Candide and Military Satire

May 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

Voltaire’s Candide bears the mark of a piece written during a time of reform. It is heavy with satire, poking fun at whatever issues become tangled in its storyline. The subjects tackled range from the political to the religious, and each receives its share of criticism. In many ways, it is what should be expected from an Enlightenment-era work: a criticism of the old ways. In a time of changing political, religious, and scientific beliefs, the literature produced should was often intended to reflect this flux in attitudes. Candide easily accomplishes this by criticizing class boundaries, religion, slavery, and, most importantly, the military. Through Candide, Voltaire is able to criticize numerous topics. The story’s premise is set around Candide being thrown out of the Baron’s household for having ignored class rules and fallen in love with Miss Cunégonde (Gordon 43). This incident sets the story in motion and makes it fairly obvious that Voltaire did not believe in the legitimacy of such class boundaries. Religion is another topic that comes under attack by Voltaire – albeit in perhaps a slightly less brutally manner. A utopia is found in which religion is delegated to the people and, subsequently, there are no priests or other clergy (79); Voltaire, it seems, shunned the idea that clergymen were liaisons to God. Even the issue of slavery is mentioned when Candide stumbles upon a slave who has lost his hand and leg (82). Although the slave seems to think it is normal behavior for a master to treat a slave in such a way, Candide recoils in horror, much as Voltaire himself would likely have done (83). In addition, the military is attacked numerous times by Voltaire as being pointless or convoluted. Voltaire first criticizes the military by having Candide recruited on the sole basis of his height. Upon seeing him, a man of the military remarks, “Comrade…there is a well-built lad, and he is the right height too” (Gordon 43). Candide is invited to dinner and asked to drink to the health of the King of the Bulgars (44). Once he does so, the men declare “That’s enough…you are now the pillar, the upholder, the defender, the hero of the Bulgars: your fortune is made and your glory assured” (44). By having Candide recruited after such a menial action and chosen on such a pointless basis, Voltaire criticizes the aims of the military. Because height is not generally a factor that can inspire or deter a successful military career, Voltaire seems to be saying that the military is primarily concerned with petty, superficial matters. Further, by only asking that Candide drink to their king, the military men are accepting him without knowing his true intentions. They could care less whether he really means to be true to the king or country. By portraying the recruiters in this light, Voltaire makes the military seem more concerned with numbers and appearances than with actual causes. Voltaire continues his attack on the military by describing a battle between the Bulgars and the Abars. He begins by focusing on contradictory notions; the battle is first described as “splendid…brisk…[and] brilliant,” but contains mention of how the “cannons laid low about six thousand men on each side; then the musketry removed from the best of worlds around nine or ten thousand…” (Gordon 45). Voltaire inspires readers to consider how the deaths of thousands of men can be both splendid and brilliant, and in doing so, to conclude that the military must truly be an awful thing. For mass death to be associated with such glorious superlatives there must be something askew, and that thing is the military. After the battle, “each king [has] his forces celebrate victory with a Te Deum” (46). Obviously the battle is pointless if each side celebrates victory despite such heavy casualties. Later in the story, Voltaire criticizes the Pope’s army in the story of the old woman. She tells of being attacked by pirates and how “[their] soldiers defended themselves like true soldiers of the Pope: they all kneeled down, threw aside their arms, and begged the pirates for absolution [at the point of death]” (Gordon 61). Here, Voltaire depicts the soldiers as cowards or, at the very least, useless. When danger is apparent, they drop their weapons instead of fighting for those whom they are supposed to protect. It is possible, too, that Voltaire is criticizing the Pope in addition to the military. The soldiers seem to exemplify an attitude of placing religion before practicality. In such a situation, it would be practical to at least keep a weapon nearby instead of casting it aside. Voltaire further argues against current military practices in Candide’s visit to England. Upon arriving at Portsmouth, Candide observes “a large crowd of people covered the shore, looking out intently at a rather stout man who was on his knees, blindfolded, on the deck of a naval ship” (Gordon 98). Soon, “four soldiers stationed in front of this man peacefully [fire] three bullets each into his brain; and the entire crowd [goes] away extremely satisfied” (98). Candide learns that the man was an admiral who “didn’t kill enough people” and “engaged in a battle with a French Admiral and was later judged to have kept too great a distance from the enemy” (99). Candide argues that it makes no difference because “the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral as the latter was from the former” (99). He then receives the response that “it’s good to kill an Admiral from time to time” (99). In this episode, Voltaire portrays military justice as being misguided and unjust. The comment that “it’s good to kill an Admiral from time to time” especially betrays Voltaire’s feelings on the subject: there’s no reasoning behind it except to say that it’s “good,” which is hardly a reason at all. Candide refuses to set foot on the land of a country that would do such a thing, which makes it fairly obvious just how strongly Voltaire’s feelings were on the subject. Voltaire’s criticisms were not without basis, nor was he alone in his resistance. Candide was published in 1759, in the midst of the Seven Years’ War (Hunt 634). It was this war that “prompted the French crown to introduce far-reaching reforms that provoked violent resistance and helped pave the way for the French Revolution of 1789” (634). During this time, hostilities between England and France were seen everywhere, including North America, the West Indies, India and central Europe (636). The use of military force was so widespread that it “permeated every aspect of rural society, fusing army and agrarian organization” (638). Because the Enlightenment was largely an urban phenomenon, it would follow that the military, which was tied to rural areas, would seem unenlightened. One of Voltaire’s criticisms was directed at the Prussian army. He notes in Candide how easy it was to join the Bulgar army. Between the years 1740 and 1789, “the Prussian army…nearly tripled in size” (Hunt 634). It makes sense that in order for such a major expansion to take place, the military would have to relax its standards. Also, Candide’s recruitment due to his height seems to be aimed at the Prussian army, too. In a footnote, it is revealed that “Frederick the Great took pride in the height of his soldiers” (Gordon 44). Here, Voltaire is directly criticizing the Prussian army and their pride over such a petty matter as height. In Candide, Voltaire criticizes many aspects of Enlightenment-era French society. He touches on colonialization, the cruelty of slavery, institutionalized religion, and the military, among other subjects. In the case of the military, armies are described as being flippant; they’re easy to join and just as easy to leave. Battles are declared victories despite major losses of life. Things such as height and proximity to the opposing army are held in high esteem, regardless of what should be important. Voltaire saw these flaws and, through use of his satirical piece Candide, attempted to draw the public’s attention to them.Works CitedGordon, Daniel, trans. Candide. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.Hunt, Lynn et al. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures; Volume II: Since 1340. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

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