The Asylum of Optimists in Candide

The Asylum of Optimists in Candide

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The Asylum of Optimists

"Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself." US editor H.L. Mencken summed up the majority of Voltaire's Candide in this humorous statement. He stated Voltaire's ideas toward modern philosophy, specifically the Optimism of the philosopher Leibniz. Candide presents the idea that philosophy is useless without application and yet leaves the idea wide open to interpretation. Both sides of the theory are present; the reader must decide which to believe.

On the one hand, the reader is presented with the idea that philosophy is good for philosophy's sake. The character Pangloss is an absolute optimist, constantly saying that "all is well" (2). The optimism of Pangloss carries him through the hardest of circumstances - syphilis (9), a hanging (15), and a botched autopsy that brought him back to life (92). Yet in his satirical fashion, Voltaire carries Pangloss' philosophy to the point of idiocy. When any normal person would have renounced their philosophy, Pangloss still insists on it. So what conclusion may the reader draw from this portrayal? Clearly, Pangloss failed to apply his philosophy, yet he was still living. He was still able to count his blessings. Philosophy for philosophy's sake seemed to be a "wind beneath the wings" for Pangloss - keeping him somewhat sane in the darkest of situations. Voltaire's presentation of this idea is in complete contrast to the idea behind the Enlightenment, in which reason was the greatest ideal. Philosophy springs from reasoning and so Voltaire displayed how philosophy can be used simply for the sake of reasoning. In fact, the text even says that Pangloss, ."..having once maintained that everything was going marvelously, he still maintained it, and believed nothing of the sort" (96). He still maintains the philosophy, giving him hope, yet doesn't fully believe it. In other words, he has the head knowledge, but hasn't taken it fully to heart knowledge yet.

The application of philosophical reasoning, however, seems to be Voltaire's main point. Philosophy is no good without application, which contrasts the ideal of the character Pangloss. Pangloss' antithesis is a man named Martin, who is an essential pessimist and represents the opposite side of Voltaire's argument.

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Martin is what is technically called a "Manichean" (58). Essentially, a Manichean believes in the opposite of the Leibniz's optimism philosophy, today called pessimism (xiv). Martin actually applies this philosophy in several instances, one of the most prominent being his repetition of the assertion that the world is completely mad. One of the most humorous references to this aspect of the philosophy is when Candide asks Martin, "But for what purpose was this world created then?" Martin's reply is "To drive us mad" (61). Though amusing, Voltaire does assert that Martin has applied his philosophical ramblings into an actual lifestyle. At every instance, Martin has a philosophical take, usually the most dire and dark of everyone present. The most despairing of his attitudes is encapsulated in the statement: "If hawks have always had the same character, why do you expect men to have changed theirs?" (62). His philosophy is applied clearly in his life. In contrast to Pangloss, he has both head knowledge and heart knowledge.

What supposition then are we to draw? Is philosophy that keeps our spirits up even if we don't live it out and look for it better than that which is applied and causes us to despair? That is a conclusion that each individual must reach themselves, but according to Voltaire's satire, the applied philosophy is one that is clearly better, in Voltaire's opinion. Though it does seem dark and despairing, Martin is accepting of everything happening because he is able to apply his philosophy. It is agreeable to him and that seems to be Voltaire's main point - find something agreeable to oneself in every situation and one shall be content. The mind is nothing without the heart.

Work Cited

Voltaire. "Candide." Candide and Other Stories. Trans: Roger Pearson. Oxford: University Press, 1990.

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