May 24, 2023

We Must Cultivate Our Garden

I am a sucker for a good quote, and this time of year, I am looking for good gardening quotes. I have found that the philosopher Voltaire has one of the best.

It is from his 1759 book Candide, and it is pretty basic as the best quotes often are.

It says simply, "We must cultivate our garden".

This passage is from the book:

Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was argumentative, asked the old man what the name of the strangled Mufti was. ‘I don’t know,’ answered the worthy man, ‘and I have never known the name of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I have no idea what you’re talking about; my general view is that people who meddle with politics usually meet a miserable end, and indeed they deserve to. I never bother with what is going on in Constantinople; I only worry about sending the fruits of the garden which I cultivate off to be sold there.’


Having said these words, he invited the strangers into his house; his two sons and two daughters presented them with several sorts of sherbet, which they had made themselves, with kaimak enriched with the candied-peel of citrons, with oranges, lemons, pine-apples, pistachio-nuts, and Mocha coffee… – after which the two daughters of the honest Muslim perfumed the strangers’ beards.


‘You must have a vast and magnificent estate,’ said Candide to the turk.


‘I have only twenty acres,’ replied the old man; ‘I and my children cultivate them; and our labour preserves us from three great evils: weariness, vice, and want.’


Candide, on his way home, reflected deeply on what the old man had said.


‘This honest Turk,’ he said to Pangloss and Martin, ‘seems to be in a far better place than kings…. I also know,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.’

This is what The School Of Life website has to say about Voltaire's quote:

What did Voltaire mean with his gardening advice? That we must keep a good distance between ourselves and the world, because taking too close an interest in politics or public opinion is a fast route to aggravation and danger. 
We should know well enough at this point that humans are troublesome and will never achieve – at a state level – anything like the degree of logic and goodness we would wish for. 
We should never tie our personal moods to the condition of a whole nation or people in general; or we would need to weep continuously. 
We need to live in our own small plots, not the heads of strangers. 
At the same time, because our minds are haunted and prey to anxiety and despair, we need to keep ourselves busy. We need a project. It shouldn’t be too large or dependent on many. The project should send us to sleep every night weary but satisfied. It could be bringing up a child, writing a book, looking after a house, running a small shop or managing a little business. Or, of course, tending to a few acres. 
Note Voltaire’s geographical modesty. We should give up on trying to cultivate the whole of humanity, we should give up on things at a national or international scale. 
Take just a few acres and make those your focus. Take a small orchard and grow lemons and apricots. Take some beds and grow asparagus and carrots. 
Stop worrying yourself with humanity if you ever want peace of mind again. Who cares what’s happening in Constantinople or what’s up with the grand Mufti. Live quietly like the old turk, enjoying the sunshine in the orange bower next to your house. 
This is Voltaire’s stirring, ever relevant form of horticultural quietism. We have been warned – and guided.

As I have been tending my own small patches of soil over the last few days I have been keeping Voltaire's quote and the explanation of its meaning in mind.

It all makes perfect sense to me at this point in time, and gives me great comfort.

May you be tending your own garden, and finding sustenance and contentment growing there.

Plus protection from weariness, vice, and want.


  1. Anonymous5/29/2023

    I've just been thinking about this. Since I was young I've always been concerned with the environmental destruction. For context, I was born in the eighties. I remember how difficult it was to understand why nobody was reacting to the cumulating evidence that we are destroying the environment irreversibly in many different levels. Now I'm as adult I'm happy to see that some of these things do get talked about and there are great forces working in the (political) world to change things for the better. Not that I'm very optimistic, though. The adult world has also taught me that with people, it's never so simple.

    So in a way, I've personally been trying to "solve" the ecocrisis most of my life, you know, by constantly thinking about it and everything that should and could be done... and thus been disappointed and frustrated and in despair a lot! It was only a few years ago that I decided I won't do it anymore. I gave up on the big scale. The waves of that decision are still hitting shore years after. My prestigious career came to a swift end and I started gardening. I'm barely scraping through financially (and hoping to eventually improve on that) but I'm still immensely proud of my decision. It's hard, but this time I'm letting my hands work on the problem of global warming and biodiversity loss and what have you. I'm solving them one plant, one growing season at a time. Now, when the thinking starts, I know how to shake it off. I don't disregard it, but I don't overvalue it either. I'm no longer consumed by whatever is going on in the world. I resign myself to the mostly tangible little corner of the world that I in fact can influence. This blog post summed up the thing beautifully!

  2. I have carried that quote with me for years (I keep commonplace books, cultivating quotes, and have since the mid-1980s) and it has nourished me all along the way. Some of my gardens are volunteer/community; others are right outside the door where I grow food for our household (of 2) and others. This post made me smile!

  3. "Stop worrying yourself with humanity if you ever want peace of mind again." There is so little calm left in this world. Sadly, pretty much everything we have touched, or even think about touching, is only considered anymore by its profitability. My small plot is six window boxes I plant with impatiens every summer. I live in a basement apartment, in an older building, in the heart of the city. I have huge windows - and a fine view of the license plates of the tenants in the building who drive cars. In the half dozen years I have lived here, every summer I have filled window box planters with bright-coloured impatiens - colour is chosen annually by pure whim when I get to the gardening centre - and set them on the ground just outside my windows. I have always imagined most people around thought I was just a silly old lady, but in the past couple years, especially in the mornings when I am out watering just as people are leaving for work, I have had people stop and thank me for cheering the place up. Last spring someone slipped an envelope with a $20 bill in it under my door, along with a note that said simply, "For flowers." The spark is there, I just wish I could find the alchemy that would send it off and around the world like a rocket. Like Winston Churchill, "I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else."


Comments will be printed after moderation to eliminate spam. We are proudly a no buying, no selling website.

We enjoy reading all comments, and respond when time permits.

If you put a name to your comment we can all recognize you for your contribution.

Thank you for visiting and commenting.