Philosophical Context of Voltaire’s Candide

Voltaire’s novella Candide is a satirical piece detailing the eventful travels of Candide in order to criticize many aspects of Enlightenment philosophical thought, including theodicy and Leibniz’s philosophical optimism, rationalism, and the complacency indicative of stoic philosophical contemplation. Candide is used to explore many of the novel philosophical ideals that were spreading through Europe during the Enlightenment. As a whole, the piece’s plot is filled with action, and this abundance of action is a medium by which Voltaire examines some of these philosophies. Furthermore, Voltaire couples the events of the plot with characters emblematic of different schools of Enlightenment thought. For example, Pangloss’s character illustrates the ideals of both philosophical optimism and theodicy. Characters such as these are used to analyze the validity of different schools of thought. Through these different mediums Voltaire communicates a fundamental disagreement with many Enlightenment ideals. Specifically, Voltaire uses Pangloss to criticize the idea that this world is the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz’s philosophical optimism holds (Look). Furthermore, Pangloss is used to criticize the idea of cause and effect. Pangloss’s character believes that for every effect there is a greater cause that man is incapable of grasping. Voltaire, on the other hand, does not dismiss the existence of evil in the world so easily, believing that bad things happen and that these things are not always part of a greater plan (Roth). Finally, Voltaire concludes the piece with a critique of inaction caused by too much philosophical pondering. In sum, the piece is a critique not only of specific Enlightenment philosophies, but of philosophical thought in general.

One of the more prevalent philosophies during Voltaire’s time was that of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who claimed that this world is “the best of all possible worlds” (Look). Furthermore, Leibniz justifies the existence of evil in the world as part of a bigger plan that man cannot understand. These two ideals form the basis of theodicy and is also known as philosophical optimism (Look). In Candide, the philosopher Pangloss represents this philosophy most accurately, many times using Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” phrase. However, Voltaire uses Pangloss to show the absurdity of this philosophy. At one point, Pangloss justifies the earthquake in Lisbon by saying “all this is for the best, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon, it cannot be somewhere else, since it is unthinkable that things should not be where they are” (Voltaire, 432). This statement is an absurd justification of a natural disaster and shows that bad events cannot be so easily dismissed. Certainly it is hard to imagine what greater good was served by such a natural disaster. However, Voltaire extends his critique of theodicy to human affairs, as is illustrated when Candide first learns that Pangloss is still alive. At this time, Pangloss is a beggar afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease, however; this does not deter his optimist philosophy. When he is reunited with Candide Pangloss says of his disease “it’s an indispensable part of the best of all worlds… if Columbus had not caught, on an American island, this sickness… we should have neither chocolate nor cochineal” (Voltaire, 430). Certainly the discovery of chocolate and cochineal is a reward worth contracting a terrible disease, and through the use of such extreme comparisons Voltaire attacks Leibniz’s optimism.

Another hallmark of Pangloss’s philosophy that is consistent with Enlightenment thought is the idea of cause and effect. Pangloss notes multiple times during the piece that there is a cause and effect relationship for everything in the universe, an idea that Voltaire finds wholly untrue. This is best exemplified in the opening chapter of the novella when Pangloss says “Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs… were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches” (Voltaire, 425). This is an inaccurate and unacceptable explanation for the existence of why things are. Voltaire uses comparisons such as these to critique the rationalism that was the hallmark of Enlightenment philosophy. Philosophers during this time looked to reason to explain the world around them, and Voltaire asserts that they have gone too far in their pursuit of reason. Explanations such as the one cited above indicate an overreliance on reason, an overreliance that has led to irrational thought being accepted as rational. There is certainly no logical component to Pangloss’s explanation as legs were not made to justify the existence of breeches and noses were not made to justify the existence of spectacles. To Voltaire, not everything needed a rational explanation. This is most likely rooted in his deist beliefs, which held that God created the world but did not interfere with its workings (Roth). Where most Enlightenment thinkers sought a reason to everything, Voltaire saw events that did not require an explanation, and in fact might not have one at all.

Voltaire concludes the piece by critiquing philosophical thought in general. Once the torridly paced plot comes to an end Candide is no longer concerned with debating either Pangloss or Martin’s philosophies. The novella concludes with Pangloss beginning to explain why this is the best of all possible worlds, only to be interrupted by Candide, who says “That is very well put, but we must cultivate our garden” (Voltaire, 482). This represents a significant change in mindset for Candide, and is the method by which Voltaire makes his final claim. Throughout the piece Candide is deeply concerned with the competing philosophies of Pangloss and Martin, though he struggles to fully identify with either one of them. By the end of the piece, however; Candide no longer wishes to concern himself with these philosophies. Through this, Voltaire criticizes the inaction that allowing oneself to be consumed with philosophical thinking can lead to. Concerning themselves with philosophical thought did not prevent all of the horrid things from happening to any of the characters, and this makes it somewhat insignificant. What is important, Voltaire asserts, is the quality of one’s actions while he is alive, not the quality of one’s philosophy. Voltaire’s final point is a cautionary one, warning his audience not to become overwhelmed with rationalism and philosophy to the point of inaction.

In conclusion, Candide satirizes traditional Enlightenment philosophies by both refuting optimism and cautioning readers against philosophical inaction. Pangloss is used to disarm and refute Leibniz’s philosophic optimism and theodicy as well as to illustrate that there is not a cause for everything. Voltaire then concludes the piece by warning his audience against inaction due to an overreliance on philosophical thought. After experiencing events that most humans cannot fathom experiencing, Candide finally learns simply to live his life. Candide is presented to the reader as a naïve and passive character, allowing things to happen to him rather than controlling his own life. It is also readily apparent both Candide’s reliance on Pangloss’s philosophy and his doubt as to its validity. However, by the end of the story Candide has matured and realized the ineffectuality of living based off of philosophical ideals. The piece speaks to the idea that live is lived with actions, not philosophies. This renders philosophies unimportant, a point that was radical in the Enlightenment era based on rational thought and reason. Voltaire saw the flaws in the ideals of the Enlightenment and urged his audience not to become over reliant on these new ideas.

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