Chapter 2: Candide among the Bulgars:


In the 1st chapter, Voltaire presents a relatively hopeful vision of the potential for man to create a better world. In his revision of the Eden Myth, Voltaire modifies the notion of original sin by insisting that human instincts cannot be regarded as either good or bad.  Like all natural forces, they simply are. Our instincts are not expungeable. A tabula rasa theorist might argue that instincts themselves do not exist and are only conditioned into us by experience. Candide and Cunegonde engage in sex naturally, and that impulse is determined by our nature. This impulse is no different from the other forces that characterize the natural world, including earthquakes and tsunamis.


However, mankind possesses a rational nature. Voltaire insists on the existence of instinct, but he also believes in the power of education to modify our instinctive, determined behavior.  We are able to recall and analyze our impulsive (instinct driven behavior) in particular situations and then make deliberate choices in our actions which are not necessarily determined by our instinctual impulses. Only after having experienced the actions driven by aggressive instincts can we train ourselves to resist them. By acting against our natural impulses we achieve responsibility for our actions. We free ourselves from the inexorable sequence of cause and effect which typifies the natural order. Pangloss, who has succumbed to his instincts many times in the past, should know better by this stage in his life. He therefore can be held responsible and his seduction of the chamber maid can be judged as evil.


By training ourselves to resist destructive impulses, we learn to control them.  Through this type of conditioning, we can overcome the determining influences of the environment. In this way society can overcome social problems and create a better world even if our natural impulses can never be expunged.


However, in Chapter 2 Voltaire observes that societies rarely use our ability to learn new behaviors in constructive ways. Education has been warped to serve the interests of the powerful. For example, we naturally fear danger and avoid engaging in actions that could result in our injury or death. Basic training for soldiers is designed to breakdown this instinct for self preservation and then focus the aggressive violence of a mass of individuals against an enemy. (In the ‘world wars’ of the 18th century, military strategy in ground attacks sought breakthroughs in enemy lines by throwing waves and waves of infantry against lines defended by infantry and artillery. Advancing soldiers suffered massive casualties.)   Soldiers are not conditioned to overcome their brutal impulses; instead they are taught to follow orders, ignore danger, and engage in ruthless violence. The dangerous aspects of our nature are exaggerated in the service of imperial ambitions. Education, instead of being used to improve life on earth, has been subverted to the uses of powerful forces who aggressively seek national objectives.