'Candide, Pococurante, Rational Expectations, and Human Flourishing' by Gennady Stolyarov II
The Liberal Institute

Candide, Pococurante, Rational Expectations, and Human Flourishing

In Candide, Voltaire thoroughly exposes the fallacies of the naïve optimistic worldview. Yet, through Candide’s visit to the wealthy and esteemed Venetian senator Pococurante, Voltaire shows an equally dangerous pitfall to avoid in approaching reality: the mentality of perfectionism. Pococurante is surrounded by immense riches and objects of high culture -- yet he is perpetually unhappy. The senator concocts impossibly high, unreasonable standards which he expects the world around him to meet -- a goal the world cannot reach. Simultaneously, Pococurante does nothing to alleviate his displeasure and is hence doomed to perpetual disappointment. Through Pococurante’s example, Voltaire rejects perfectionism as a route to happiness and instead presents the old Turkish man as a model for adhering to reality in setting reasonable expectations. The old man influences Candide to recognize that one can only gain happiness by aligning one’s expectations with one’s abilities to act in the real world. Voltaire presents readers with a real hope of flourishing in this world by working to affect what one can and refraining from empty complaints about falling short of arbitrarily high standards.

Pococurante -- despite his immersion in wealth, luxury, art, music, and literature -- is perpetually displeased with everything around him. He expects perfection from everything, but even the best aspects of life cannot meet so rigorous a standard. He derides his extensive collection of great masters’ art as discolored, unrealistic, and poorly composed; he then puts forth a criterion of which even the best paintings fall short: “I like a picture only when I can see in it a touch of nature itself, and there are none of this sort. I have many paintings, but I no longer look at them.” Pococurante recognizes that the medium of art is unsuited for flawlessly photographic depiction of nature. Yet instead of consequently rejecting his standard of judgment as unrealistic, he rejects the art that does not meet it. Pococurante is not an artist; he does not try to paint anything that would meet his own ideal. He does not act to remedy his dissatisfaction. Rather, his perfectionism breeds pessimism: because neither he nor the great masters meet his expectations, Pococurante is doomed to disappointment and knows it.

Through Pococurante’s example Voltaire teaches that perfectionism -- the setting of impossibly high standards -- leads to inactivity because the perfectionist’s own capacities are not necessarily suited to meeting his standards. Instead of altering his standards the perfectionist assumes a sense of futility and despair about action in the real world. Pococurante expects of others what he cannot do himself; he wishes that “one of these silly authors [whose books Pococurante owns] had merely discovered a new way of making pins; but in all those volumes there is nothing but empty systems, not a single useful discovery.” Ironically Pococurante is just like the authors he criticizes; he has not made any useful discoveries himself. He merely sits around, whining emptily about others’ deficiencies, thereby perpetuating a dual unhappiness: his unwarranted displeasure with the flaws in everything and his justified but purposeless sorrow at his own idle and purposeless life. Yet Pococurante -- though he bickers about this state of things -- is actually resigned to it; he is unwilling to change a thing -- especially the cause of the problem: his own irrational expectations.

Voltaire subjects Candide to Pococurante’s mentality to show Candide what mindset not to hold and to spur him on toward finding a superior set of expectations. Candide initially falls into Pococurante’s mental trap; he thinks that Pococurante’s perfectionism is a pathway to happiness and asks, “[I]sn’t there pleasure in criticizing everything, in seeing faults where other people think they see beauties?” Yet Voltaire instantly rebukes Candide’s inclination to agree with Pococurante via Martin’s response: “That is to say… that there’s pleasure in having no pleasure?” Even Martin, the eternal pessimist, recognizes perfectionism’s fundamental contradiction: in holding the nonexistent and unattainable as ideals, the perfectionist forgoes anything in reality that could have brought him happiness. Instead of working with reality and deriving enjoyment from his agency in it, the perfectionist views reality as forever flawed and hence wants no part in it. Yet because nothing besides reality exists, the perfectionist throws away his only chance at true happiness.

Toward the end of his journey, Candide meets an old Turk who, despite having fewer possessions than Pococurante, is a happy, fulfilled man. Voltaire uses the old man’s reasonable expectations to show readers how to enjoy and efficaciously lead their lives. In his daily affairs the old man focuses on what he can gain from and ignores the rest: “I never listen to the news from Constantinople; I am satisfied with sending the fruits of my garden to be sold there.” Although he cannot single-handedly remedy the political turmoil in Turkey, he sees it as irrelevant to his life and refuses to let it hinder his productive activities. The old man lacks Pococurante’s grand estate, but he recognizes the opportunities that his own property and skills offer: “I have only twenty acres… I cultivate them with my children, and the work keeps us from three great evils: vice, boredom, and poverty.” The old man does not lament that he has only twenty and not one thousand acres and thereby falls short of some concocted standard for a “proper” size to one’s estate. He does not complain that his goods do not fetch some impossibly high price on the market. He pursues not some fictitious ideal but the world available to him; he then finds ways to make the best of it. The reasonable expectations he sets for himself enable him to use his property creatively to maximize his fulfillment: the old man and his family enjoy good food, an active life, and even the ability to generously entertain guests.

Meeting the old man inspires a revolution in Candide’s attitude. No longer does Candide craft unwarranted expectations and seek to fit the world to them; rather, he interacts with the world and derives his expectations rationally from what is available to him. He sets his companions to work on their little farm and does not care that none of them is flawless in every respect. He marries Cunégonde but no longer laments her loss of beauty; rather, his example enables her to become a fine cook, and he gains from her skill. Instead of perpetually condemning Brother Giroflée for his past dissoluteness, Candide allows him to live on his farm and become “a very adequate carpenter, and even an honest man.” Candide does not seek to undo the past or correct the uncorrectable -- the futile endeavor which, after its inevitable failure, plunges perfectionists like Pococurante into eternal misery. Rather, Candide comes to realize that “we must cultivate our garden” rather than speculate about the impossible. Forming theories, systems, and worldviews is no problem in itself; Candide, Martin, and Pangloss continue to enjoy their frequent philosophical discussions. However, philosophy must be subordinate to the real world -- or one cannot subordinate the real world to any phantom philosophy unfounded in reality.

Voltaire clearly explains the perfectionist mindset’s failures and the need to adopt reasonable standards for evaluating one’s own life and the world. He depicts a stark contrast between Pococurante and the old Turk; the senator has amazing riches, but he is unable to use them to his benefit because his unreasonably high expectations prevent it. The old man has only modest means, but he utilizes them to their fullest and enjoys his opportunities -- instead of idly complaining about how much better the world might have been if his whims were realized. Candide witnesses both modes of thought; experience and reason ultimately lead him to adopt the old man’s example and thereby flourish. Candide’s prosperity is realistic and available to every man, because every man can learn to match his expectations with his abilities. Voltaire endeavors to convince readers how happy any man’s life might be if he ceased to bemoan the unattainable and focused on setting rational standards for himself.

GENNADY STOLYAROV II is an award-winning poet, published novelist,
and wide-ranging entrepreneur; he is also the editor and publisher
of the magazine The Rational Argumentator