“Constant craving has always been.”
If only. . .I’ve begun sentences like that my whole life. If only I could get a bike for Christmas. If only I could get into University of Florida. If only I could get a job as a professor. If only fill in the blank, then I could be happy.
Craving can be a constant in life, this certainty that if only I could do that, have that, achieve whatever, I’d finally feel happiness.
Alas, craving is one of the three poisons in Buddhism and guaranteed to make us unhappy.
This is something that the French writer Voltaire understood as far back as the eighteenth century and which he explores in Candide, his satire of the age and of human nature.
This fast-paced book with its lighthearted tone features every misery that can happen in a person’s life with craving as a common foundation for all of this suffering.
In his youth, Candide seems happy and satisfied, desiring nothing more. This lasts one (very short) chapter.
From then on, Candide experiences tragedy after tragedy always being assured by the philosopher Pangloss that he is experiencing the best of all possible worlds even as Pangloss himself experiences syphilis that disfigures him and near death, belying his favorite maxim.
Perhaps the best example of the danger of craving comes in the section of the book where Candide and his valet, Cacambo, discover Eldorado. Upon arriving, the two men see a group of children playing outside their school using gold, emeralds, and rubies as toys, which they then throw to the ground as if they are worth nothing when recess is over.
When Candide and Cacambo attempt to pay for a luxurious meal at an inn with the precious stones, they quickly learn that in Eldorado, those stones are not precious at all. The laughing servers reassure them that the government pays for meals at inns that help commerce and then apologize for the poor quality of the extravagant meal.
Amazed, Candide and Cacambo visit with a 172-year-old man who fills them in on Eldorado, explaining that those who live there have sworn never to leave, thereby keeping the outside world ignorant of their presence, for they wish for nothing and desire nothing from the outside world that tends toward violence in its craving.
The old man is rather confused and offended when Candide asks if the country has a religion. He responds that of course they do, though there is no church nor prayers of supplication. Rather “we have nothing to ask him for; he has given us everything we need, and we thank him constantly.”
From the old man’s village, Candide and Cacambo make their way to see the king where they discover “the fountains of clear water, the fountains of rose water, and the fountains of liqueurs from sugar cane, which flowed continuously in public squares that were paved with a kind of precious stone that gave off the scent of cloves and cinnamon.” When Candide asks to see the law courts, he learns there are none, for there are never trials nor any prisons.
Yet constant craving arises only a month later. Candide misses his supposed true love so wishes to leave, and he is craving status and power. He tells Cacambo, “If we stay here, we’ll just be like everyone else, whereas if we return to our world, even with only twelve sheep loaded with stones from Eldorado, we’ll be richer than all the kings put together.”
Much against the king’s advice and warning that they can never return, they leave. The book then returns to tragedy after tragedy with no option of wealth, plenty, and total satisfaction available.
Voltaire does offer a kind of solution to the misery of craving at the end when Candide and company meet another wise old man who advises them that the key to satisfaction is work. Even Pangloss sort of gets it, admitting that “Power and glory. . .are very dangerous.”
When Pangloss starts to expound and become his philosopher self again, Candide replies that “we must cultivate our garden.”
Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “The realm of desire is where we touch the presence of craving, anger, arrogance, and delusion. Beings in this realm suffer a lot because they are always running after things.”
Rather than running after things constantly looking for more, always in search of the if only, Candide rejects craving and finally understands that the work is to cultivate happiness from what we already have.