Johann Sperl Mädchen im Bauerngarten

On Cultivating One’s Own Garden

Recently, I caught up with the movie version of ‘The Martian’, about the NASA astronaut who gets left on Mars alone, presumed dead. After his initial shock and panic, Mark Watney decides to “science the shit out of” the disaster of being left alone on an uninhabitable terrain with practically no life resources. The most important thing he has to do is figure out how to sustain himself for some-50 days before contact with NASA can be possible. So, as a botanist, he cultivates a potato garden with ingenuity, hard work, and patience.

At first, I took this as a straightforward metaphor for life — you have to deal with the cards you are handed; make the best of what you’ve got; work hard in even the most hopeless circumstances, etc.

But, really, those pithy platitudes are not good enough.

The Martian’s’ gardening plot point, however, reminded me of another one from a 17th-century French philosopher and writer, Voltaire. His slim novella, ‘Candide‘, is about a naive young man who travels the world, getting into all kinds of awful difficulties (e.g. rape, disembowellings, etc.), trying to dust off every horror with the optimistic maxim from his mentor, Pangloss, that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, and finally concluding, practically, that we can only (and we must) “cultivate our own garden.”

Johann Sperl Mädchen im Bauerngarten
Johann Sperl’s Mädchen im Bauerngarten [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The “garden” is a recurring motif in ‘Candide‘ as it shows up throughout the story in different settings and symbolizes different themes. This is also why there are various interpretations of this particular Voltairean philosophy. I lean towards the theme represented by the garden that shows up at the very end of the story, where Candide and all the main characters set to work on a garden of their own, each one taking responsibility for a specific task. The catalyst is another character, a Turk, who they meet just before this ending. This Turk tells them about his own garden and how he tends to it with his four children, doing simple work and not minding external affairs, to keep free of the three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty.

Now, scholars continue to debate what Voltaire was really trying to say with this ending. Was he advocating a passive retreat/isolation from society or an active contribution to it? Was he suggesting we lose all hope by giving up on the idea that “everything happens for the best”? Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay continues to be my favorite summation because it both clarifies and relates the philosophy to our present-day societies.

First, Gopnik clarifies the phrase:

By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “We must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action.

He adds this about how the philosophy relates to hopeful acts of charity/altruism today:

In the aftermath of the tsunami, William Safire argued that this “surge of generosity” actually “refutes Voltaire’s cynicism,” as expressed in “Candide.” Yet American charity is not a refutation of Voltaire’s cynicism; it is Voltaire’s cynicism, an expression of the Enlightenment tradition of individual responsibility that he promoted. Voltaire was a gardener and believed in gardens, even if other people were gardening them. His residual optimism lies in that alone.

And how Voltaire’s philosophy influenced the world on a larger scale, starting with the French Enlightenment:

Though “Candide” seems to retreat from a confrontation with human cruelty to an enclosed garden, its publication marked Voltaire’s, and his age’s, moral development away from a passive Deism and toward a faith in liberal meliorism. Voltaire went on to a series of confrontations with the consequences of human cruelty that, two hundred-odd years later, remain stirring in their courage and perseverance. It is in the years after the publication of the supposedly cynical and even quietist “Candide” that he began the campaigns against persecution—and, more broadly, against torture and cruelty in punishment—from which, as Davidson says, most civilized societies can trace their liberation from organized cruelty and state killing.

I have been a Panglossian optimist for the longest time. It has been a deeply-embedded, culturally-imprinted mindset — part of my System 1 Thinking (see ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘ by Daniel Kahneman). Yet, many world events over the last few years have proved these beliefs of “everything happens for the best” and “we live in the best of all possible worlds” to be as hollow as ghosts of a long-dead past.

In my own life, my transition into my 40s, along with all the personal tumult that has brought, has also proved these beliefs untrue. All of which is a long way of saying that I have finally also, like ‘Candide‘ and his cohorts, decided that the only thing I can and should do is “cultivate my own garden.” Not out of selfish, isolationist motives but as a way of keeping myself busy and productive enough to avoid the three evils of boredom, vice (defined, of course, by our individual standards and values), and poverty (another term that is defined in relative terms). More than even that, as a way to have a greater capacity for determining my life’s outcomes. And, in the end, as a way of sheer survival, as it was for ‘The Martian’.

If, from this approach, it is also possible to produce things of value and use to others such that a difference can be made in their world, all the better. It is rather like flipping things over and upside-down — aiming for the capacity to control one’s own life outcomes first and then the capacity to make a difference in the world, rather than going for the latter first as many tend to do.

As for which “garden” we might each look to cultivating, that is entirely up to us to discover and focus our cognitive and emotional energies on. For me, it is my writing, foremost. For some, it may be their families. For others, it may be their businesses. Whatever this “garden” is, however, it ought to be absorbing and personally rewarding enough to stave off boredom, vice, and poverty — these are my personal criteria.

With ‘The Martian’, if you have seen the movie or read the book, you will know that Watney’s resourcefulness goes well beyond cultivating a potato garden. He has no choice as he needs to get off the planet to survive. Remember, even Candide does not cultivate a garden all by himself, and growing only potatoes. His immediate network helps him, just as Watney’s network rescues him. More on the cultivation of networks another time.

One key point about Edenic or mythological gardens or paradises: nearly all of them involve, eventually, some kind of expulsion. Voltaire’s metaphorical garden is the only one I have encountered that does not. If anything, it advocates a certain level of seclusion and reclusiveness to allow proper focus on only necessary occupations.

Let us end with some favorite quotes. There are too many lovely bits to pick from, so these are entirely based on my current mood:

From ‘The Martian’ (the book version):

“Q. Star Wars or Star Trek? A. Doctor Who.”

From ‘The Martian’ (the movie version):

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?

From ‘Candide‘:

“Our labor preserves us from three great evils — weariness (boredom in some translations), vice, and want (poverty in some translations).”

. . .

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”


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