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The Why of Candide

Caitlin Deegan – December 8, 2017

Voltaire’s Candide is a philosophical satire. As such, it directs very specific criticism at the period and culture in which it was written. In order to better understand what Voltaire so deftly critiques in his seminal novella, it is helpful to be familiar with three aspects of the book’s context:

The Enlightenment

The betterment of society can be brought about through rationality and the power of reason: This was the primary philosophy behind the Enlightenment. The period saw major social reform, as people began to rebel against ignorant superstition and prejudice. Criticism was frequently lobbed at the church and the aristocracy – two of Voltaire’s least favorite institutions. While the Enlightenment was a massive movement, it took many shapes as it swept across Europe. Candide is proof that while a defining aspect of the 17th and 18th centuries, Enlightenment philosophy was by no means universally beloved, or without its flaws. Nor did the Enlightenment truly put an end to the fear aroused by superstition, especially in regard to the church: The auto-da-fe instituted by the Grand Inquisitor in Candide illustrates the dangers of the superstition that continued to flourish, even in a time of reason.  

The Character Pangloss

Candide’s mentor and teacher, the endlessly-optimistic Pangloss, represents a much more specific criticism of the Enlightenment; his assertion that we live in “the best of all possible worlds” provides the foundational debate of the novella. Pangloss as a character satirizes the philosophy of G. W. von Leibniz, who claimed that because an all-powerful, all-good god had created the world, that world must be the best possible world, and everything in it must be good. Leibniz also believed that there was no evil in the world, only that humans perceived evil because of an inability to see that evil exists for a greater good.  The rhetorical acrobatics Pangloss employs throughout the novella to maintain his optimism in the face of comically overwhelming tragedy are meant to illustrate the flaws of Leibnizian optimism: As an example, when his benefactor, Jacques, is drowning in the Bay of Lisbon, Pangloss prevents Candide from saving him by “proving” the bay had been formed so Jacques could drown in it, thus transforming a senseless evil into a divine plan (however illogically). 

Tragedy of the 18th Century

The stark contrast between the inherent optimism of Enlightenment philosophy and the demonstrable tragedy rampant in Europe during the 18th century motivated Voltaire to pen Candide. The novella is relentless in highlighting the naiveté of believing that everything happens for a reason. Three unjust and tragic events were key in underscoring the chaos of life for Voltaire prior to his decision to write his novella:

1. The violent Lisbon earthquake in 1755, during which an estimated 30,000-40,000 people perished (roughly 20% of the city’s population at the time). A massive tsunami and fires that raged for days accompanied the earthquake, destroying more than eighty percent of the city.

2. The outbreak of the devastating Seven Years’ War in 1756 in the German states

3. The execution of English Admiral John Byng in 1757, which Voltaire vehemently opposed. Many at the time believed Byng was being used as a scapegoat for a military loss at the Battle of Minorca, and that the death sentence was far too harsh a penalty. King George II denied pleas for clemency, and it was widely speculate that the Admiralty colluded to lay sole blame on Byng to spare themselves. Voltaire felt this injustice keenly. 

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