Critical Thinking (or Lack Thereof): The Nature of Thinking for Oneself in Voltaire’s Candide

March 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

Candide journeys through life with a childish naivete and shies away from making his own philosophical proclamations, often allowing others to do his thinking for him and serve as his surrogate brain. Instead of stepping back and truly pondering the world for himself, Candide is quick to accept Pangloss’ preposterous teachings and has great difficulty letting it go. Even when Candide is confronted with opportunities to rethink Pangloss’ doctrines, he still relies on others’ belief systems. While his attitude is pathetic, it is neither innocuous nor rare—far too often, people drift thoughtlessly through the world, attaching themselves to ideologies and ways of life without examining their reasons for doing so. What does it mean to think critically about the world and oneself, and why is Candide’s lack of analytical skill so dangerous? How is a lack of critical thinking manifested throughout the story and what might be the real-world implications?

Nearly every sentence Candide utters is prefaced with a reference to Pangloss and shaped around his tutor’s empty rhetoric, revealing Candide’s difficulty in letting go of his main lens of perceiving the world. Even when he begins to question Pangloss’ ideas that the world is in perfect order and all is well, he keeps wondering what Pangloss would say about the misfortunes he encounters instead of relying on his own reactions to determine how he views what is happening around him. He spends far more time bemoaning his separation from Pangloss than actually asking himself why he trusted the man so much in the first place. Voltaire writes, “He thought of Pangloss with each story (of misfortune) he heard. ‘That Pangloss’ he said to himself, ‘would have a hard time defending his system. I wish he was here,” impotently unable to interrogate Pangloss’ system of thought himself and rely on his own intellect to show him the way. (71) Interestingly enough, Pangloss’ fatal error is that he glosses over all the hardships of life, making nonsensical assumptions and ignoring reality, but it takes Candide the entire book to see the obvious, that Pangloss was devastatingly wrong in his idealistic assessments, no matter how appealing his vision of a ubiquitously happy world may be. After everything goes wrong in his life, Pangloss is resolute “I still hold my original opinions because I am a philosopher, and it wouldn’t be proper for me to recant, since Leibniz can’t be wrong,” revealing that Pangloss himself is no better than Candide, a mere mouthpiece for another man’s ideas, parroting his words without contemplating their absurdity. (Voltaire 108) Pangloss shows he is a hypocrite when he admits that he kept advocating a hyper-optimistic way of thinking even when he stopped believing in it himself. Having hope amidst heartbreak is much different than behaving like a starry-eyed child and staunchly viewing a complicated world through rose-colored lenses, but he and Candide are often content to live in a fantasy even when the uglier side of life is relentlessly thrust upon them.

At one point, Voltaire writes, “Candide admitted the old woman was right. ‘It’s a great pity that the wise Pangloss was hanged, contrary to custom, in an auto-da-fé: he would have told us admirable things about the physical and moral evils that cover the earth and the sea, and I would have felt strong enough to venture a few respectful objections” (46) Thus, even’s Candide’s “objections” are just a formality to the sport of philosophizing; in reality, he wishes Pangloss were alive to hold him by the hand and tell him exactly what to do. “We’re surely going to be roasted or boiled. Ah, what would Dr. Pangloss say if he saw what human nature is like? All is well, I won’t argue about it; but I must admit it’s a cruel fate to have lost Lady Cunegonde and then be roasted on a spit” (Voltaire 56) The reader almost wants to shake Candide into his senses and urge him, “Yes! Argue about it! Explore the nuances of this philosophy you so eagerly accept as dogma,” but alas it is useless. Candide searches in vain for explanations but gives up wondering, abruptly dropping doubts and inquiries before he has a chance to actually make some intellectual headway.

After Candide embarks on his whirlwind of travels, he doesn’t pry below the surface of El Dorado or question whether this place is a fantasy, further evidence of his simplistic thinking. Although he exercises some force of will in deciding to leave El Dorado, it is doubtful that he thinks through his decision, always guided mainly by the siren call of Cunegonde, as well as the promise of wealth. He loses impetus for exploration just the way he loses interest in investigating other points of view, “I have no curiosity to see France…after spending a month in Eldorado, a man has no interest in seeing anything else on earth, except Lady Cunegonde.” (Voltaire 75) Candide muses that Eldorado is “probably the country where everything goes well, because there must be one like that somewhere. And, despite what Dr. Pangloss used to say, I often noticed that everything went rather badly in Westphalia” (a massive understatement). (Voltaire 61) Is Candide’s knee jerk reaction to El Dorado really wise? He stays there a short while, has some delicious meals, speaks briefly with the king, and believes the atmosphere is as peaceful and prosperous as it seems on the surface, then goes on his merry way, yet another example of Candide taking things at face value. Without raising an eyebrow, he unquestioningly accepts their secretive reasoning, “they ordered that no inhabitant of our little kingdom should ever leave it, and that’s what’s preserved our innocence and happiness,” a Platonic metaphor for Candide’s childish inability to think outside the box Pangloss has trapped him in. (Voltaire 62)

Candide has a tendency to senselessly go along with others’ direction, proving himself too trusting as he throws caution and consideration of self-preservation to the wind. The strangers who lure him into joining the Bulgarian army say, “Men were made only to help each other,” a simplistic, idealistic platitude that has been proven false over and over throughout history, yet Candide refuses to question their motives, blindly stepping into their dangerous trap because, quite frankly, their words sound much like something his mental master Pangloss might utter, having maintained everything is created for a beneficial purpose (Voltaire 17) Pangloss even once told him “the more individual misfortunes there are, the more all is well,” and Candide dutifully listened. (Voltaire 25) Candide asks many questions, but sometimes a simple, “Why?” would suffice. Being a philosopher and using critical thinking does not necessarily entail elaborate thought processes and brilliant metaphors; no, one must have the bravery to face childish questions head on. Candide’s foolishness is somewhat forgivable considering his upbringing and the desperation of his situation, but the fact that he does not even think twice about the Bulgars’ offers of generosity shows the extent of Candide’s reckless lack of thought, his willingness to take everything at face value, and his eagerness to blindly follow whoever gives him orders, which ends up causing him great bodily torment and puts him in grave peril. Although it might seem like Candide is taking a small step towards thinking for himself in befriending Martin, considering Martin has a radically different ideas about the world, the consummate pessimist contrasted to the unflinching optimist in Pangloss, but it becomes clear that Martin is just another intellectual fixture for Candide to latch unto in a futile effort to make sense of a chaotic world and find someone else to do most of the thinking for him.

The king pardons Candide of his Bulgarian crimes because “Candide was a young metaphysician, utterly ignorant of worldly matters,” but why should a philosopher be distanced from the realities of the human existence? (Voltaire 20) Shouldn’t this be an integral part of critically examining life? Deeply studying all aspects of the human condition and pondering big questions of existence should not mean that a thinker is set apart from society and becomes so un-knowledgeable of the ways of world that he no longer knows what is going on. Solitary hermits may indeed gain wisdom from wandering in the desert, but there is a value in understanding the ways of the world in order to help it become a better place. Perhaps this is Pangloss’ (and by extension Candide’s) main problem—his mind is so far removed from reality that even when confronted with chaos and senseless violence, he clings steadfastly to his sugarcoated ideology without stopping to confront the glaring holes in his own logic. Thinking critically and being a philosopher does not imply that one operates in a whole other sphere and has no place in the world; in fact, greater involvement means a higher understanding of philosophy. It is not helpful for a scholar to confine oneself to an ivory tower and let his head drift up into the clouds—Pangloss may not be a very good philosopher himself, but philosophizing has a real impact on world affairs, influencing generations of thought and molding societal attitudes.

Candide’s inability to make up his own mind is reflected in the frenzied, meandering plot structure of the novel. Candide drifts from place to place, wandering and tether-less. Candide rarely travels alone; he must have someone to lean upon or he becomes desperate. There’s nothing wrong with seeking community and looking to others to impart knowledge or wisdom, but Candide is arguably so dependent on other people that he cannot function without someone guiding him. His behavior is reminiscent of anyone who mindlessly attaches themselves to a creed without stopping to contemplate the implications. At first Candide seems harmless, even endearing, in his unwavering certainty in Pangloss’ ludicrous claims and his childish fickleness once he finally begins to realize Pangloss might be wrong after being hit over the head by the misery rife in life. Acting like a little lost puppy has real world consequences; amassing brainwashed followers are how tyrants take power, encouraging co-dependence is how women are sometimes subjected to unhealthy relationships, cultivating ignorance is how cults gain followers, and perpetuating close-mindedness is how systems of injustice go unchecked.

One can maintain that the heart and mind are intertwined, and Candide exchanges lovers with as little thought as he adopts philosophical ideologies. He has no apparent desire to penetrate deep into Cunegonde’s heart, mind, and soul, but is mesmerized instead by her beautiful face. It almost operates as a metaphor for the way Candide takes so much at face value and struggles to penetrate through exteriors. At first, he literally only subscribes to Pangloss’ teachings because he wants to impress her, “Candide listened attentively and believed innocently, for he found Lady Cunegonde extremely beautiful, although he was never bold enough to tell her so.” (Voltaire 16) When they are parted, he laments at one point how he’d, “never see the fair Cunegonde again in my life”. (Voltaire 54) We know next to nothing about the content of her character, her aspirations, her flaws, her virtues, and neither, it seems, does Candide, who realizes he has never even received a letter from her or given thought to her intelligence. Or else he simply does not care, for essentially all he talks about is her beauty. When he is about to see her after a long separation, his burning questions are, “Is she still a prodigy of beauty? Does she still love me? Is she in good health? Did you buy her a palace?” (Voltaire 101) Candide tells Cunegonde’s brother, “Dr. Pangloss always told me that all men are equal, and I will certainly marry her,” suggesting that even his fierce unwillingness to give up Cunegonde is motivated by adherence to Pangloss, not a self-motivated act, the fruit of deep love and reflection. (Voltaire 53)

He obsessively can’t let go of his idealized vision of Cunegonde; when she absurdly reappears after “being killed,” Candide barely questions it but “hung on her every word and devoured her with his eyes.” (Voltaire 31) He is even naively excited to see her scars. His “inexpressible joy of seeing (and talking to) you again” might be endearing if it wasn’t so focused on the senses. (Voltaire 33) Candide barely sees Cunegonde as a real person, as she operates more as an image in his head, using her an ambiguous goal or prize to strive after when he can find no other reason to keep living. She has an appealing visage, and Candide acts like a child attracted to a sparkly toy instead of determining if they are truly compatible or if she has an appealing inner being to match her outer look. It doesn’t take much for Candide to stray and replace one superficial fixation with another because his interest is built on something vapid and fleeting—the face. He muses, upon seeing a beautiful but untalented actress, “The actress is very attractive. She bears a slight resemblance to Lady Cunegonde. I’d like to pay my respects to her.” (Voltaire 78) Candide’s romantic fickleness is indicative of his deeper struggle with having a one-dimensional idea of the world, refusing to delve into the mechanics of Pangloss’ philosophy, taking its authenticity for granted. When Candide’s new object of romantic interest tells him he should have replied that he no longer loves Cunegonde, Candide meekly acquiesces, “I’m sorry, madam. I’ll answer you any way you like,” yet more proof that Candide has severe issues with thinking for himself. (Voltaire 83) Because she looks like Lady Cunegonde, Candide is enamored with this new woman, even though they are, most likely, two very different people. “Although I’m very eager to see Lady Cunegonde again, I’d still like to have supper with Mademoiselle Clairon, because she made a deep impression on me.” (Voltaire 79) Just like he’s dedicated to Pangloss’ teachings without actually examining their flaws below the surface, he is arguably in love with Cunegonde’s appearance, not her, easily replacing her with little remorse, although he faithfully returns to Cunegonde the way his mind keeps reverting to Pangloss in moments of crisis.

When he finds out that her appearance has deteriorated, he claims, “whether she’s beautiful or ugly, I’m an honorable man and my duty is to love her forever.” (Voltaire 102) But his attitude is so reluctant as to suggest his words belie the truth. He muses “it’s a pity she’s become so ugly,” without considering the pain and torment she has endured, how she might feel about being violated and changing hands over and over again, focusing instead, as usual, on the outward and not peering past the surface into her mind or heart. (Voltaire 192) Candide’s deteriorated optimism is represented by Cunegonde, “When Candide, the tender lover, saw his fair Cunegonde’s fair, weather-beaten face, blood shot eyes, withered breasts, wrinkled cheeks and red, scaly arms, he recoiled three paces in horror, but then he stepped forward out of politeness…At the bottom of his heart, Candide had no desire to marry Cunegonde” (Voltaire 109) Candide is not deterred by his own doubts, failing to recognize that no desire for marriage will probably lead to an unhappy one, but agrees to marry her because he thinks it’s what he should do, what an honorable man in society would do. This is not an uncommon occurrence: marrying someone or pursuing a certain career path merely because it looks like the right thing to do to outsider, and it is certainly not out of character for Candide, whose innocent naiveté and eagerness to please prove to be more like vices then virtues. Regardless, through the symbol of Cunegonde’s facial deterioration, he is finally seeing the reality of life, the ugliness of the world and is forced to make peace with it, whether he likes it or not.

The few times Candide doesn’t consult anyone’s opinion and relies solely on his own judgment, he ends up murdering someone or daftly getting himself into trouble. He is regretful and shocked by his own impulsiveness, his refusal to stop and think before acting, astonished at his own lack of capacity to control himself or the world around him, “I’ve killed my former master, my friend, my brother-in-law! I’m the kindest man in the world, yet I’ve already killed three men, and two of them were priests!” (Voltaire 53) Not to assert that Candide had no justification, but can Candide even distinguish right from wrong? He tells Cunegonde, “when a man is in love, jealous, and whipped by the Inquisition, he no longer knows what he’s doing,” but Candide, floating through life, rarely seems to know what he’s doing, or, more importantly, why. (Voltaire 36) Unsure of how to rectify his post-killing condition, Candide laments, “If Pangloss hadn’t been hanged, he’d give us good advice in this extremity, because he was a great philosopher. Lacking him, let’s consult the old woman.” (Voltaire 34) His spur of the moment idea to kill the monkeys is also done thoughtlessly and recklessly, albeit good-willed, for he does not even stop to consider why these monkeys are strangely consorting with women in the first place and deliberate from there. At the end of the book, when he again sees a resurrected Pangloss, he finally takes some initiative and queries, “Tell me, my dear Pangloss, when you were hanged, dissected, cruelly beaten, and forced to row in a galley, did you still think that everything was for the best in the world?” (Voltaire 106) At this stage of Candide’s journey, this question is apt but almost seems futile, the kind of question he should be posing to himself. Pangloss the person keeps haunting him much the same way Pangloss’ theories hold a nagging thrall over him, creeping back into Candide’s psyche just when the reader hopes we are finally rid of him so the narrative can progress with Candide the critical thinker at the helm, as opposed to Candide, the unwavering proxy/pupil of Pangloss.

Candide’s desire to learn about the world and debate philosophy at all is promising, more than can be said for some individuals but though he is endlessly searching for the origin and purpose of the world, he lacks discernment capability. At least Candide cares, which is why there are glimmers of hope that he can develop critical thinking skills. Candide is clearly capable of making his own decisions and determinations about the world, but usually when he is forced into it. Towards the beginning of the narrative, stuck between a rock and a hard place, he contemplates, “it did him no good to maintain that man’s will is free and that he wanted neither: he had to make a choice. Using the gift of God known as freedom, he decided to run the gauntlet thirty-six times, and did so twice.” (Voltaire 19) Perhaps he could have found a more inventive way to avoid suffering, but at least he made up his mind on his own for once. When he is in an initial state of confusion he complains to himself, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like? I wouldn’t complain if I had just been flogged: the Bulgars flogged me too. But my dear Pangloss, the greatest of philosophers—did I have to see you hanged, without knowing why? And my dear Anabaptist, the kindest of men—did you have to be drowned in the harbor? And Lady Cunegonde, the pearl of young ladies—did your belly have to be split open?” (Voltaire 29) Candide is asking all the right questions, at least, even though he still refers to Pangloss as greatest of philosophers, hero worship that continues throughout most of the book, no matter how much he grows to realize Pangloss’ errors. When Candide meets a different “wise man,” “Candide listened attentively to these remarks and conceived a high opinion of the speaker (who he had just encountered)…(thinking) what a great man. Another Pangloss!” (Voltaire 82)

Part of Candide’s problem is his propensity to rationalize that something is correct despite all the evidence to the contrary. He contends, “pure nature is good, after all, since, instead of eating me, these people showered me with polite kindness as soon as they found out I wasn’t a Jesuit” (Voltaire 57) Aside from the fact that his reasoning is absurd and that Candide’s naivete is indubitably exaggerated for comedic effect, this sort of behavior is highly problematic. The act of looking for any way to justify one’s preconceived notions, much like proof texting, and shoehorning one’s belief system into every event that occurs, even when there is no basis, has been a common move among politicians and other corrupt leaders for centuries. Proudly refusing to abandon beliefs that fly in the face of reality and clinging to optimistic visions, letting one’s head be subsumed into the clouds, is an all too-pervasive phenomenon that prevents real social progress. When the “negro” talks about his plight, “’Oh Pangloss!’ cried Candide. ‘This is an abomination you never dreamed of! It’s too much: I’ll have to give up your optimism at last…it’s a mania for insisting that everything is all right when everything is going wrong.’” (Voltaire 68-9) However, he continues to revert to Pangloss’ ideas in times of crisis, showing that even when he recognizes the futility of the ideology, he cannot break free, “despair(ing) at having to be separated from a good master.” (Voltaire 69) He still exercises the unflinching optimism hammered into his skull by Pangloss, even when he claims to be skeptical of his philosophy. He tells his friend, “Since I found you, I’m sure I can find Cunegonde again.” (Voltaire 74) If nothing else, Candide is admirably loyal, to a fault, but also tremendously shortsighted. Even when he leans on Martin and remains skeptical of his skepticism, he still uses him as a kind of crutch to express his newfound dissatisfaction for the world without overtly transgressing Pangloss’ ideas himself. One could posit, however, that Candide grows over the course of the story, as he never wholly buys into Martin’s pessimism although he keeps an open mind, “what do you think about all that? What are your views on moral and physical evil?” and begins to temper both extremes, insisting there is still “some good in the world.” (Voltaire 72-3) It would be even more promising if Candide began to grapple with bigger questions, such as the existence of God, whether suffering might have some purpose, what exactly does it mean to be good and happy, etc.

Pococurante, to Candide’s shock, declares, “Fools admire everything in a celebrated author. I read only for myself and I like only what suits me personally.” (Voltaire 95) This kind of independent thinking proves utterly foreign to Candide: “Candide, who never had been brought up to judge anything for himself, was astonished by what he was hearing.” (Voltaire 95) Like many people, Candide was expected to follow his teacher’s precepts without questioning them and blindly obey. This issue extends beyond letting other people guide one’s literary choices. Following the pack, relying on trends and fashions, letting the whims of others dictate one’s interests or behavior is not only harmful to oneself, but to society. The concept of “sheeple,” after all, is a derogatory term. Without the submissiveness of the German people, the Nazis would never have been able to take power, for instance. Groupthink is a real phenomenon: it takes guts to stand out from the crowd and resist peer pressure, but the rewards are well worth it. How much of what we do is influenced mainly by what people around us might think, what our parents have taught us, and fear of ostracization as opposed to our own force of will? Having a core, living according to inner guiding principles, is necessary to becoming a whole person. There’s nothing wrong with dialoguing with others—in fact, it may be the only way to refine one’s beliefs and reevaluate flawed logic, but one must be able to independently reflect on why one’s values are held. When Candide hears Pococurante, he asserts “Oh, what a superior man! What a great genius this Pococurante! Nothing can please him,” but most of the people he encounters are great men to Candide because he has lost all sense of judgment. (Voltaire 97)

In perhaps the most optimistic part of the whole book, Candide determines, “We must cultivate our garden.” (113) I maintain this is not only a practical affirmation of the value of work and stability, but offers us the hope that Candide will begin to look inward and allow critical thinking to flourish in the garden of his mind. Perhaps Voltaire is asking all of us to center ourselves and start nurturing an inner garden, beautiful, ordered, and reasonable, in order to avoid Candide’s pitfalls and grow as productive members of society. Candide’s lack of reason leads to destruction, and only by the focus and contemplation of digging deep into such gardening can he restore a sense of peace.

Works Cited

Voltaire. Candide. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Classics, 1959. Print.

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