After Storamin's recent thread on Descarte, I decided to dive into voltaire a bit. Enjoy.
Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire constructed the novella “Candide” partially for the purpose of entertainment, but mostly to satirize the fallacy of Gottfried William von Leibniz’s theory of optimism. Throughout the course of his saga, Voltaire juxtaposes the raw, unrepressed optimism of one character in the story with exaggerated real-world adventures of pessimism and gloom. From gruesome war to disease, sedition, and deceit, Voltaire misses none of the bad in the “best of all possible worlds”.
Leibniz was a German philosopher and mathematician in Voltaire’s time. He argued that our world was the epitome of perfection, and all evils that transpire are for the betterment and evolution of our ideal society. God, he believed, was perfect, and as Earth is the conception of God, it must maintain such sound imperfections. However Voltaire chooses to begin writing on these premises alone to further accentuate his satire, purposefully overlooking the inescapable evil that comes with the “best of all possible worlds”. Leibniz was actually not suggesting our world was perfect, but rather the best of all the worlds available to God. Voltaire disregarded this in “Candide”.
Dr. Pangloss is introduced as the literary symbolic representation of Leibniz’s theory. Conceived early in the novella, the then naive Candide reveres Pangloss as the supreme authority on all philosophical matters and follows his teachings without question. Candide enters the world with this very closed-minded philosophy to further exaggerate Voltaire’s satirical aim, but throughout the story he experiences a fierce internal conflict between his childhood schooling and the realities of society. Voltaire also created the character of Martin, a very pessimistic antagonist acting as the devil whispering palpable cynicism into Candide’s ear. As their journey progresses, Candide finds it harder and harder to support the unyielding raw optimism of Pangloss.
At one point in “Candide”, the characters arrive at Eldorado, a utopia designed to metaphorically represent the perfect society described as “the best of all possible worlds”, a quote used by Leibniz and Pangloss to portray our “perfect” society. This city is “impossible” to find, and is described with details to make it seem as distant from reality as possible. By materializing Leibniz’s ideological perfection without laws, jails, or the need for material goods, Voltaire is showing Leibniz’s theory as laughable. This allows Candide to see for himself the quintessential essence of Pangloss’s teachings, just before being submerged again headfirst into the icy waters of society’s realism when they leave. Eldorado is one of Voltaire’s strongest examples of the philosophical collision in the novella, since it reaches beyond speculation and rumor to show Candide hard, physical evidence of the Atlantistic notion brought forth by Pangloss.
Chapter Nine is a hard hit for Candide’s faith in Pangloss’ teachings. He is forced to murder two men in an attempt to protect his own life and that of his mistress Cunégonde. They die in the exact same way for a nearly identical cause, and still the Grand Inquisitor is given a grand burial and the civilian man is thrown on a dunghill. They were both human beings- were their lives worth different values? Candide questions the ideological perfection of society’s injustice.
Voltaire also adds an interesting touch of satire through his choice of character names. Pangloss is loosely translated as “all tongue” or “windbag", an ironically fitting name for one who offers no proof to support his claims. Candide is translated to “white”, a slightly deeper translation, but no less fitting. In the beginning of the novella, Candide is a very naive child, innocent and pure. He accepts the teachings of Pangloss, the only philosophy he is exposed to. As he makes his journey all over the world, his purity staggers in parallel with his maturity. He begins to question his personal beliefs, however always remaining true to his honesty, loyalty, and generosity… sparkling associations with the unblemished color white. His continued loyalty is apparent by maintaining his honest oath to always love Cunégonde, even after she grows old and loses her beauty. His generosity is illustrated when Candide offers some riches to the ousted king after hearing his tale from a world far less than the best possible.
In many ways, “Candide” is an allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer’s "The Canterbury Tales". Voltaire uses “Candide” to poke ridicule, even to the point of criticizing, the endless flaws of the world. From government corruption to inhumane warfare, Voltaire tends focuses more on the issues at large, rather than Chaucer’s focus toward individuals like merchants and friars… however there truly is no difference. Society is composed of merchants, friars, priests, physicians, knights, and pardoners, so essentially both authors are attacking the same body, but from different angles. Where Chaucer may compare the nun to a prostitute, Voltaire compares the Bordeaux police officer to a common thief. When juxtaposing both works, rather than seeing a contrast, you see a single large picture, seamlessly flowing from one source to the other. One might wonder how much influence Chaucer had on Voltaire.
“Candide” is a remarkable literary work written by the very embodiment of the 18th century enlightenment. Voltaire forever shifted the paradigms of modern satire through a witty, yet pointed assault on Leibniz’s blind theory of optimism. Devouring Leibniz’s premises with colorful, yet blatant, real-world contrasts, Voltaire reflects the sheer lunacy of such a theory. Moral of the story? If Voltaire disagrees with someone, he lets the world know it.