Candide or Optimism by Voltaire
Politically satirical novels and short stories do not often survive past their particular age of relevant controversy. They may loose significance and/or their ‘shock factor’ as the political or social reforms slowly become the norm, however, one writer in particular created a book that has a strong theme which applies to our modern era; Voltaire’s Candide. His story tells of Candide and his wildly chaotic adventures over the entire earth in search of his soul-mate, the Lady Cunegonde. In each adventure his unlucky mishaps and deeply disturbing experiences all critically weaken the popular Enlightenment political philosophy of radical optimism. Candide’s philosophic teacher Pangloss holds the belief that all things that occur (including horrific and deadly natural occurrences) are for the best because we all live in a perfect and good world created by an omniscient and omnipotent God. This philosophy was based from an Enlightenment thinker, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (b.1646, d. 1716). Pangloss’ basis for the philosophical argument is “what we regard as evil will, if rightly considered, be found conducive to the good of some other creature, and therefore necessary to the general design: we must put up with it, as best we can, for the sake of the general good” (p8). This philosophical statement is refuted again and again in Voltaire’s story as an utterly ridiculous and inadequate falsification. The earthquake which Candide references was a devastating event which destroyed the entire city of Lisbon in 1755 and killed fifty-thousand people. “These disasters seemed a brutal comment on the current ‘optimistic’ philosophy of the day” (p8). Voltaire asks a question through Candide which as been contemplated throughout the ages: how can such a perfect God allow for such appalling evil to exist in the world?
Voltaire writes a strong argument against Pangloss’ philosophy through two principle lessons. Candide learns the ‘uselessness of metaphysical speculation’ from a dervish in Constantinople, and the inherent value of physical labor from a Turkish farmer. Candide so strongly agrees with the strength of self reasoning that he is finally able to dismiss Pangloss philosophical argument and create a lucrative business from the fruits of his land and hard labor. Candide openly questioned the dervish about why man was created and why evil existed in the world in hopes that his revered philosophical ability would offer an adequate reason. His response could not be any more clear; “when His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, do you suppose he worries whether the ship’s mice are comfortable or not?” (p141). What the dervish meant to emphasize was that metaphysical speculation is irrelevant and waste of valuable reasoning. He even got frustrated with Pangloss when he attempted to continue the debate. This could not be a louder example for Candide, undermining the extreme optimism. Candide’s final lesson was the value of hard work in the field. The farmer he met led by example and rightly stated “that the work banishes those three great evils, boredom, vice, and poverty” (p143). Candide learns that work without arguing is the key to overcoming devastating tragedies in the world. The book ends abruptly after he learns these two lessons, which force the reader to contemplate them further and inevitably, come to the conclusion that Pangloss’ ideology is completely absurd.
The whole of Candides destructive and miserable adventures after Lady Cunegonde are strong attacks on Leibniz’s philosophy. Each mishap disproved Pangloss’s theories more far-fetched and incoherent. His philosophy even prevented Candide from developing a healthy skepticism and detrimentally led him into further mishaps. His carnal and blind love for an unattainable beautiful woman is another statement of human suffrage and how useless it is to philosophically justify it.
Voltaire’s Candide has intense relevance to our modern age. In recent light of the effects of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, or the genocide in Darfur, it is a common question to ask: why is there so much evil in the world? It is undermining the severity of each horrific event to say that ‘all is for the best’ as Pangloss would. “All is for the best is explained in an absolute sense, without offering hope for the future, it is only an insult added to the miseries we endure” (p10). In other words, optimism about such events adds insult to injury. That is certainly not an appropriate way to discuss why such horrible events occur. Voltaire makes a very powerful statement by dejecting this extreme optimism. All people suffer regardless of social class, wealth, birth, or titles. Natural disasters especially pay no heed to social or political hierarchy. Several theologians, early philosophers, and learned people have discussed the question of the existence of evil under a perfect God such as St. Thomas Aquinas. Candide realizes in the end (as most people today do) that speculation on why evil exists is irrelevant; we all suffer, and to work your land will perhaps partially save you.
It is the book’s current relevance that made it so interesting to read. There has always been, and always will be terrible disasters that will relate to Voltaire’s question. Every twist and turn of events in Candide’s life makes for a stimulating plot that never lets you off your toes. The political aspect of Voltaire’s wit and candor make it an intellectual read as well. The historical background of the Enlightenment sets a stage fit for anyone interested in history or even just philosophy of the era. Not only does he create a humorous and lovable character in Candide, but allows the common modern person to appreciate and relate to his toils and strife. The reader gains valuable insight to Enlightenment philosophy and refutations to it through Candide, which will stay relevant for the following three-hundred years of human evil and suffering. Although human kind may never attain an answer to why evil exists Voltaire offers an explanation of how evil does not exist; solely for the extreme final end of common good.