Retirement Lessons from Voltaire’s Candide

Candide (1759) is a novella chronicling a young man’s philosophical journey and metamorphosis as he is led around the world, mostly by circumstance and curiosity. Contrary to the heavy perception that comes with philosophical writing, Candide is highly accessible and I thoroughly recommend it for the general reader, not just those interested in philosophy.

The story continually brings us round to the enlightenment thinking practiced by Voltaire and others of the day. There is no doubt that Candide was written as an attack against the depotism and cronyism of the monarchic systems in Europe. But it is also an attack against a philosophy of optimism, such as put forward by the rationalist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

There are lessons in Candide in how to forge the right mindset to sail past problems, but also in how to understand the universality of human suffering and pain.

For those who have had a long career, retirement presents a risk of identity adjustment problems. We suddenly move to a point where we describe ourselves by what we used to do. We also tend to hold values about what retirement is going to look like, but when we reach our target the outcome is very different.

In many ways, the story that maps Candide’s life should be familiar to us all. Of course, Candide encounters many tragedies that are far removed from what we expect today. But the course of this man’s journey translates well to modern-day life and all the perils it contains.


Lesson 1: Create the Right Expectations

In the very first chapter, we meet Candide living a utopian life in the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronkh. His days are filled with philosophical lessons from Dr Pangloss, who teaches that everything is ‘the best it could possibly be’.

Blind ignorance and naivety delivers his first tragedy – getting kicked out of the castle for kissing his sweetheart Cunégonde, the Baron’s daughter. Shortly afterwards, the castle gets stormed by Bulgars and everyone is seemingly killed, except for Candide.

Following this and throughout the story, Candide shows unwavering support to Dr Pangloss’s philosophy, even upon witnessing the destruction of Lisbon in 1755. As earthquake, tsunami and fire ravages the city, Pangloss declares:

“All of this is as good as it can possibly be. Since, if there is a volcano in Lisbon, it could not be elsewhere. Since it is impossible that things be other than they are. Since all is good.”

Pangloss, Chapter 5
The Great Earthquake of 1755, Lisbon

In the book there are countless examples of cruel suffering of the characters that Candide meets along the way:

  • He sees his friends Dr Pangloss and the Baron hanged in an auto-da-fe.
  • His friend Jacques the Anabaptist, who saves Candide from a lynching, dies whilst trying to save a sailor’s life
  • His love Cunégonde was raped and disembowelled by Bugar soldiers and sold into servantry
  • An old woman, who was raped and enslaved by African pirates and had a buttock removed to feed starving Janissaries

This is an example of how cruel life can be, across all social classes. Candide’s optimistic mindset let him see beyond these catastrophes.

Everything happened for a reason, and he merely ascribed himself a passenger’s ticket by not accepting things for how they really are. This meant he was able to deal with difficult situations, as he simply didn’t allow the negative thoughts in.

Although an optimistic philosophy keeps Candide’s spirits high, it ultimately does not bring him the happiness he seeks from Cunégonde. Throughout the book he gradually questions his beliefs, and when he finally is reunited with Cunégonde, he is devastated by her insufferableness.

Don’t Focus on Outcomes

One learning point here is that not everything that happens to us in our career can be sacrificed at the expense of promises of retirement.

It is tempting to have an overly optimistic view of what retirement is going to be like. We imagine that having a third of our life back will bring instant positive change in our lives, but the hard reality is that the opposite can happen. Our careers shape and mould our identity.

Retirement can be a scary time full of shock and displacement, and without something to move onto we can be hit with bouts of low personal agency and depression.

Throughout our career we struggle with disaster, but perhaps not on the same scale as Candide and the other characters in the book. For many, work is suffering. But retirement is not a free ticket to happiness.

Many of us treat retirement as an endgame where happiness is bound up in the freedom to do what we want. But really this is another example of being focussed on outcomes rather than accepting the reality of things. The world is not going to change in retirement, but your expectations of it will.

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Lesson 2: Your Wealth Means Nothing

Photo by Dmitry Demidov from Pexels

On his journey through South America, Candide and his friend Cacambo stumble into the utopian city of El-Dorado. Here the children play games with pebbles from the ground that are worth nothing to the inhabitants but are priceless in the open markets of the rest of the world.

The people who live in El Dorado live in peaceful isolation, yet they know not of the riches they sit on. They are magnanimous and untroubled by jealousy. But even in this earthly paradise, Candide yearns for more.

He believes he will never be happy until he sees Cunégonde again. With this he bids farewell to the people of El Dorado, taking with him bags full of golds and jewels, translating to unfathomable wealth to the outside world.

There’s only so much money we really need.

Shortly after leaving El Dorado, Candide loses most of his wealth to robbery and the rest he freely gives away to those in need and who request it.

He demonstrates that money does not bring him happiness, or anyone else. Although it can buy you good service it can be taken away from you without a moment’s notice.

Without doubt, money is needed to fund your lifestyle when you no longer have a secure income. But there is only so much that you actually need. By thinking you will retire and be happy in El Dorado is wishful thinking. Like Candide, you will probably end up yearning for a more fulfilling life.

We cannot tie so much of our identity in money. Defining ourselves in terms of money is no better than defining ourselves by the car we drive.

You or your money can disappear without a moment’s notice. It’s good to be mindful of this, but money is an indifferent (neither good nor bad). Once you have enough of it, it no longer gives you added personal influence. Think about what you would do if you lost it, put insurance policies in place, and mentally detach yourself from its importance. This is what the Stoics would call negative visualisation.

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Lesson 3: Don’t be a Critic

In Chapter 25, Candide meets a Venetian nobleman called Senator Pococuranté, who gives him a tour of his estate. Pococuranté has everything that he could possibly want, from paintings by Raphael to magnificently bound tomes by Homer.

The Lord pours scorn on every single one of his possessions and anything that is considered art. From opera to lavishly adorned gardens, the Lord has everything but holds all of it in disdain (interestingly the only thing he speaks positively about is a page from Seneca).

“Well, you must admit that he’s the happiest man on earth, because he’s above all his possessions.”

…”But,” said Candide, “is there not some pleassure to be had in criticising everything and findnig fault where others see beauty?”

When we get older and retire, there is a tendency towards thinking we have ‘completed the game’. From this lofty position of accomplishment, we could look at everyone else with scorn and criticism, leading us to become misers. Or we could spend our days buying every increasing luxuries that we eventually become bored of.

There is no sense in owning lavish possessions if you don’t enjoy them. Just because you have wealth, this doesn’t mean you should spend your time and energy accumulating different forms of it. Nobody wants to know about your art collection, if all you do is criticise others.

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Lesson 4: We Must Cultivate Our Own Garden

At the end of the book, Candide reaches his beloved Cunégonde in Constantinople, where he settles on a small farm with his friends. They all become very bored, leading the old woman in their group to ask the following:

“I would like to know which is worst: to be raped a hundred times by pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet whilst serving in a Bulgar regiment, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to be a galley slave, in short to have experienced all the hardships we have all suffered, or to have to sit here and do nothing?”

“That’s a very good question,” said Candide.

Chapter 30

Candide and his friends are wondering what to do with their lives in the wake of all of their miserable experiences. They meet a Turk who farms a small area of land, and they all set to work with their own tasks. The work is honest and simple, and we leave the story with Candide feeling useful and finally satisfied with life.

Photo by Binyamin Mellish from Pexels

In cultivating our own gardens, we give ourselves a chance to finally look after ourselves. Throughout our careers our minds have been distracted by deadlines and tasks. In retirement this changes, and we need to be able to adapt.

Useful and meaningful ‘work’ is often overlooked as an option in retirement, but it’s often the best option to avoid fluctuating between boredom and anguish. Providing it is simple work and absent of stress, service to others can be incredibly rewarding and helps us forge a new identity.

“Work keeps away three great evils: boredom, vice and need”.

The honest Turk shows us that work for the sake of it is preferable to being handed inheritance and wealth. But more to the point, we are all responsible for creating our own utopias.

Another interpretation is that we should not base our thoughts and beliefs on the identities of others (in this case the identity we inherit from our jobs). This is a time where we do not think for our employers, but we must cultivate our own philosophy and view of the world.

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3 thoughts on “Retirement Lessons from Voltaire’s Candide”

  1. Thought-provoking post here AO! Enjoyed the perspective on work and its relationship with your own identity of self. For many folks, I think the fear of losing that identity keeps them at their job a little longer than is necessary.

    Work defines many people. It’s understandable, after all, we pour our lives into it.

    1. Thanks Chris, it’s often ignored that work is a fundamental part of our psyche. For us to create order we have to be productive and useful. Instead of expecting retirement to be an escape, I think we should work hard to be contemplative and of service to others. This way we are always useful.

      1. Indeed, and tagging onto that—I think “work” is too often associated with a job. One can keep doing good, healthy, productive work without a job. Hell, you don’t even have to be paid to do work!

        I wrote a whole post on that topic—the purpose of work—I came to the conclusion that the whole point of work is to create. To put something into the world that didn’t exist before, even where that isn’t something physical or visible. Ideas and new methods come through creation, too.

        Retirement should be (at least, for me, in my opinion) a way to focus your energy for work on your own creations in so far as what you want to see come to exist in the world.

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