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The Revolutionary Ideas Behind Voltaire's Candide

By Edited Oct 27, 2013 1 2

Voltaire's use of satire in his Candide has two major aims. First of all, Voltaire, in general, pokes fun at all of the basic institutions of 18th Century European society in an effort to reveal their absurdity. Secondly, and perhaps primarily, Voltaire's satire is a continuous attack on the philosophically optimistic worldview of the German philosopher G.W. Leibniz. In criticizing this worldview, Voltaire was criticizing one of the extremely basic and rather popular philosophical foundations upon which men in his time based their perceptions and opinions of the world. It is interesting to examine, however, whether or not, after undermining this foundation, Voltaire actually provided a revolutionary new opinion on how men should live and act.

It might be assumed that this is a logical step for a philosopher, that is, to construct new intellectual or moral standards for other people after they have demolished old worldviews. However, Voltaire does not blatantly do this. Though his satire is extremely effective in exposing the absurdity of Leibniz's claims and in pointing out society's foibles, does Voltaire (in Candide at least) offer a real viable, practical, cut-and-dried alternative to the viewpoint which he viciously destroys? Fundamentally, is Voltaire's satire deeper than just satire? Is there a truly "revolutionary kernel" of thought in opposition to Leibniz or the existing order as a whole? Does he elucidate any principles which a person or society might follow to achieve happiness, or does he merely say that society, as it is, is wrong? There are three avenues down which one may find a possible solution to this problem. Perhaps Candide's eventual full development as a character could, itself, be construed as an attempt to provide a blueprint for human conduct in a world in which it is fundamentally naïve to be completely optimistic. Perhaps Voltaire's direct satire of Leibniz, with its attitude and obvious hope for change, holds the key to how we must conduct ourselves. Finally, perhaps the story itself has a moral which could serve as a general guide for our conduct.

From the very first chapter of his book to the last, Voltaire criticizes Leibniz's philosophical optimism. This viewpoint basically holds that the world is the best that it possibly could be, because as Doctor Pangloss (Leibniz's disciple) says, "all things being made for an end, everything is necessarily for the best end". Fundamentally, Leibniz's view rested upon an assumption that, since a supremely good God created the world, it was as good as it could be or God would have done a better job. Voltaire demonstrates the absurdity of this viewpoint by placing his characters, most notably the extremely naïve and optimistic Candide, into extremely horrifying, ridiculous, disgusting, or violent situations which are obviously not good and, equally obviously, avoidable products of human folly. He further demonstrates the view's absurdity by always having Dr. Pangloss maintain his faith in the ultimate goodness of the world. For example, even after Pangloss is burned, hung, dissected, beaten, and sold into slavery (an episode which began with a minor theological offense), he maintains that, "I am still of my first opinionfor Leibniz cannot be wrong". So, it may be said that Voltaire primarily achieves his satire of Leibniz through providing his characters with an almost annoying degree of stubbornness. Even when presented with overwhelming evidence that his theories are extremely wrong, Pangloss persists in his optimism. The assumption upon which Voltaire bases this rejection of Leibniz is simply that every single day, the average person can tell quite clearly from their experience of the world that things could be far better. Even when he is presented with these experiences and this evidence, and far more, as the average person does not normally undergo torture and slavery, Pangloss refuses to abandon his belief.

This is, perhaps, the first place where one may search for a greater meaning to Candide. There is obviously more to this satire than a simple statement along the lines of "deterministic optimism (Leibniz's philosophical system) is wrong." Voltaire, of course, does show Leibniz's philosophy to be ridiculous. However, he does far more than that as well. In his portrayal of Pangloss, Voltaire seems to condemn all who allow their beliefs to become absolute, unalterable truths. Pangloss is repeatedly presented with evidence which contradicts his fundamental beliefs. However, he refuses to allow this contradictory evidence to change his mind, simply because there is a beauty and harmony in his system which he cannot bear to give up, no matter how wrong it is. In this way, Voltaire's lampooning of Pangloss is as much an attack on religion and absolute, fundamentalist belief in general as it is on Leibniz. Perhaps this, then, is the great lesson of Pangloss. Man is certainly free to think as he wishes, but if he wishes to truly think, he should not cling to old, obviously incorrect ideas, but should form his opinions based on his own experiential knowledge.

Another place to search for deeper meaning, beyond the attacks on society and Leibniz, in Candide, is in the character of Candide himself. Candide begins the story as a simple, optimistic young man who is completely worshipful of Pangloss and his teachings. By the end, however, he has been transformed by his travels across the globe. He has experienced the same evidence which Pangloss has of the world's imperfections, and he has come away from these experiences with a new viewpoint. At first, after his adventures, he "asserts no[principles]". However, he then encounters a truly content man. This man, a Turk, explains how he is simply content working in his garden, as that keeps away boredom, vice, and need. To Candide, the Turk's life seems far preferable to anyone, even the great kings and nobles, he had ever met during his travels. Candide ends the book by interrupting Pangloss' continued philosophizing on the goodness of the world by saying, simply, "we must cultivate our garden".

This line, and the idea behind it, is potentially problematic. As Voltaire describes immediately before this, Candide, Pangloss, Cunegonde, and all the other members of their household, have generally agreed that, as Martin, a pessimist, says, "let us work without reasoning, as it is the only way to make life endurable". This is indeed what they set about doing, and it is also part of the sentiment with which Candide interrupts Pangloss. Does Voltaire here advocate Martin's pessimistic view? Does he believe that life is better if one simply works to avoid "boredom, vice, and need" and doesn't think? Sadly, it seems that this is indeed a true viewpoint. As the old saying goes, ignorance is bliss, and Candide certainly does wind up happier at this simplistic stage of his life than when he traveled the world, experienced things, and philosophized with Pangloss. Regardless of this view's potential truth, it seems an odd one for Voltaire, himself a philosopher, philosophe, and man of action, to be expressing. Furthermore, it seems to be an odd viewpoint within the novel (as a satirical critique) itself.

Throughout the book, as has been shown, there is an idea of critique. Voltaire satirically critiques societal institutions, Leibniz's philosophy, and human practices and folly. There are two central ideas bound up with Voltaire's critique. One is case specific, and one is inherent in the idea of critique. First, inherent in the idea of critique, is that the critic points out what is wrong so that improvement can be made. In this case, it is not too much to assume that Voltaire hoped to show people how ridiculous some of their actions were, and, in so doing, get them to laugh at themselves and change. However, this very idea of critique would seem to say that leaving things as they are, not questioning or reasoning, or acting to change things, would lead to a continuation of the very practices the critic seeks to change. And yet, this is what Voltaire seems to advocate when he has Candide and all of his companions ascribe to that aforementioned synthesis of Candide's and Martin's views at the end of the book. Secondly, Voltaire's specific critique, as he presents it in Candide, especially hinges upon change. Throughout the book, Voltaire advances the idea that the world is not as good as it could be. The world as it is, and especially all the evil in the world, is not a direct product of God or God's plan. Instead, it is a product of humans with all their flaws and follies. Leibniz's viewpoint, of which Voltaire is so critical, seems to advocate (as Voltaire presents it, anyway) not questioning the world as it is experienced and instead just accepting that things could not possibly be better. Voltaire's satirical critique of this would seem to hold the opposite viewpoint; that is, that since the world is a product of humans, it is just as easily within our reach to begin to correct our errors as it was to originally make the errors. Yet, again, this correction would seem to require thought, reflection and action, and again we encounter Voltaire's problematic ending which would seem to discourage those very things.

What if, however, the garden that we must cultivate is ourselves? Perhaps this is the deeper viewpoint, the moral, which Candide (the character and the book) is espousing. Voltaire has already, through his portrayal of Pangloss, thrown away the idea of universal, absolute truths which can be rigorously adhered to. We may assume that just as he would throw away rigorous, fundamentalist adherence to religion or philosophical doctrines, he would throw away rigorous, fundamentalist, adherence to supposedly universal political or social ideas which might be implemented to begin reforming society's errors. If this is indeed the case (which there is no evidence against), then Candide's injunction to "cultivate our garden" may be interpreted as a call to each individual person to act according to their individuality, and, in so doing, avoid vice, boredom, and need, three principal things which tend to begat evil. In this way, perhaps Candide is an expression of the "bourgeois" virtues of the Enlightenment, virtues which Voltaire would certainly have ascribed to. Rather than absolutely, unquestioningly following some universal, received truth, Voltaire enjoins people to experience the world for themselves, form their own opinions based on that experience, and then, having truly found themselves and what they believe, each person is to act upon that basis, caring for his own needs, cultivating his own virtues, driving out the weeds of vice and boredom, and providing for his own needs. In this way, society would be reformed one individual at a time, with each individual's careful care for and cultivation of himself and his own beliefs removing the folly and absurdity which is currently present (but not necessary) in the world. Society is not some edifice which exists and can be fixed. It is an aggregate of individuals. If those individuals are flawed, then positive change must start with the individual. Running in the vein of other great Enlightenment thinkers like Kant or Descartes, it only makes sense that Voltaire would assert that this positive change in society, which must start with and occur in each individual, should be begun and conducted by each individual.


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Comments

Jan 24, 2010 6:09am
askformore
Thank you for this article. I have read Candide several times, but I read it because I find it funny and entertaining. - You have given it another perspective!
Aug 13, 2011 11:30pm
vicdillinger
I thought this was outstanding, and you are to be credited for taking the time to dissect the philosophies. I find Candide hilarious -- Voltaire's subtle little snide comments and snarky undercurrent is amusing, and it is still one of my favorite reads, this being the best of all possible worlds! Good work!
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