In order to define what makes someone ethical, one has to try to define what ethical means. There exist a plethora of theories pertaining to the embodiment of ethical behavior, ranging from religious, political and philosophical—yet what are these qualities? The term ethical derives from the Greek word “ethos” which means character. The Oxford definition of ethical is “of relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these.”
Johnson and Voltaire each explore the dichotomy of human suffering and happiness. In turn, moral principles are debated, and the quest of higher knowledge is favored. In both the protagonists’ journeys their pursuits in the beginning are done in vain, and it is in the very act of leaving their paradise that both Rasselas and Candide begin to understand that the pursuit of happiness is a fallacy, and find life filled with irony and false hope. The story of Rasselas and Candide parallel each other, in that by the end of the story, neither truly discovers what it means to live a good life. Instead, they both find that in sharing stories, and ruminating in human nature, they contemplate the Good and the Bad in a perpetual state. It is then better to examine the philosophers who deliver a better report in the state of affairs—Imlac, Pangloss, Martin and the Old Woman.
In Johnson’s story, the discontented Prince Rasselas of Abyssinia encounters Imlac—an eccentric philosopher whose faculty is rife with honest pessimism. His reasoning for human faculty lies in the art of poetry, which educates oneself, and others about nature and how that relates to humankind. Imlac says to Rasselas, “Being now resolved to be a poet, I saw everything with a new purpose; my sphere of attention was suddenly magnified; no kind of knowledge was to be overlooked” (Johnson 48). Rasselas is fascinated with the thinker’s ability to look inquisitively into the physical and transcendental worlds, yet he is not convinced that Imlac has seen it all. The Prince states to Imlac, “In so wide a survey, you must surely have left much unobserved. I have lived, till now, within the circuit of these mountains, and yet cannot walk abroad without the sight of something which I had never beheld before or never heeded” (Johnson 49). The significance of their banter lies in the fact that Imlac finds worth in examining the ancient poets and to interpret nature, and how one accurately sees “all the modes of life”. Imlac tells him what he himself values and apparently Rasselas needs to go on a journey to find his own values.
Voltaire's Candide, who is forced to go on a journey to decipher the complexities of human life, mirrors Rasselas's pursuit of the meaning in life. Candide’s teacher, Pangloss is a philosophical optimist. He states to Candide, “...that things cannot be otherwise: for as everything has been made for a purpose, everything is necessarily made for the best purpose” (Voltaire 4). This quotation alludes to the German thinker Leibniz and foreshadows Voltaire’s satirizing of his optimism. However, Pangloss’s optimism is what sends Candide into a philosophical journey and, better yet, an ethical dilemma. By Pangloss’s reasoning, to be a good person is to accept that everything is for the better. If so, to be human means to endure pain and see it as part of humanity. So why have morals if evil is equated with it? Candide sees first hand the hypocrisy in humanity; however, in his journey to find his ultimate happiness all he realizes is that he is left with a promise that he made to his love, Cunegonde.
Candide learns a valuable lesson from an Old Woman who saves him and shows him kindness. After we hear of the Old Woman’s horrible suffering, she attempts to rationalize why she did not commit suicide. She says:
"A hundred times I wanted to kill myself, but I was still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most sinister tendencies. For there is nothing more foolish than to insist on carrying a burden one can drop at any moment? To live in constant fear, and yet still hold on to life? To caress the serpent that is devouring you until it has eaten your heart?" (Voltaire 38)
The act of enduring suffering is questioned by the Old Woman. She equates the desire to live with sin. Although she speaks with religious undertones, she actually explains human suffering at its core without sounding pious—it is humans who choose to endure pain, because if there is no pain, one cannot tell a compelling story. So the will to live is rationalized by the Old Woman and Candide proceeds with his journey encountering and experiencing human suffering every step of the way. This also alludes to Pangloss’s attitude towards life in that one should carry a positive outlook on it.
So for the Old Woman, to be ethical is to endure pain that ultimately leads towards transformation. She reinforces this idea when she addresses Cunegonde in Candide’s presence: “You see Mademoiselle, I have experience, I know the world...why don’t you ask every passenger to tell you his life’s story? And if there is a single one among them who has never cursed his life, who has not often told himself that he was the unhappiest of men, then you may throw me overboard headfirst!” (Voltaire 39). Candide, like Rasselas, has to experience empathy in order to understand their moral conundrums. In order for them to transcend life’s horrible existence, they have to turn their fellow sufferers’ anecdotes and generalize in order to gain the ability to understand each other. This is much of what Imlac says about engaging in the art of poetry. He states:
"The business of the poet, is to examine not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances. He does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest...His character requires that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition, and trace the changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions ... He must write as the interpreter of nature and legislator of mankind, and consider himself presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as being superior to time and place." (Voltaire 50)
There are many compelling remarks in this passage, which makes Imlac a viable intelligent character. His reasoning in human nature is to see it as a whole—that is to examine the relationship with good and evil instead of merely accepting one or the other as pure acts of faith. The poet is not the scion of morality, he/she is the interpreter of truths that is pertaining to his/her existence at the moment, which in turn future generations can look back upon and examine with care. The talented poet explores the changes in human behavior that are influenced by larger bodies of intellect. He/she then transcends time and space and gains a lens that allows truths and instincts to follow.
Imlac is much like the scholar Martin in Candide. Both have pessimistic tendencies, yet their cynicism make them artists in deciphering truths and they do so quite eloquently. The scholar Martin, with whom Candide empathizes the most, leads Candide closer to what he apparently values, his word. In their journey together, Martin says to Candide, “Private sorrows are more bitter than public suffering. In a word, I have seen and suffered so much that I am a Manichaean” (Voltaire 70). It is important to point out that Manichaeism is a dualistic religion that believes in the power of God and Satan. Earthly life is considered a battleground for the influence of these powers. The soul (the ethical faculty in humans) defines the person, but is in a tug of war with Good and Evil. Martin’s influence on Candide ultimately leads him to marry Cunegonde while he no longer loves her. It shows that Candide is a person who values declarations made on one’s behalf, never to go back on one’s word. However, it leaves him in a perpetual state of contemplation and irreconcilability—a kind of tug of war with himself. In the end of Candide’s journey, there is no end to his journey. He adapts to the reasoning of another old man in that work starves boredom, vice and desire. Martin finally says to Candide, “Let us work without reasoning, it is the only way to make life bearable” (Voltaire 119). Like Rasselas, he too ends up back where he starts, but knowledgeable of life’s ironies.
The stories of Rasselas and Candide teach us about what it means to be ethical through the portrayal of their philosophers and storytellers. The lesson ultimately is that one cannot look at oneself for the answer to a moral dilemma. One should seek this knowledge outside in nature and human behavior. To be ethical is to search for the institutions that appear to have the answers, and to examine them with a skeptical attitude. To have character (ethos) is to be in a constant state of flux with insurmountable language and knowledge.