Satirizing Optimism in Candide
Candide is a humorous, far-fetched tale by Voltaire satirizing the optimism promoted by the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. It is the story of a young man's adventures throughout the world, where he witnesses evil and disaster. Throughout his travels, he adheres to the teachings of his tutor, Pangloss, believing that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds," (Voltaire
is Voltaire's answer to what he saw as an absurd belief proposed by the Optimists. "Candide...is a profound attack on philosophical Optimism
and, through it, all philosophical systems that claim falsely to justify the presence of evil in the world," (Mason 1). "Candide anatomizes the world's potential for disaster and examines the corresponding human capacity for optimism," (Bell 1). Though he was by no means a pessimist, Voltaire refused to believe that what happens is always for the best.
The Age of Enlightenment is a term applied to a wide variety of ideas and advances in the fields of philosophy, science, and medicine. The main feature of Enlightenment philosophy is the belief that people can actively work to create a better world. "It is customary to present Candide as the result of Voltaire's reaction to Leibniz and Pope,"(Wade 1) two of the main philosophers of the enlightenment era. While Voltaire's Candide is heavily characterized by the primary concerns of the Enlightenment, it also criticizes certain aspects of the movement. It attacks the idea of optimism, which states that rational thought can inhibit the evils perpetrated by human beings. Voltaire did not believe in the power of reason to overcome contemporary social conditions.
The attack on the claim that this is "the best of all possible worlds" is apparent throughout the entire novel. Throughout the story, satirical references to this theme contrast with natural disaster and human wrongdoing. When reunited with the diseased and dying Pangloss, who had contracted syphilis, Candide asks if the Devil is at fault. Pangloss simply responds that "the disease was a necessity in this 'the best of all possible worlds', for it was brought to Europe by Columbus' men, who also brought chocolate and cochineal, two greater goods that well offset any negative effects of the disease,'" (Voltaire 17). The multitudes of disasters, which Candide undergoes, leads to the abandonment of his belief in optimism. When asked "What's optimism?" by Cacambo, Candide replies, "Alas...it is a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell," (Voltaire 130).
Candide finally begins to be aware of the hopelessness of Pangloss' philosophy. Voltaire concludes Candide by having Candide discover the Turk's truth to life - "...the work keeps us from three great evils, boredom, vice and need," (Voltaire 148). Candide and his band of followers consider these words and decide that they "must cultivate their garden." Even when the entire group has accepted the pastoral lifestyle, finding contentment, Pangloss the Optimist attempts to prove how all their prior misfortunes were parts of the necessary chain of events for them to reach happiness. Voltaire paints Pangloss as the true dolt of optimism, never realizing the errors of his own logic.
Candide eventually learns how to achieve happiness in the face of misadventure. He learns that in order to attain a state of contentment, one must be part of society where there is collective effort and work. Labor, Candide learns, eliminates the three curses of mankind: want, boredom, and vice. In order to create such a society, man must do the following: love his fellow man, be just, be vigilant, know how to make the best of a bad situation and keep from theorizing. Voltaire expresses this last requirement for such a society briefly when he says, "Let's work without speculating; it's the only way of rendering life bearable," (Voltaire 77).
Even though a philosopher of the Enlightenment himself, Voltaire uses Candide as a platform to criticize the utter optimism of his fellows. His use of satire throughout the story has a serious purpose. Voltaire uses satire as a means of pointing out injustice, cruelty, and bigotry, and makes it seem intolerable to the reader. Voltaire always has a serious intention behind the laughter in Candide.
Bell, Ian A. "Candide: Overview." Reference Guide to World Literature 2nd ed. (1995). 5 Nov. 2001
GaleNet. Literature Resource Center. 5 Nov. 2001
Mason, Hayden. "Voltaire: Overview." Reference Guide to World Literature 2nd ed. (1995). 5 Nov. 2001
Voltaire. Candide. 1759. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.
Wade, Ira O. "Voltaire's Quarrel with Science." Bucknell Review VIII.4 (1959): 287?298. 5 Nov. 2001