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
- translated from the French by Roger Pearson, Oxford World’s Classics. All page numbers come from 2008 World’s Classics edition ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Cunégunde’s transformation to ugly seemed to be simply the un-blinding of Candide’s no-longer-naïve eyes ↩
- Just kidding, I don’t garden at all. I’ll go read my next book or cook dinner or something. ↩