One of the most interesting books produced by Voltaire is “Candide or Optimism,” a satire attacking the “optimist” life paradigm promoted by some of the philosophers of the Enlightenment Age such as Leibniz. Voltaire has mastered the art of telling multiple events, while engaging the reader in Candide’s life journey.
The purpose of the present paper is to demonstrate that every situation exemplified in his satiric style, unique use of allegory and a flare for political chaos. In addition, the name of the main character is not chosen at random, but can be interpreted as an allegory. In French, the term “candied” means “ingenuous, naive.” The connotations are those of honesty and gullibility.
The novel can be considered a bildungsroman since it follows the initiation journey of the young man who will in the end reach a state of maturity and make some very important choices based on personal values, independently of what others had tried to teach him. The social, cultural and political context in which Voltaire created this book have played an important part in influencing him.
Reading the book one realizes that one of the goals of the writer is to mock the so called philosophy of optimism which dominated the era and with it all of those who supported it (whether religious or political and social authorities). The novel presents the journey of a boy who is banished from a garden and will end up creating his own. The story is filled with symbols and allegories. Let us analyze some of them in an attempt to demonstrate Voltaire’s genius in mocking some highly important values of the society he lived in.
The main idea that Voltaire wishes to attack through his work is the one of optimism. It can be best summarized through the phrase ” everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” This was a popular philosophy trend during those times. The philosopher who had the greatest influence upon this manner of thinking was, just as it has been mentioned before, Leibniz.
Candide, just as his name suggests it is a sort of tabula rasa on whom others try to impose this approach to life. The character who tries to do this more than others is Pangloss. Just a sin the case of Candide’s name, we are dealing with an allegory. Since Pangloss means “all tongue,” what the reader must understand right from the very beginning is that his words and even, his life vision do not really have a solid basis.
The belief that everything is the world is good derived from the belief in god’s omnipotence, omniscience. There are two aspects that need to be underlined at this point. One is that according to the supporters of this philosophical view, man and the world had been created by god and the development of history is inextricably connected to the will of god. The other one is that god is perfect and his perfection is based upon a powerful moral dimension. In other words, god’s nature is good.
Therefore, since the world derives from god and man has partially god’s nature in him, a bad world results impossible as it would demonstrate the bad character of god and hence his imperfection. But, it is a known fact that god is perfect. Therefore, the world must be perfect as well and this is exactly the philosophy preached by Pangloss. Candide however will have the opportunity to see the world through his eyes and create a personal opinion regarding it and its relation to god.
Candied begins his journey as an optimist (naturally influenced by Pangloss). While the initial setting is a beautiful garden from which he is banished, the reader must interpret it as an allegory for the paradisiacal garden of Eden. Leaving Eden implies the loss of innocence, just as it strongly suggests the contact with the “forbidden fruit,” that is the knowledge of good and evil. And in fact Candide will loose his naivety when in contact with the harsh realities of real life. Voltaire did not believe in the existence of a perfect god, therefore the use of the garden as an initial (and final) symbol makes his sarcasm even stronger.
The evils which Candide and his friend come into contact with are represented by man made injustices such as betrayals, lies, executions, muggings. Natural disasters such as earthquakes are also added to the list suggesting not only that man has no control upon nature, but that nature may be stronger than ma and able to destroy it at any time. Seen through the optimistic perspective, the earthquake could be interpreted only as a proof of god’s anger towards the human beings or as a sort of punishment.
From this one could deduce that god is vindictive which would alter his character of perfection. Voltaire’s irony is to be felt again. The evidence that evil things happen and with an important frequency, in the absence of a valid reason is overwhelming. The ones who believe in god with fervour are forced by empirical evidence to consider the possibility that there might be something wrong with their views. Voltaire’s sarcasm turns into sheer mockery at times.
According to him, the belief that god is good and perfect and that the world is good and perfect as well as it must reflect god’s nature is nothing but a proof of one’s ignorance. A relevant example of this ignorance is Pangloss who at some point in the novel tries to make a logical connection between syphilis and chocolate.
Since chocolate is one of the riches that comes from the Americas, syphilis is nothing but a way to establish a connection between the Europeans and the inhabitants of more remote areas. The obvious nonsense is actually a slap in the face of the church and all the optimists. The church is attacked, not as a symbol of god or a context in which one can develop his own spiritual potential, but as an institution enjoying various degrees of authority in the world.
Since injustice takes place in the world and the church does nothing to prevent them, on the contrary many times it seems to be in favour of the unjust, but rich, the believers seem to be defeated at their own game by Voltaire, the unbeliever. Paradise as an ideal state can also be associated with a sort of ignorance.
While in paradise (that is in the metaphorical garden), the maintenance of this state is understandable, but after the fall the only alternative is the contact with evil and the acknowledgement of its existence. What Pangloss tries to do is find a reason for all the evil things that are happening. In doing so he becomes ridiculous. By the end of the book, he will have underwent an important transformation of his beliefs. This is a means through which Voltaire implies that his rational, pragmatic perspective is the correct one.
There is an opposition between Pangloss and Candide even if they both undergo a process of transformation. Candide does not know what to believe, he is working on building his beliefs. Pangloss on the other hand has his strong convictions, which by the end of the novel will have underwent a process of destruction. Therefore these two characters might be interpreted as symbols for destruction and construction.
Another opposition that Voltaire suggests in the book is the one between two types of philosophy or if you like, between science and philosophy. Science in this case is based on empirical evidence while philosophy is supported by mere abstract concepts which, when confronted with reality become nothing more but mere speculation.
The speculative philosopher is in this case Pangloss. The intention of the author to mock philosophers is perhaps one to mock philosophy in general as apposed to science which can give a more appropriate and useful explanation of the world.
Many times in the novel speculation demonstrates how dangerous and negative it is. In the case of Pangloss it can be stated that it comes close to a state close to the one of madness. For example he prevents Candide from saving the life of Jacques who is drowning. In the earthquake episode he ignores the requests of candied and continues to mumble in search of a plausible explanation for what had happened. The situation is almost shocking if we take into consideration the fact that Voltaire himself was a highly appreciated philosopher of the Enlightenment.
The journey of initiation through which Candide passes includes a stop in El Dorado. It may very well be stated that El Dorado is a symbol for the ideal society. just like El Dorado is fascinating so is the ideal world in which nothing bad would ever happen. Its transitory character suggests the fact that an ideal world can not exist outside our utopian fantasies.
The ending of the novel is quite interesting as it has Candide deciding to dedicate himself to the creation of a garden. On the one hand his gesture can be interpreted as the desire to reconstruct the original garden of paradise. This hypothesis could be supported by the name of the character and the reader could understand that he maintains his innocence despite having seen and experienced the evil which characterizes the real world.
The fact that he dedicates himself to gardening also suggest that his awareness regarding the fact that if you want something, the best thing that you can do about it is try to achieve it on your own. Judging this situation from the perspective of the opposition between science and religion, the gesture becomes a symbol for the individual’s freedom and force of will. In creating his own personal paradise, Candide demonstrates that he does not need anyone, not even god. His name receives other connotations under these circumstances and we come to understand his purity no longer of ignorance but as a strong and active manifestation of his potential.
Others have suggested that the act of building a garden as a paradisiacal place of escape demonstrates the incapacity to deal with the real world. This may be true, but the connotations are not necessarily negative. While he may have been able to deal with the evil in the world he decided not to. From this point-of-view it could be assumed that Voltaire was making a point about the individual’s freedom and power to decide for himself.
The fact that Candide was unhappy as a rich man in Eldorado suggests that happiness has little or nothing to do with material richness. On the contrary happiness is to be linked to spiritual values. The garden which Candide means to construct, besides being a personal oasis is also the result of a process of creation, therefore demonstrating once again the power of the human being.
Voltaire, Candide or optimism- a new translation, backgrounds, criticism- a Norton critical edition (translated by Robert M. Adams), W.W Norton and co., 1966
Voltaire, Candide or optimism (translated by Cuffe, Theo, introduction by Wood, Michael), Penguin classics, Deluxe edition, 2005
Voltaire, Candide or optimism ( analyzed by professor Raffel, Burton), Yale uNiversity Press, 2006
Bernstein, Leonard, Candide, It’s the best of all possible worlds!
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