Candide- A Contrast to Optimism
Francis Marie Arouet de Voltaire was the French author of the novella Candide, also known as “Optimism”(Durant and Durant 724). Many of Voltaire’s works were popular in Europe during his time, yet it is his satire, Candide, which is still studied today. In Candide, Voltaire sought to point out the fallacy of Gottfried William von Leibniz’s philosophy by criticizing worldly superiority, the theory of optimism
, and the brutality of war.
Leibniz theorized that God, having the ability to pick from an infinite number of worlds, chose this world, “the best of all possible worlds”(18). To dispute that contention, Voltaire created Martin. Martin was the quintessential pessimist, and Candide
’s trusted friend and advisor. Martin continuously tried to prove to Candide that there is little virtue, morality and happiness in the world. When a cheerful couple was seen walking and singing, Candide told Martin, “At least you must admit that these people are happy”(94). Martin quickly replied, “I wager they are not”(94). The only basis Martin had for his judgment was the sight of two outwardly content people, yet somehow he was compelled to characterize them as unhappy. Martin’s pessimistic outlook on life
is the antithesis of Leibniz’s theory that this world is the best. The evil that Martin perceived blinded him from the good that existed in the world. The land of Eldorado was the realization of Leibniz’s theory that this world is the best. In reference to Eldorado, Candide stated that “there’s no comparison between this country and the castle where I was born”(70). The fact that Eldorado was the perfect city revealed the flawed world in which Candide lived. Martin’s ability to focus on the evils in the world and the contrast between reality and Eldorado reflect Voltaire’s criticism of Leibniz’s belief that this world is the best possible.
To emphasize his criticism of optimism in the novel, Voltaire created Dr. Pangloss, an unconditional follower of Leibniz’s philosophy. Pangloss believed that everything had its purpose and things happened for the best. Even the horrendous Lisbon earthquake and fire were for the best according to Pangloss. He stated that although the disastrous earthquake took over 30,000 lives, “all this is for the very best. . . For it is impossible that things should not be where they are”(30). According to Pangloss’ philosophy, there was a purpose behind the earthquake. He believed that there was a rational explanation for the earthquake, even though he was unable to provide substantial evidence to support his claim. Another instance where Pangloss applied this theory is when the virtuous Anabaptist fell overboard. When Candide was about to save the man Pangloss “stopped him by proving to him that the Lisbon harbor was formed expressly for the Anabaptist to drown in”(28). His belief that the harbor’s sole purpose for being there was to take the mans life is highly unlikely. He again is unable to provide any basis for his statement other than that it is for the best. Pangloss’ belief that both an earthquake and a man dying our for the best is Voltaire’s way of mocking the theory of optimism. Just like Pangloss’ statements, the Theory of Optimism has no proof of validity other than things are for the best.
War is another evil, which Voltaire satirizes in Candide. Voltaire used the Bulgarians and their brutality as a basis for his satire on war. An example is when Candide is given the choice” to be beaten thirty-six times by the whole regiment, or receive twelve lead bullets to the brain”(22). After only to runs through the gauntlet Candide pleads for them to kill him. The fact that he would rather die than be beaten speaks of the severity of the punishment. Not only that but he was condemned to this torture for simply taking a walk. Another satire of war included in Candides the Bulgarians’ burning of the Arabian village “in accordance with the rules of international law”(23). Voltaire shows that the soldiers do not just kill other people they rape, disembowel, and dismember innocent women and children. The only reason the Bulgarians gave themselves for pillaging the village and harming innocent bystanders was because it was a rule of international law. Their acts of savagery again were not properly justified yet they proceeded as if nothing was wrong. Upon arrival in England, Candide witnesses another instance of brutality related to war, the execution of an admiral because of his failure to win a battle(92). A reply to Candides questioning is, “…it is a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage others”(92). This is an obvious allusion to an incident Voltaire himself witnessed. Admiral Byng of England was court-martialed for the same outrageous reason and although Voltaire tried to stop the execution, Byng was still killed.(Durant & Durant 725).
Although the novella Candide was partially written for entertainment purposes, it was written primarily to satirize the views of Leibniz’s philosophy. Voltaire looked at the world with the idea that changes could be made to eradicate all of the evil in the world. He achieved his goal of satirizing Leibniz by tearing apart Pangloss’ philosophy, using Martin as a contrast to Pangloss and the brutality of war.