Voltaire and Candide, Champions of Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment was a time of skepticism and reevaluation in Europe.  Many preconceived notions that had dictated thought and behavior for generations were coming under fire from intellectuals and the results often resulted in chaos.  Voltaire was one of the critical minds during the Enlightenment and his literary contributions are still renowned for how acutely they represent the changing themes of European thought in the 18th century.  His novella Candide, perhaps his best recognized work, is densely saturated with satirical jabs at several of these changing themes.  A few of the most notable are the philosophy of optimism, the supremacy of religion, military enthusiasm, and the literary trends of romantic and adventure fiction.  Through his criticism of these widely held, status quo concepts, Voltaire establishes himself as a vanguard member of the Enlightenment.

One of the prevailing philosophical movements of the Enlightenment, and one that Voltaire seemed to despise more than almost any other, was Idealism.  This philosophy, championed by Leibniz, was exactly as its name implied, utterly idealistic.  It operated on the premise that all things were for the best because the world we live in is the best possible world.  Voltaire satirizes this philosophy unrelentingly throughout Candide.  He also makes no effort to hide this particular satire behind subtlety.  Pangloss, Candide’s philosophy teacher, described Idealism to the letter early in the story, establishing the basis for Candide being so naïve and gullible (3-4).  Candide’s blind optimism is an endlessly recurring theme, witnessed on nearly every page he appears on.  While it does seem charming at a glance, especially early on when it is easy to sympathize with a few bad turns for a well-meaning character, it quickly becomes apparent that a more complex world view would make Candide considerably less of an idiot.

Voltaire presents no shortage of awful events that should, by all rights, create some degree of cynicism in Candide.  The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was an event that struck Voltaire as particularly calamitous and a notable event that made Leibnizian optimism an even more offensive to him.  He portrays it almost exactly from reality in Candide to immortalize the horror and significance of such wanton and meaningless destruction.  Even as the characters of the story witness the deaths of 30,000 and the sailors gleefully search the rubble for loot, no thought given to the lives lost beyond their own gain, Pangloss stands by an injured Candide and lauds the earthquake for being the best possible event simply because it happened (22).  While at this time, as during many other, it appears that Candide is coming to see the world as it is, that he is horrified by the pain in it, he quickly recovers his optimism thanks to the merest acts of kindness from the old woman character (26-27).  Calling this kind of optimism ‘satire’, when taken as an individual example, almost seems too cynical.  After all, Candide is just trying to stay positive, appreciate what little beauties there are.  But it is seen that he persists in blind optimism as the story goes on, unmoved to caution or skepticism in the least.

Examples of Candide’s idealism and the reasons he should have become wiser, but did not, could be cited and discussed almost endlessly; but there are other Enlightenment themes that Voltaire dealt with more subtly and less frequently, as well.  Religion had long dominated Europe, particularly the Roman Catholic Church.  In the travels of Candide, Voltaire finds ways, both overt and subtle, to satire the prevailing dominance of religious thought and power.  After witnessing the Lisbon earthquake, Candide and Pangloss encounter a member of the Inquisition who, for a short while serves to dispute Pangloss’ philosophy (22).  Voltaire does not entertain this alliance with the church for long, however.  Rather than actually engaging the debate, the Inquisition Familiar simply ignores Pangloss (23).  This is no doubt how Voltaire felt the church actually responded to logical discourse, even in a situation where they likely would have triumphed, they were able and willingly to engage a reasonable debate.

Enthusiasm and reverence for the military was also a long dominant theme in Europe.  Warfare was familiar to most European nations in that era, even with the Thirty Years War less than a century in the past, frequent armed conflict broke out in Voltaire’s time.  It was perfectly understandable that the intellectuals of the time would be frustrated and angered by the pointless bickering and waste of life.  The ridiculousness of military reasoning is demonstrated and mocked when Candide encounters the execution of an Admiral.  The reason for the man’s execution is two-fold, both parts equally ludicrous.  The charge being that the offending Admiral was not near enough to his enemy and the rationale that “it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others” (124).  No further discussion or explanation is given to the event, possibly to demonstrate how little concern it was given by those who carried it out.  Perhaps it would not have seemed like such a ridiculous thing at the time, but reading it in the modern age it is clearly a satire of how little the military values life, that it would kill one of its own supposedly valuable men, one of very high rank, just to make the others try harder.

The characters themselves represent a pervasive satire of Voltaire’s own field.  Literature at the time, and before and since, has often been dominated by a love of romance and adventure.  Whether it was personal taste or a genuine belief that such writing was a bad thing, Voltaire chose to mock these fields by creating characters that would, on the surface, fit into a romantic adventure story, but then burdened them with so much reality that there was nothing glamorous left about them.  Candide, the optimistic hero, beset by the world but triumphing nonetheless, is instead portrayed as a bumbling idealist with no apparent ability to become wiser.  Even at the end of the book after all he’s been through, the most free will Candide can muster is to choose a different mentor to follow blindly.  He takes a few tiny bits of evidence from the hospitality of a farmer and extrapolates a grand and admirable lifestyle that must, in his own eyes, be the best of all possible (167).  In the end, Candide is right back where he started, only older and with less to look forward to.

Cunegonde, the beautiful maiden that would have been so familiar in a romance, is only stereotypical for a short time.  She quickly loses both her beauty and her maidenhood, though that does not seem to dissuade Candide’s passion for her (151).  While this would be reasonably heroic on his part, it is certainly not an element that would ever be found in a light-hearted romance.  It is entirely too gritty and almost reads more as a reprimand toward romantic fiction than a satire of it.  Only by knowing Candide’s endless naivete does it become satire.  Cunegonde also does little to make herself the admirable lady that would be expected in a romantic adventure.  Early in the story, Cunegonde demonstrates herself to be quite self-centered and even a little stupid, as seen in her dealing with the old woman when she refuses to believe that another could possibly know misfortune (41).  Such foolishness and selfishness would not have been admired.

These are but a few examples of the satire found densely packed into Candide.  The high concentration of topical references and razor-edge mockery of them set Voltaire apart as a master satirist at the very least.  This work identifies him as a major player in the Enlightenment, however, by how acutely it focuses on the important themes of the time.  Not only does Voltaire systematically tear down all the preconceptions Europe had been laboring under leading up to the Enlightenment, but he does so in exactly the manner that intellectuals of the movement would encourage.  The theme of Enlightenment was not to join up with whatever philosophy sounded best and then follow blindly, it was to question everything and think for oneself.  Satire only works if the reader thinks for him or herself, if the joke is perceived underneath the layers of the obvious, but incorrect, façade.  A naïve reader of Candide might think it to be a heartwarming tale of optimism and perseverance, but a child of the Enlightenment, the kind of reader Voltaire intended to reach, would have their intelligence engaged and their worldviews challenged.  That master of both literature and thought is what makes Candide a priceless artifact of the Enlightenment and Voltaire one of the champions of the time.

Work Cited

Voltaire. Candide. Google Books. Web. 2 Mar 2013. <http://books.google.com/books