Voltaire, Hating on Optimism through Plot and Conversation in Candide

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Voltaire was not a man who thought much of the optimistic philosophy toward living set forth by the thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, if Voltaire’s work Candide is examined. It doesn’t even have to be a close examination; from end-to-end, Candide is rife with examples of optimism being an inappropriate at best, and an often foolish and damaging at worst, approach and/or reaction to events that its characters are involved in. This is seen through much of the work, but most particularly Voltaire shows his derisive opinion of optimism in the philosophical sense through two methods: by putting Candide and his fellow story-mates in situations in which optimism is useless against the reality of their circumstances, and by having his characters directly discuss optimistic philosophy.

Before examining these two methods and their instances in Candide, a short discussion of philosophic optimism is worth undertaking. While most people understand optimism to be a method of looking at a specific situation, or even one’s whole life, the common optimism differs in important ways from philosophical optimism. In the age of Voltaire, optimism as a philosophy was a very specific and structured way of dealing with “evil” in the universe that was chiefly put forth by Gottfried Leibniz. The basic idea is thus: if God is good, and men are his creations that he loves, the only way to reconcile this with the unwelcome or “evil” things happening in the world is to believe that there is an essential correctness to all that happens which will eventually lead to the best possible outcome (Liebniz & Rescher). We know this is what Candide is about because of its secondary title “Or Optimism,” and from the frequently repeated phrase “the best of all possible worlds” in Candide, a phrase which is directly traceable to Liebniz. This optimistic philosophy was not one that Voltaire found worthwhile, and indeed, it is one that is not thought of today with much, to put tongue in cheek, optimism that it accurately describes the nature of life. Though it is impossible to prove that the world was not created by a perfect “God” and thus “whatever is is right” as Pope says, as Margaret A. Boden points out in her essay “Optimism,” Voltaire, while “powerless to refute it” can ridicule this optimism and make it seem foolish.

And Voltaire certainly succeeds in that regard. The most obvious method with which he does this is through the plot of Candide itself. Voltaire sets his story up by first creating a character that is of a “profoundly straightforward mind” who is under the tutelage of the “metaphysico-theologico-cosmonigologist” (a made-up term meant to mock philosophers of Voltaire’s day) Pangloss, whose philosophy is one that uses almost identical language to that of Liebniz’s optimism. Candide begins life in a fairly happy, comfortable circumstance that is also very restricted to his immediate surroundings. He has been taught that it is the best possible situation, that the world is the best possible world, and he has the mind and temperament to believe it, so thus we have the perfect situation for things to go to hell. It takes about three pages to do so. Candide is rather quickly and forcefully evicted from his “best of all possible” homes, and the very first people he meets conscribe him into the Bulgar army through a mean trick that preys on Candide’s belief in things always turning out for the best. This method is used time after time, quite literally, in the rest of Voltaire’s work: Candide et al. come across a situation, it seems like it may go one way or another, and it eventually goes badly or even horrifically to comic effect. Just to name a few instances, one can point to the Anabaptist’s running to help a sailor only to be thrown into the sea and not helped himself just afterwards, Candide and Pangloss surviving the storm only for the city they land in to have an earthquake and they themselves be put to an auto-da-fé, the arrival in the new world only to have their enemies arrive just after them and Candide’s love Cunégonde pushed straight into the arms of another man, the gaining of near-infinite wealth at El Dorado that is taken away by men and nature: the list goes on. Voltaire’s point is not subtle, though it is so cleverly done by using the driest of humor that it does not become grating; it is thus a quite effective method of denigrating a philosophy.

Much of this humor comes in the form of the conversations had by the members of Candide’s adventures, and these conversations are the second front through which Voltaire makes his points about optimism. By placing Candide’s optimism against various foils in his traveling companions that have different approaches toward life, much is able to be said and thought out about optimism vs. reality. Again, the instances that could be referenced are quite numerous. One particularly poignant moment, after many misadventures, comes when Candide says to Cacambo that El Dorado “must be the country where everything is indeed for the best, since there absolutely has to be a place of that sort,” a remark which Voltaire undercuts immediately by having the man add “since I often saw how badly everything goes, in Westphalia.” Here Candide is trying to reconcile his ideas from Pangloss about optimism and the world with reality, thinking he has done so by finding El Dorado, but in reality, he is making more of a point that optimism doesn’t much work when attempting to use reality to prove it. Other notable conversations are with the old woman who speaks about everyone having troubles, with Martin the true pessimist (perhaps Candide’s best foil) and with the dismembered slave. This last, as Michael Wood points out in “Notes on Candide,” is the only place where the word “optimism” is actually used in the work and is also where Candide’s questioning of optimism truly starts to set in, with him saying optimism is “the madness of insisting that everything is good when it’s bad.”

Candide’s final conversation, which scholars have argued so much about (Wolper), is also Voltaire’s final dismissive blow to the philosophy of optimism. After so many terrible occurrences that have led Candide and his troupe finally to a life of seemingly satisfactory farming, Voltaire can’t help but take one last jab at what he, it seems, believes is the “so much hot air” of optimistic philosophy. He does this by mentioning that Pangloss sometimes goes into speeches that espouse optimism, with Pangloss attempting to say that if Candide had not gone through all he had, he would not be in the pleasant situation his life has become. Candide replies “That’s well said, but we need to work our fields,” and the book ends. With that final note, Voltaire has essentially stated that other thinkers need not even defeat philosophical optimists; they are really only worth patronizing, patting on the head, and moving on to real things. Where Voltaire has just spent a whole book explaining through conversations and plot the various ways that optimism can fail a person, it’s this final dismissive note that quite literally closes his book on optimism, and why we know that Voltaire thinks that philosophic optimism is not, in the end, even worth arguing about.

Works Cited

Boden, Margaret A. "Optimism." Philosophy 41.158 (1966): 291-303. JSTOR. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, and Nicholas Rescher. G.W. Leibniz's Monadology: An Edition for Students. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh, 1991. Print.

Voltaire, and Burton Raffel. Candide, Or, Optimism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. Print.

Wolper, Roy S. "Candide, Gull in the Garden?" Eighteenth-Century Studies 3.2 (1969): 265-77. JSTOR. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.

Wood, Michael. "Notes on "Candide"" New England Review (1990-) 26.4 (2005): 192-202. JSTOR. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.