Candide, or Optimism (Candide; ou L'Otimisme) by Voltaire, 1759

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CANDIDE, OR OPTIMISM (Candide; ou L'Otimisme)
by Voltaire, 1759

Voltaire's Candide, or Optimism (Candide; ou L'Otimisme) is singular, even paradoxical, in that it is arguably the most famous and representative work of an age many of whose cherished tenets it denies, indeed savagely attacks. Candide has not endured as a widely read masterpiece only because it is an intellectually provocative comment on eighteenth-century thought and values, however. First of all, it is an marvelously entertaining read. Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) both employs and parodies a number of narrative genres, including the adventure yarn, the romance, and the travel narrative, that were immensely popular in his own day and remain so today.

The work's frantic narrative pace begins in the brief first chapter and hardly slows until the protagonist Candide finally achieves something like peace at the end. Over the course of his adventures, Candide roams across Europe, South America, and Asia Minor; commits murder and narrowly escapes being murdered; falls in love, loses his beloved, and regains her; and even manages to learn a thing or two about life.

The work's tangled narrative line can be simplified by noting its adherence to the archetypal romance structure. The reader is introduced to Candide and the love of his life, the Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronckh's daughter Cunegonde, in the first chapter, by the end of which they are predictably separated by her disapproving father. Over his subsequent adventures and misadventures, Candide never loses sight of his ultimate goal—to find his beloved. This he does briefly at the midpoint of the tale, only to lose her once more. Further adventures follow, replete with typical romance fare: pirates, intrigues, narrow escapes, exotic locales, and so forth. The two lovers are finally reunited, and Candide ends, as the romance archetype demands, soon after their marriage.

Thus, a cursory look at the plot of Candide seems to reveal no more than a standard, indeed by this date hackneyed, romance. It is anything but that, however. For one thing the lovers hardly live happily ever after. At the end Cunegonde is withered by age and rough handling by a succession of lovers. She is, in a word, ugly, and, rather than making the allowances that true love demands, Candide is repelled and in fact marries her only to spite her brother. Why this bitter alteration of what one is led to expect from the standard romance?

One clue lies in the work's subtitle. Voltaire is writing not simply an account of a character but also an examination of a principle—optimism. He was perhaps the most famous author of an age that has been variously labeled neoclassicism, the Age of Reason, and the Enlightenment, labels that connote a sense of well-being, exaltation of human potential, and identification with the golden age of Greece. To be sure, life was not thought to be without problems, but it seemed to be within man's grasp, especially through the faculty of reason, to confront and solve these problems.

Of course, not all eighteenth-century thinkers embraced this comparatively rosy view of life. Indeed, reason can as often lead to skepticism as to optimism, and Voltaire is one of literature's most famous and interesting skeptics. A closer look at some of the key scenes and characters of Candide reveals it to be a far darker work than a brief summary of its romance structure would seem to imply.

Voltaire focuses his attack on optimism by choosing for his principal target the great German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz's philosophy was complex and far more subtle than Voltaire acknowledges, but fair play is hardly part of Voltaire's strategy. Candide is a satire—which might be succinctly defined as corrective humor, in which the reader's laughter signals his acknowledgment of the ridiculousness of certain types of thinking and behavior—and satire works by exaggeration, by the flattening of characterization to a single quality, and by taking argument to absurd extremes.

Hence, Pangloss—"all-tongue" in Greek—who is Candide's tutor and the chief spokesman for optimism in the satire, reduces Leibniz's philosophy to a single, often repeated maxim: All is for the best in this "best of all possible worlds." To be fair, one should note that Leibniz based this conclusion on a logical formulation with which Christians, even today, would have a hard time arguing. God is all-powerful and all-loving, and logically, therefore, whatever he allows is ultimately, although we may not be able to understand why at the time, for the best. But Candide is satire, of which fairness is not an attribute.

Pangloss is not only the spokesman for Leibniz, but he also exemplifies Voltaire's argument against Leibnizian optimism. Thus, in the first chapter Pangloss gives the willing Paquette a lesson in "experimental physics," cause and effect being a cornerstone not just of science but for Leibniz, who traced all effects back to their first cause, also of God. The lesson turns out to be instruction in sexual intercourse, whose various ultimate effects include banishment from the castle for Pangloss and Candide, venereal disease, and torture.

Pangloss is such an egregious example of optimism not just because he swallows the Leibnizian line—after all, anyone can be duped—but because he refuses to recant in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. At the end he is still an enthusiastic and ridiculous spokesman for Leibniz.

Candide, on the other hand, provides an instructive contrast to Pangloss. At the beginning of the work Candide is an Adamic figure—"one on whom nature had bestowed the perfection of gentle manners"—living in an "earthly paradise." No wonder he is prepared to accept the Pangloss-Leibniz formulation that this is the best of all possible worlds. Unlike Pangloss, however, Candide learns from his experience in the world and clearly changes his mind toward Leibnizian optimism. After an old lady tells him her tale of lifelong woe, for instance, Candide concludes that, were he present, Pangloss would no doubt mouth the usual Leibnizian rationalizations. Now, Candide says, "I might feel within me the impulse to dare to raise several polite exceptions." After later seeing Jacques the Anabaptist, the one unequivocally good man in the work, not rewarded for his goodness but killed; after suffering from corrupt judges and iniquitous religious officials; and after discovering that the only happy men in the world are happy precisely because they have isolated themselves in El Dorado from the world that everyone else is forced to live in, Candide concludes that optimism is "a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell."

Is Voltaire's vision, therefore, irredeemably bleak? To the contrary, it can be argued that satire—and Candide, along with Swift's Gulliver's Travels, is one of the two or three most famous satires in all of literature—is innately optimistic in that it attacks correctable flaws in thinking and behavior. In the last chapter Candide encounters two persons who offer valuable advice on how to live life in such a way that one can at least endure it if not be blissfully happy. The first of these is a famous dervish whom Candide and his friends go to in the hope of receiving profound words of wisdom. The dervish tells them in effect to stop tantalizing themselves by hoping that philosophy will provide solutions to life's woes. Better by far to keep quiet and go on about one's business. On the way home they encounter a farmer who seems content even though he is far from wealthy. They ask what his secret is. Hard work, he replies, which saves him from the three evils of boredom, vice, and poverty. If one examines Candide scene by scene, these are the three evils that are found to lead to most of the misery in the characters' lives.

At the very end it is evident that Pangloss has learned nothing while Candide has learned valuable lessons. As the satire closes, Pangloss is still inanely spouting his Leibnizian philosophy, whereas Candide, taking his cue from the dervish, refuses to enter into the debate. Instead, having learned from the farmer the value of hard work, Candide advises, "We must cultivate our garden." Thus ends one of the most entertaining and philosophically provocative works of world literature.

—Dennis Vannatta