The Role of Providence in Candide and Survival in Auschwitz
Providence is a main theme in Candide, by Voltaire, and Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi. The word providence literally means foresight, but is generally used to denote Gods preserving and governing all things by means of second causes.Voltaire pokes fun at the notion of providence and mocks the philosopher, Liebniz, for his belief that all things that happen are for the very best. Voltaire uses several characters to portray a different point of view, some are supporters of Liebniz philosophy, and others are not. Primo Levi, attacks the idea of providence in a different way, because he finds that some things that happen in the concentration camp to be contradictory to the notion that everything that happens is for the best. In Candide, and Survival in Auschwitz, the authors address the role of providence in different ways, Voltaire simply mocks it, while Levi questions it, yet they both agree that the best can not come out of anything except through effort and work.
Candide begins with the character of Pangloss, who agrees with the notion of providence. He teaches his student Candide that everything happens for the best, no matter what. As the story continues natural disasters and unfortunate events occur and Pangloss is left homeless and ill with pox. Pangloss justifies his wretched state by claiming pox is a good thing because with out it there would be no chocolate because the New World introduced both of them to Europe. Voltaire is quick to point out that he does not believe that the fate of Pangloss is a result of providence. He also mocks the positive attitude of Pangloss by showing how convoluted and irrational his theory is. It is obvious that the pox has absolutely nothing to do with chocolate, so there is no support for his reasoning. Voltaire exposes the emptiness in of what Pangloss believes. The story continues with Pangloss, Candide, and others enduring horrible events.
Contrary to Voltaire, Levi is a supporter of the idea of providence. Throughout the book, he never loses hope, and he never fails to see that providence, or Gods will, is always working on his side. He mentions that although everything may seem to be awful, there is always a bright side. Levi points out that everyday there is hope, even though it may be cold, at least it is not windy. Each day, he is able to pick out one positive aspect amidst all that he endures. The fact that Levi believes that something good always prevails shows how Levi believes providence is working for him. On the other hand, he notices many other people whose fate seems questionable and they die for no real reason. In his experience in Auschwitz, Levi goes through many troubles, like starving and working in freezing cold temperatures, but he still manages to survive through it all. He continues to have hope throughout the book and even though some times are tough, he realizes that providence is evident in his life.
In Candide, Voltaire shows how providence does not work in the life of the title character, Candide. He starts out by believing in the philosophy of Pangloss, who teaches him that everything happens for the good, and that this world is the best of all possible worlds. As the story continues he encounters many disasters and unfortunate situations that make him question the idea of providence. In the beginning he naively sticks to the idea that all things happen for the best. As his misfortunes grow, and his fate becomes worse, he begins to question the philosophy that Pangloss taught him. In chapter six, after the earthquakes, Candide begins to question the good that came from the death of Pangloss and his love Cunegonde (although they are not actually dead, Candide believes that they are). He searches, but cannot find any good reason as to why these deaths happened, and how they can be for the good. He begins to question whether or not this is the best world possible and the validity of providence.
Candide is further influenced by Martin, who portrays the ideas of Voltaire and criticizes the beliefs that Candide holds. He does not believe that everything happens for the best, but he believes in the exact opposite. He does not agree that earthquakes, illness, and death are all for the betterment of society and people, instead he sees them for what they are, bad events that wreck peoples lives, not for the better, but for the worse. These things do not happen to create well in the world but they occur because of the existence and power of evil. Candide and Martin talk about providence and they disagree often. As they watch a boat sink and all the inhabitants die, Candide believes that the sinking of the entire boat was good because it punished the Captain for his bad deeds. Martin answers, but was it necessary that the other passengers on his ship should perish too? God punished the thief and the devil punished the others.2 Voltaire uses Martin to expose the faults in Pangloss theory that providence is in control of everything that happens. Rather than believing that everything happens for the good, he instead sees evil as having the most power in this world.
In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi sees many things happen that he cannot answer with the idea of providence. The fact that the Germans killed thousands of women, children and men, showed him that not everything happens for the best. He sees chance as the deciding factor in many of the prisoners fates and that by walking down the wrong side of the convoy, death could be the next step. Death does not occur for the best, and providence does not allow death to be good. Levi states, It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term extermination camp, and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: to lie on the bottom.3 The fate of thousands of the people in the camp is not caused by providence because these deaths were atrocious. Innocent people died, for what no real purpose. Levi does not view death as an act that causes good things to happen, but instead he sees it as a horrible thing that cannot have good come from it.
Levi also uses the character of Zeigler, as an example to how providence is not always in work. The reason Zeigler is killed is not that he is ill, nor that he is useless in the camp, both being reasons for the Germans to exterminate a person, but instead only because of chance. Levi views the massacre of many of his fellow prisoners as useless. His death does not appear to have any purpose, and because of that, it contradicts the exact idea of providence.
Levi also points out the falseness in Kuhn, a prisoner who, after the examinations, was not chosen to die. While he prays, he thanks God for his life and for not being one of the chosen sent to the gas chambers. Levi reacts, Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?4 Kuhn believes that Gods providence is at work for him. What he does not realize is that although he will not die tomorrow, his death will come soon. He feels a false sense of providence. Even though he passed one examination, he will most likely not make it through another and consequently die.
Throughout the book, the character of Candide changes and he develops into a mature person who works and takes on a new philosophy that not everything is a result of providence. That one cannot just let the world go as it may, but should take an active part in it. Candide begins to realize that evil exists in this world and there is nothing one can do about it. Voltaire introduces the phrase Cultivating ones Garden which shows that if one works, they might possibly be able to exist in a state of contentment. He realizes that he can, and should, take an active part in his own fate. He also learns that providence is not always for the best, and in order to improve the state of being, one must work hard at it. Voltaire also suggests that the philosophy of Pangloss only gives room for apathy and the chance that a person would have no desire to affect their future. The one thing that a person has to realize is that providence is not at work in this world because this is not the best possible world. If one accepts that, then it is the duty of humans to change the current state of being and try to make it better, because actions accomplish more than words. The idea of Cultivating the garden shows that good can only occur if one strives and works to achieve it.
Levi works hard to survive, and by doing so he has some control over his fate. He does not merely lose hope and become apathetic. He realizes he needs to keep communication with others in the camp in order to keep a sense of dignity and humanity. Levi suffered from hunger, cold, and constant pain, and yet he managed to live his life without ever giving up on hope. He managed to survive, even when he cannot see anything good happening. The work that he accomplishes, he does well and even through the end, he continues to help himself and those around him. Levi was a true survivor, and although he had providence working for him, he recognized that many things happened for no good reason at all. One reason why Levi survived is, because he took control of his own fate and did all that he could to make his life better.
The characters in both of these novels address the issue of providence. Voltaire uses satire to make fun of the philosophical idea that everything that happens is for the best. Levi addresses providence in an objective manner, he observes it and sees how it works, or does not work. The two authors express their own opinions. Voltaire does this through the character of Martin, and Levi by telling the story in first person. The question that both of them are skeptical about, is the belief that a force, separate from ones own capabilities, has a great amount of influence on the future. The existence of providence is often accepted as a fact, but there is also the idea of free will, which can allow one to defy providence completely.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz.