The Enlightenment period was a time of new ideas and philosophies. One of the philosophies to emerge from this period was Philosophical optimism. The theory revolved around causes and effects and the belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” and that everything happens for the best (Voltaire). Voltaire was an enlightenment writer/philosopher and he was largely influenced by both early enlightenment and the current enlightenment philosophers and writers of the era. However, he vehemently disagreed with many of the ideas, most specifically the theory of philosophic optimism.
Throughout Voltaire’s novel, Candide, the optimism of the main character is tested repeatedly to exemplify his belief that philosophical optimism is illogical considering the events that occur in this world. Voltaire satirizes philosophical optimism throughout the entire novel, primarily by using using irony and exaggeration. The phrase taught by Pangloss and repeated by his disciples(Candide and Cunegonde), “the best of all possible worlds”(Voltaire) is juxtaposed to the worst possible situations and events.
The story begins in a utopian castle and the first instance of tragedy is when Candide is banished from Thunderten-tronckh for kissing Cunegonde. But Candide is quick to regain his belief that everything is in fact, for the best because a few men offer to dine with him. Following this though, Candide is forced into the Bulgarian Army and he is then made to run the gauntlet six and thirty times through the entire regiment and he eventually escapes the army.
He is fortunate enough to run into an Anabaptist named James who proceeds to assist Candide, who proclaims, “Now I am convinced that my Master Pangloss told me truth when he said that everything was for the best in this world” (Voltaire, 3). The point is that even though he has been through approximately 4 unfortunate events, this one act of kindness restores his faith in Pangloss’s philosophy. From here, he reunites with Pangloss and he and Pangloss experience a shipwreck, an earthquake and an Auto-De-Fe where Pangloss is hung and Candide is publicly flogged.
Candide encounters numerous other foul experiences and it appears that each terrible event is followed by something even worse, yet, after being shown the slightest bit of kindness, or glimmer of hope for a better future, Candide almost always replies that still, everything is for the very best because that’s what Pangloss taught him. Voltaire does this to show the absurdness of optimistic philosophy. He claims that in a world full of people who lie, steal cheat and wage war, amongst other abominable things, can not be the best possible world.
This is because the philosophy proposed by Pangloss in the text, which echoes that of philosophical optimists of the time period believed that instances of personal misfortune contribute to a better society. However, as we see with Candide, who experiences a copious amount of personal tragic events, lives in a world which continues to be plagued by earthquakes and wars and other foul occurrences.
Before all of Candide’s misfortunes though, we are presented with the following statement which summarizes Pangloss’s beliefs, It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged.
Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best” (Voltaire 1). Voltaire uses this speech to essentially discredit Pangloss’s philosophy from the beginning. Each example he gives is almost backwards; the nose was not designed for spectacles, but spectacles for the nose and stockings were designed for legs, not legs for stockings.
By placing these incorrect sentiments at the very beginning of the Novel, the reader is already forced to question the optimistic beliefs of the character Pangloss and they are able to recognize the level of sheltered-ness and neviete of both Candide and Cunegonde who blindly believe the philosopher’s teachings. There are also numerous ironic instances throughout the novella which are used to emphasize the inanity of optimism.
One of the most ironic situations occurs towards the end of the novel when Candide finds out that the stunningly beautiful Cunegonde, who he has searched, killed and waited for has become quite ugly only after he has finally found her and vowed he would marry her. Next to irony, exaggeration is introduced in the very first chapter when the Baron’s castle, Thunder-tentronckh, is described. The characters believe that, “the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses” (Voltaire 1).
However in reality, the castle is quite barren, the Baron himself, is strict, on the verge of cruel, and the Baroness is obese. Another theme throughout the novel is the irony revolving the corruption of the church. We are presented with religious figures, who are supposed to be the moral leaders for society, acting the most sinful and immoral. The Grand Inquisitor decides to hang Pangloss solely for the fact that they have different philosophical opinions and Candide is publicly flogged, “for seeming to approve what he (Pangloss) had said” (Voltaire 6).
Other religious persons are depicted as being jewel thieves and having mistresses; not to mention that the old woman is the daughter of the Pope, who is supposed to be celibate. Pointing out the corruption of the church also works in Voltaire’s favor of discrediting philosophical optimism because the church, as already stated, is looked up to by the people and it is an institution which maintains power over several aspects of everyday people’s lives all over the world. crov
By noting and exaggerating the corruption which was rampant in the church at the time this story was written, it is simply being used as evidence that this can not be the best of all worlds and not everything is for the very best because the people who are ordained to be moral leaders are the most immoral. The statement however, pertains to Pangloss though, Voltaire writes that, “Pangloss avowed that he had undergone dreadful sufferings; but having once maintained that everything went on as well as possible, he still maintained it, and at the same time believed nothing of it”.
By the end of the story, the great optimistic philosopher doesn’t even really believe what he taught anymore, it is the breaking point of any theory, when the teacher no longer truly believes in the validity of their original philosophy. Voltaire was, and is still considered to be one of the best satirical authors in all of history. The Enlightenment greatly influenced him and his works, however, he did not agree with the all the new philosophies, particularly the theories of optimistic philosophers, which he satirized in Candide.
He used Irony, and exaggeration to emphasize the absurdity of constant, unfailing optimism. He created a cycle of; tragic event, restoration of faith in optimistic philosophy, followed by another tragic event, all to show that reality is far from a perfect Utopia and complacency will not make the world a better place. By the end of the end of the novel, Candide has turned from blindly following Pangloss’s philosophy to following the ideas of the farmer and fully commits himself to the simple life of tending his garden and living in ignorance of the events of the outside world.