Essay on Voltaire's Candide - Optimism in Candide


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Optimism in Candide


Voltaire's Candide uses anti-heroism as an object of mockery against the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Candide, the hero of the novel travels around the world where he encounters many difficulties. During his travels, he sticks to the teaching of his tutor, Doctor Pangloss, believing that "everything is for the best" (3). Voltaire points out the illogicality of this doctrine, "if Columbus had not caught, on an American island, this sickness which attacks the source of generation [...] we should have neither chocolate or cochineal" (8). The sheer stupidity of these illogical conclusions points out Voltaire's problem with most optimists: the illogical degree to which they would carry their doctrine. Voltaire would argue that noses were not designed for spectacles, but rather spectacles were designed for preexisting noses. Pangloss's interpretation of cause and effect is so ignorant as to be comical. While Candide tells an interesting story, it is more important as a satire. However, this does not prove Voltaire is a pessimist.

 
During the age of Enlightenment, the philosophes believed that reason could be used to explain everything. The philosophes believed that people could make the world a better place to live in. Voltaire is against such optimism. Ian Bell Says "The 'optimist' argument then, was complex and sophisticated, but like all ironists Voltaire chose to simplify it to the extent that it seemed complacent and absurd, and he went on to cast doubt on our chances of ever securing 'eternal happiness'"(1-2). According to Voltaire true happiness can only be experienced in an unreal world. The multitudes of disasters that Candide endures after leaving Eldorado culminate in his eventual abandonment of optimism. Candide loses four of his sheep laden with priceless jewels due to natural causes, and then sees his two remaining sheep stolen, and the local magistrate indifferent to the theft. "Certainly, [says Candide,] if everything goes well, it is in Eldorado and not in the rest of the world" (42). Candide goes a step further, "Oh Pangloss, cried Candide, you have no notion of these abominations! I'm through, I must give up your optimism after all. What's optimism? said Cacambo. Alas, said Candide, it is a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell" (40). Candide's enthusiastic view of life is contrasted with, and challenged by suffering that he endures throughout the book. Hence, Voltaire uses the book to satirize the foolishness of optimism.

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Voltaire also satirizes religion. According to him the extremely pious and the clergy are willing to turn their back on their fellow man, but those who have not even been baptized are willing to lend a helping hand. Candide, shortly after the battle, asks many religious individuals for alms, but they all, including one who had just lectured on charity, refused to aid him. Finally Jacques the Anabaptist takes pity on his fellow human, a "featherless biped possessing a soul" (6). Voltaire attacks not only the blanket optimism of Dr. Pangloss, but also the religious notion of providence, the idea that there is a divine will guiding earthly events. The fact that good and bad alike suffer and die seems to be evidence that God is not in charge. Voltaire believed that God had abandoned the world. Robert Adams adds, "Perhaps Voltaire, like many other unbelievers, especially those with Jesuit training, continued to respect the logic of the church in which he no longer believed" (183). The hypocrisy of religion, especially that of the Roman Catholic Church, is recurrent in Candide. Underlying the satire of religious practices is Voltaire's outrage at all forms of fanaticism and intolerance. Voltaire claims that religious leaders blame "the fall of man [as the system] we put on all these individual maladies".  Voltaire adds, "it is clear that the system undermines the very foundations of the Christian religion, and explains nothing at all" (88)

 
O. Wade says "Voltaire destroys the philosophy of optimism by graphically describing the tragic miseries of humanity: Candide offers us the saddest themes disguised under the merriest of jokes, the joking being of that philosophical variety which is peculiar to M. de Voltaire, [...] he makes the all is well system, upheld by so many philosophers, look completely ridiculous" (146). Despite attacking the optimists, Voltaire offers no solution to the problems. Wade writes Voltaire's "attitude towards optimism is difficult to trace because of the ambiguity of his position" (150) According to Voltaire, "we must cultivate our gardens", "it's the only way of rendering life bearable" (75). He says since true happiness is hard to find, hard work is the only way one can live in contentment. Voltaire makes Candide an interesting and entertaining book, but also uses it to ridicules the optimism of the enlightenment.

 
Works Cited

Bell, Ian A. Candide: Overview

Voltaire. Candide. New York, London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.


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