Book Review: Candide by Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, known by his pen name Voltaire, was a French writer and philosopher in the Enlightenment period of 1685 – 1815. He often wrote satirical novels and plays that criticized contemporary social institutions and religious intolerance. His signature work Candide, or Optimism, follows the story of a naïve young man that experiences a series of increasingly tragic and painful mishaps. The work was a criticism of several Enlightenment philosophies, including that of optimism: the belief that the current world is the best of all possible worlds. Following a progression of natural disasters and human atrocities such as the Lisbon Earthquake of 1775 and the brutal torture and execution of the cloth merchant Jean Calas following (false) allegations that Calas murdered his own son to prevent him from converting to Catholicism, Volire wrote Candide to criticize the widespread belief in optimism and show the naivete of believing that a world full of so much suffering is the best of all possible worlds.

When asked by Cacambo what optimism is, Candide replies, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong”.

            The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was a period in history that brought about an increased appreciation for values such as inquisitiveness and honesty, while shunning older beliefs in tradition and dogma. Enlightenment thinkers favored reason over religion, and empirical evidence over customs. During this time, the philosophy of optimism grew popular as a means for people to explain away all the suffering in the world. Candide’s tutor Pangloss teaches him about optimism, saying, “they who assert all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best”. This was in relation to the trend of theodicy, which sought to explain the presence of evil in a world made by a perfect God. Pangloss believes that “things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end” – basically saying that humans should not question the way things are just because they don’t understand it, because there’s a greater hidden purpose that we are not aware of.

            Candide assimilates this overly optimistic message and stays faithful in his belief, as tragedy after tragedy befalls him. After being forced to leave the comfortable castle he grew up in, he’s tricked into joining the Bulgar army, where he is beaten violently. While marching with the army he witnesses villages full of suffering: passing over “heaps of dead and dying” to a neighboring village that was “in cinders”, and saw “here, old men covered with wounds, beheld their wives, hugging their children to their bloody breasts, massacred before their faces; there, their daughters, disembowelled and breathing their last after having satisfied the natural wants of Bulgarian heroes; while others, half burnt in the flames, begged to be despatched”. Running to another village, he finds an orator who asks him whether he is there for a good cause, to which Candide replies, “the whole is necessarily concatenated and arranged for the best”. Despite undergoing abuse at the hands of the army and witnessing so much hardship in the villages, Candide is not yet ready to give up on his overly optimistic outlook on life.  

            In Chapter V, Pangloss’ optimistic message is criticized by a Familiar of the Inquisition, who says:

Apparently, then, sir, you do not believe in the original sin; for if all is for the best there has then been neither Fall nor punishment.

This was an echo of Voltaire’s view that optimism encouraged complacency with the state of the global affairs, because it suggests that there’s nothing to improve about the world. It’s easy to see how this type of thinking can be dangerous and detrimental, by noticing the way that Pangloss explains away the tragedies that occur to him. Instead of feeling angry at the injustice of his situation and the cruelty that he suffered at the hands of various social institutions, even though he was hanged, dissected, and whipped, Pangloss tells Candide that “I am a philosopher and I cannot retract”. Philosophies such as optimism were antithetical to the aims of the Enlightenment. Instead of admitting that he was wrong and looking at the evidence around him, Pangloss remains stuck in his ways and insists that he will not change his mind. He is not using his sense of reason to see the situation as it is, and thus can never make any progress. This is also a criticism of organized religion, as Pangloss represents a parody of religious figures who relied more on religion than reason. Throughout the book, Voltaire uses satire to expose the hypocrisy of organized religion, such as in chapter III when the orator’s wife expresses her “religious zeal” and pours her chamber-pot over a man “who doubted whether the Pope was Anti-Christ”.

Voltaire’s view on human nature becomes evident through James, who tells Pangloss,

Mankind have a little corrupted nature, for they were not born wolves, and they have become wolves; God has given them neither cannon of four-and-twenty pounders, nor bayonets; and yet they have made cannon and bayonets to destroy one another.

He believed that humans had a tendency toward evil and destruction. Looking at the state of the world sometimes, it’s easy to empathize with this view. He criticizes the cruelty of the slavery system by describing Cacambo’s treatment at the hands of his masters. Later in the chapter, after the magistrate asks Candide to pay ten thousand piastres for a hearing, Voltaire writes: “The villainy of mankind presented itself before his imagination in all its deformity.”

Let us cultivate our garden.

     The final chapter of the book expressed the above statement which reflects Voltaire’s philosophy, with the garden being a metaphor for one’s own life. By this he’s suggesting that you should refrain from being too involved with politics and the world, but rather focus attention on personal wellbeing. The old man says that by cultivating our gardens, “our labour preserves us from three great evils – weariness, vice, and want.” Without simple labor and an honest lifestyle, man would be drawn towards committing the many injustices and crimes that befell Candide and the other characters in the book. Most of those tragedies were instances of humans being cruel to each other. Voltaire believed that by focusing on ourselves, and on our own growth and development, we can avoid a lot of the suffering that we cause to each other in this world.