Candide, or Optimism, by Volatire

Voltaire’s Candide (originally published 17581) is alternatively titled Optimism. A rosy outlook on life is the main target of Voltaire’s satire. Rather than embracing a truly pessimistic approach to the world, however, Voltaire seems to me to be arguing for a realistic and reasonable approach to life. The humorous look at both optimism and pessimism (as well as politics, religion, war, chivalric romance, and more) provides fuel for his fire.

I am not familiar with the eighteenth-century philosophies prevalent during the Age of Reason so my response to a satire of the era is more superficial than I wish it was. Because I lead the discussion for my book group, though, I can say I better appreciate Candide now than when I first read it at 18 or when I reread it two weeks ago.

This post contains “spoilers” for Candide.

Candide is a naïve young man tutored by the optimistic Professor Pangloss, a ridiculously optimistic character who finds everything, even those things that are awful, to be the will of God, because surely God has created the best of all possible worlds. Even after a friend drowns, and after he is hung, dissected, and beaten, he still responds with unfailing optimism to the world.

“[Do] you continue to think that things were turning out for the best?” [asked Candide].

“I still feel now as I did at the outset,” replied Pangloss. “I am a philosopher after all. It wouldn’t do for me to go back on what I said before.” (page 83)

Needless to say, Pangloss was annoying to me from start to finish. He was an easy target.

In the beginning, Candide likewise annoying. He was a philosopher blindly following Pangloss’s ideals. He left the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh as the innocent Adam left Eden2. But as Candide enters the world of experience, most of it is rather horrible (and yet, in context of Voltaire’s satire, we must admit most happenings are quite amusing), and he grows in understanding. By the end, Candide is no longer blindly obedient to optimism.

One person in my book group suggested that in the end he was still naïve; if the farm3 failed, he’d simply move on to the next place and be content. I’d suggest that if Candide were to respond in that way, it wouldn’t be naivety but realistic optimism. Voltaire was writing in the Age of Reason, after all. Certainly, Pangloss’s optimism wasn’t realistic.

But neither was Martin’s pessimism realistic.  Martin was Pangloss’s foil, and while much of what he propounded was more reasonable, he still was unrealistic to some extent. Candide wanted a sad, miserable companion to be his servant; he had money and hoped to bring his companion joy at the end of a sad life. But the scholar Martin found things wrong in every situation. For a simple example of Martin’s pessimism, consider his response to Candide’s joy. When Candide was glad that the ship captain who’d cheated him had died at sea, Martin’s response was bitter.

“Yes, but did the passengers on his ship have to perish also? God punished the rouge: the devil drowned the rest.” (page 54)

He certainly has a point. Throughout the book, Martin did seem to find the devil in everyone he met and the situations he was in. But Martin was wrong about some of the characters. People were not all bad. For example, Cacambo didn’t cheat Candide out of his money, and he did return as a faithful servant. And yet, Martin’s voice was prominent, a more realistic look at life than Pangloss’s optimism. Voltaire might have voiced his own pessimism through Martin.

Personally, I don’t think Voltaire’s own opinion of the world stood with either Pangloss or Martin. They were too extreme. Of course, I’ll never know what Voltaire really thought. I don’t see myself becoming an expert on eighteenth century history or philosophy. But the character that stood out of me was the old woman. Her story was the worst of all of them4. Yet, she said on occasion that while she’d considered suicide hundreds of times, she could never bring herself to do it. She seemed to me to be the prime example of optimism in the story. Why did she keep on living, time and again? Why did she want to? Because she was alive, that was the important part for her. She was a testament to what realistic optimism could be5.

Although the end of the book is somewhat satisfying to the reader, I think Voltaire’s story remains a satire in the end. The satisfaction of staying in your own garden is as extreme as the old woman’s tale. We cannot remain isolated from the world. Yet, forgetting about meaning – forgetting about religion, politics, wealth, and even love6 – is more reasonable than trying to sort it all out. As a reader, I was pleased to finally escape the extreme realities of life as experienced by the characters.

I haven’t even touched on the entire concept of Eldorado. I loved the irony of that scene, in which Candide and Cacambo don’t want to remain in paradise because of their greed. It’s a sad (that is, pessimistic) commentary on human nature that suggests one from our society can’t be happy unless they are on top.

I also haven’t touched on the more humorous bits of the story, or the unhappy rich Venetian, or the anti-church and anti-war elements. I haven’t mentioned how universal Candide still seems, despite its old date and somewhat archaic style. I haven’t mentioned Jacques the Anabaptist, or the superficiality of Cunégonde. There is so much in this book. I could approach it through dozens of blog posts, and I could study philosophy in great detail to make better sense of it all.

My book group called it quits after an hour and a quarter of talking. I was leading the discussion, as I do every month, and it kind of made my head hurt.

This post is starting to make my head hurt.

It’s clear to me why Candide is a classic, even if the writing isn’t my favorite and the philosophy feels a little bit over my head. Someday, I’ll have to revisit it (or one of the other stories in my volume of Voltairian philosophical stories) on this blog so I think it through a little more. For now, I’ll go cultivate my garden7

  1. translated from the French by Roger Pearson, Oxford World’s Classics. All page numbers come from 2008 World’s Classics edition
  2. The castle is called “the most beautiful and most agreeable of all possible castles” and “paradise on earth” (page 5). Candide is kick out when Mlle Cunégonde made a sexual advance and her father found them together; Candide seemed to me to be innocent of what was happening. Anyway, there aren’t a lot of Biblical parallels and Voltaire is obviously anti-religion, but I found that first bit interesting.
  3. Possibly another hint of paradise? I personally would suggest that maybe Voltaire meant this last paradise satirically as well. His message is that there really is no paradise in the world: there is just the world.
  4. I must admit while her story was the most horrifying with rapes, beatings, and cannibalism, I did find the half-a-bottom bit quite amusing for some immature reason.
  5. And yet, her story was so extreme, Voltaire even seemed to mock what realistic optimism could be. Tone down her story and we might relate to wanting to live. Maybe I’m just a wimp; I don’t know how I’d react in her situation, but I don’t think I’d want to go on living all that badly.… Voltaire, writing a satire, had to make everything into an extreme.
  6. Cunégunde’s transformation to ugly seemed to be simply the un-blinding of Candide’s no-longer-naïve eyes
  7. Just kidding, I don’t garden at all. I’ll go read my next book or cook dinner or something.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Interesting – I (and my book club) had a completely different take on what we thought Voltaire was trying to say. We felt it was a satire of philosophy, and philosophers, in general, and that he was saying that the only way to be truly content was through giving up idealisms and by applying yourself to some task, it doesn’t matter what. It was labor, particularly of the kind that uses the body and not the mind, that allows a person to be happy, which is a philosophy you see all the way from biblical times to the present. Of course, the fact that that’s what Voltaire gave as the ultimate “solution” was also in a way satirical, as he himself was a philosopher, praddling about the best way to be happy rather than actually doing something to keep himself from thinking. But for all his, or other philosophers’, intelligence, I think he was really trying to say that there’s something to be said for keeping your body and mind occupied with the world rather than on various existential philosophies.

    I’m no expert in any sort of history or philosophy either, but that’s what I got out of this one. And had great fun reading it too, laughing way more than I ought to have been. I think I remember comparing it in a way to Gulliver’s Travels, without Swift’s bitterness…

    1. Amanda » I don’t know if our approaches were all THAT different. I thought he was making fun of the philosophies of optimisim and pessimism… you say he’s making fun of the philosophers. Kind of the same. I did take the ending a bit more ironically. I don’t think he really thinks work will make us happy… but as I said, I don’t really know either! I laughed a lot reading it too. I liked Gulliver’s Travels and laughed at that one a lot too, but I think you make a good point that Swift was bitter, and Voltaire doesn’t come across that way at all.

  2. I read this one a long, long time ago as a high school student, and I pulled nothing like that from the story. I think I was too busy chuckling or figuring out the humor. 🙂 I do know that I enjoyed it, but it has been so long that the details are fuzzy. I’ll definitely have to think about pulling this off the shelf soon.

    And who has time to garden? 😉

    1. Allie » yeah, I read it about age 18 and I didn’t get anything much either. I think we need life experience to get it a little more…but then again, we still don’t “get” it even now. Lots to think about in the book. Definitely worth a reread, even thought it’s not the best book out there.

  3. I interpreted Candide as a satire of Leibniz’ philosophy that we are living in the best of possible world. I did like Candide, though I felt the satire was a bit much at times.

    1. Iris » Had you known about Liebnitz’ philosophy? I wonder if it would have been more clear to me had I known about it without reading the footnotes. Sounds like we were reading it mostly the same way, though. Reading about Liebnitz helped me make sense of the satire.

  4. Oh man I haven’t read this is a LONG time. I really need to reread it as an adult. I’m never sure why they have high school students read The Classics when most of us can’t really grasp the depth of them until much later in life.

    1. Pam » oh but classics can be so wonderful for high schoolers…I am a big fan of introducing them early. Classics are meant to be reread and re-enjoyed throughout life. I personally am glad for the classics I had to read in high school, and while I would agree that Candide is better appreciated when a little bit older, others can really be influential even at a young age. I wouldn’t give up on classics for younger people completely!

  5. Your post didn’t make my head hurt–quite the opposite! Very enjoyable discussion of Candide. I like your footnote about the farm. I had not thought of it as another satire, a final rejection of utopia rather than the “answer.” I think you are very right that there is no paradise on earth, only the world, which can be fully experienced by just contributing to it. That would make our blog communities and book clubs a sort of garden paradise, wouldn’t it?

    Thanks for yours.

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