Candide - A Contrast to Optimism


Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire was the French author of the 
novella Candide, also known as "Optimism"(Durant and Durant 724). In 
Candide, Voltaire sought to point out the fallacy of Gottfried William 
von Leibniz's theory of optimism and the hardships brought on by the 
resulting inaction toward the evils of the world. Voltaire's use of 
satire, and its techniques of exaggeration and contrast highlight the 
evil and brutality of war and the world in general when men are meekly 
accepting of their fate. Leibniz, a German philosopher and 
mathematician of Voltaire's time, developed the idea that the world 
they were living in at that time was "the best of all possible 
worlds." This systematic optimism shown by Leibniz is the 
philosophical system that believed everything already was for the 
best, no matter how terrible it seemed. In this satire, Voltaire 
showed the world full of natural disasters and brutality. Voltaire 
also used contrast in the personalities of the characters to convey 
the message that Leibniz's philosophy should not be dealt with any 

 Leibniz, sometimes regarded as a Stoic or Fatalist because his 
philosophies were based on the idea that everything in the world
was determined by fate, theorized that God, having the ability to pick 
from an infinite number of worlds, chose this world, "the best of all 
possible worlds." Although Voltaire chose that simple quality of 
Leibniz's philosophy to satirize, Leibniz meant a little more than 
just that. Even though his philosophy stated that God chose "the best 
of all possible worlds," he also meant that God, being the perfection 
he is, chose the best world available to him, unfortunately it was a 
world containing evil. It seems as though Voltaire wanted to ridicule 
Leibniz's philosophy so much that he chose to satirize only the 
literal meaning and fatal acceptance of evil of Leibniz's philosophy.

 To get his point across in Candide, Voltaire created the 
character Dr. Pangloss, an unconditional follower of Leibniz's
philosophy. Voltaire shows this early in the novella by stating, "He 
proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause and that, in 
this best of all possible worlds....(16)" Pangloss goes on to say that 
everything had its purpose and things were made for the best. For 
example, the nose was created for the purpose of wearing spectacles 
(Voltaire 16). Because of his "great knowledge," Candide, at this 
point a very naive and impressionable youth, regards Pangloss as the 
greatest philosopher in the world, a reverence that will soon be 
contradicted by contact with reality (Frautschi 75). The name Pangloss 
is translated as "all tongue" and "windbag." The colloquialism 
"windbag" implies that a person is all talk, and he takes no action. 
In this case, Leibniz's philosophy is Stoic acceptance of the evil of 
the world. As the story progresses, though, Pangloss loses faith in 
the Leibnizian philosophy. Although Pangloss suffered many hardships, 
he still sticks to the philosophy to avoid contradicting himself 
(Frautschi 69). Voltaire uses Pangloss and a contrasting character, 
Martin, to point out the shortcomings in Leibniz's philosophy.

 A contrast to the views of Pangloss is the character Martin. 
Martin, a pessimist, is a friend and advisor to Candide whom he meets 
on his journey. Martin continuously tries to prove to Candide that 
there is little virtue, morality, and happiness in the world. When a 
cheerful couple is seen walking and singing, Candide tells Martin, "At 
least you must admit that these people are happy (80)." Martin answers 
Candide's comment with the reply, "I wager they are not (80)." Martin 
suggests that Candide invite the couple to dine at his hotel. As the 
young girl, now found to be Paquette, tells her story, Martin takes 
pleasure in knowing he has won the wager.

 Another contrast to this "best of all possible worlds" is 
Eldorado. Voltaire describes Eldorado as an extremely peaceful and
serene country. Eldorado, a place that is "impossible" to find, has no 
laws, jails, war, or need for material goods. Voltaire uses Eldorado 
as an epitome of the "best of all possible worlds." It contrasts the 
real outside world in which war and suffering are everyday 

 Another example of how Voltaire ridicules Pangloss' optimistic 
philosophy is the mention of the Lisbon earthquake and fire. Even 
though the disastrous earthquake took over 30,000 lives, Pangloss 
still upheld his philosophical optimism by stating, "For all this is 
for the very best...For it is impossible that things should not be 
where they are.(26)" The disaster in Lisbon affected Voltaire's life 
so much that he wrote the Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, but Pangloss' 
philosophy said that the Lisbon earthquake was necessary in the course 
of nature, and there was definitely a rationale for the situation.

 War is another evil which Voltaire satirizes in Candide. 
Voltaire used the Bulgarians and their brutality as a basis for his 
satire on war. Voltaire writes how Candide was captured by the 
Bulgarians and is given a choice "to be beaten thirty-six times by the
whole regiment, or receive twelve lead bullets at once in his brain 
(19)." Being the "hero" he is, Candide chooses to run the gauntlet. 
Instead of the thirty-six times he was to run the gauntlet, our "hero" 
made it only two until he pleaded to the Bulgarians to smash in his 
head (19). Another satire of war included in Candide is the 
Bulgarians' burning of the Abarian village "in accordance with the 
rules of international law.(20)" Voltaire also shows his satire on war 
in that the Bulgarian soldiers do not just kill other people, they 
rape disembowel, and dismember innocent women and children. In fact, 
Candide's training as a soldier involved being brutalized and beaten. 
Voltaire uses this example to demonstrate the inhuman vulgarity of 
many belligerent groups. He thought that this torture was cruel and 
unjustified. If this were the "best of all possible worlds," innocent
people would not be harmed, and violent peoples such as the Bulgarians 
would not exist.

 Upon arrival in England, Candide witnesses another instance of 
brutality, the execution of an admiral because of his failure to
win a battle(Voltaire 78). A reply to Candide's questioning of the act 
is, " is a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time
to encourage the others (78-79)." This is an obvious allusion to an 
incident Voltaire himself witnessed. Admiral Byng of England was 
court-martialed for the same outrageous reason, and although Voltaire 
tried to stop the execution, Byng was still killed (Durant and Durant 

 Although the novella Candide was partially written for 
entertainment purposes, it was written primarily to satirize the views 
of Leibniz's philosophy. Voltaire looked at the world with the idea 
that there could be something done about all of the evil in the world. 
He achieved his goal of satirizing Leibniz by tearing apart Pangloss' 
philosophy, using Martin as a contrast to Pangloss, showing the 
destruction caused by natural disasters, and the brutality of war. 

Works Cited

Durant, Will, Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: Part IX: The 
Age of Voltaire. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.

Frautschi, R.L. Barron's Simplified Approach to Voltaire: Candide. New 
York: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1968.

Voltaire. Candide. In Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories. Trans. 
Donald Frame, New York: Penguin Group, 1961.


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