuvre. In this respect, the new edition misses a substantial simply in having not added more of Voltaire’s shorter fictions, either prose or verse. Of some 26 ‘contes’, not all of which are worth reading, only a very small portion are well known. Where better to introduce them, than between the well thumbable leaves of Candide and Zadig?
In brief review from TLS