Extremes in Literature and Real Life: why Moderation is a Good Idea
The key to a healthy lifestyle is to enjoy things in moderation because an abundance of anything could be detrimental to one’s health. This applies to everything in life, from french fries to philosophy. As the popular idiom goes, you can have too much of a good thing, and this is illustrated in Pangloss and Candide’s optimism in Candide, Okonkwo’s drive-in Things Fall Apart, and modern Islamic extremism.
Optimism is generally thought of as a good character trait, as it can be “uplifting and hopeful,” but too much of it, as in Candide’s Dr. Pangloss, “can seem phony and be a denial of
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reality and pain” (McMillan). Pangloss is typically seen as a satirization of Enlightenment thinker G.W. Leibniz, who argued that “God created the best of all possible worlds” and that the evil in the world is only for a greater cause (Leibniz’s “Philosophical Optimism”). This loosely coincides with Machiavelli’s pragmatic idea that ‘the ends justify the means,’ though Machiavelli wasn’t foolish enough to believe the world is perfect. Voltaire created Pangloss to see the world through rose-colored glasses, and Pangloss’ worldview makes him seem completely oblivious to the misfortune he has experienced:
–Well, my dear Pangloss, said Candide to him, now that you have been hanged, dissected, beaten to a pulp, and sentenced to the galleys, do you still think everything is for the best in this world?
–I am still of my first opinion, replied Pangloss; for after all I am a philosopher, and it would not be right for me to recant since Leibniz could not possibly be wrong, and besides pre-established harmony is the finest notion of the world, like the plenum and subtle matter. (410)
Nearly the entire plot of Candide revolves around the uselessness of excess philosophy, especially optimism. Another extreme, though slightly less prevalent, is Candide’s extreme attachment to Cunegonde.
Poor Candide had his heart set on marrying princess Cunegonde that he could not focus his energy on anything else. Despite being barred from marrying Cunegonde by both her father and brother, Candide still perceived everything as one step towards being reunited with his “perfect” lover and goes to great lengths in order to find her, including committing multiple murders, narrowly avoiding execution, and abandoning the idyllic El Dorado. Candide’s efforts are ironically futile, since when he finally reunites with Cunegonde and is able to marry her, she had changed so drastically that Candide lost interest:
The tender lover Candide, seeing his lovely Cunegonde with her skin weathered, her eyes bloodshot, her breasts fallen, her cheeks seamed, her arms red and scaly, recoiled three steps in horror, and then advanced only out of politeness… Cunegonde did not know she was ugly, no one had told her… At heart, Candide had no wish to marry Cunegonde… [but] Cunegonde was so eager for it that he could not back out. (410-411)
If Candide had calmed down a bit in his optimistic pursuit of the princess, he would have realized that he was going too far. Candide’s idolization of Cunegonde obviously made her seem disappointing when they were finally reunited because no human being can live up to Candide’s perfect expectations. Although optimism is almost fruitless anyway, especially in excess, seemingly positive characteristics such as Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart’s work ethic, bravery, and masculinity ended up being his hamartia.
Okonkwo desperately wanted to defy the ways of his father Unoka, who was an idle musician that did nothing to provide for his family. For good reason, Okonkwo didn’t want to be seen as similar to his affected father, so he “spent much of his adult life attempting to eradicate the tainted image” that his father left behind for him (Larson). Okonkwo adopted every ideal opposite of his father: he was overly masculine, disliked music, became wealthy, and was a hard worker. He took these ideas to the maximum, going to absurd lengths to ensure that his contemporaries did not see him as weak, such as beating his wives and murdering a boy he treated as his own to cover up the emotions that he most certainly had. His internal conflict over killing Ikemefuna shows how he tried to hide his “weak” and “feminine” guilt from himself:
“When did you become a shivering old woman,” Okonkwo asked himself, “you, who are known in all the nine villages for your valor [sic] in war? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.” (Achebe 31)
Okonkwo’s extreme adherence to his ideals ultimately made him a weak leader, which exactly what he didn’t want to be. The Christian white men came to civilize the Igbo tribe while Okonkwo was exiled, and when he returned he had lost his status to the Christian values. In the end, Okonkwo commits suicide, which “is against [the Igbo] custom… an offense [sic] against the Earth, and a man who commits [suicide] will not be buried by his clansmen” (Achebe 100). Okonkwo’s extreme actions made him die without honor, just as his father did.