Critically discuss the significance of Optimism in Candide.

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Candide (1759), or Optimism, is a French satire written by Voltaire (1694 – 1778), a philosopher of the Enlightenment. Candide quickly became a bestseller of the European book trade in the eighteenth century; at least 20,000 copies of the book were sold within a month of its publication and, consequently, has become one of the key texts of the Enlightenment (Pearson 2008). In this essay, therefore, I will discuss Candide and its impact on the Age of the Enlightenment. In particular, I am going to critically discuss the significance of optimism in Candide, a major recurring theme in the novel that Voltaire attacks.

Before we discuss Candide, we must first understand what the Enlightenment was. In short, the Enlightenment was an intellectual movement beginning in the late 17th century and continuing into the 18th century, which emphasised reason and individualism instead of tradition. It is also commonly known as the ‘Age of Reason’, although some say this is misleading (Porter 2001). In 1784, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) wrote an essay entitled Was Ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?), in which he stated that the Enlightenment was mankind’s coming of age, it was the liberation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error (Porter 2001).

As previously noted, Candide was an instant best-seller and for many readers of the time it was their first introduction to the Enlightenment (Stewart 2009). Candide was originally published anonymously under the abbendum ‘Translated from the German of Dr Ralph’, Voltaire pretended to know nothing about the novel. In fact, ‘Voltaire’ itself is a pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet. David Worcester notes that Candide is the subtlest and the most intellectual form of satire, a thin line that divides literature from propaganda (Worcester 1940). Voltaire attacks a lot of ideas in Candide, from politics to religion; however, his fundamental criticism is that of optimism. Moreover, it is important to note that the subtitle to Candide is in fact Optimism. This suggests that whilst Voltaire does attack a lot of ideas in the satirical novel, he wants his readers to remember that his primary focus is to condemn the notion of optimism.

To reiterate, optimism is a major recurring theme in Candide. However, the optimism in Candide is not the typical “looking-on-the-bright-side approach of life” (Williams 1997: p. 12) attitude, but instead the novel refers to a philosophical system. In particular, the assumption by many is that Candide was written to disprove the philosophy of optimism proposed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716) (Wade 1959), a Christian philosopher particularly concerned with the Problem of Evil. The philosophical optimism of Leibniz holds that our world is the best of all possible worlds (Strickland 2010). In other words, the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent theistic God had an infinite number of possible worlds to choose from. Yet, He selected this world which suggests that evil is a valuable asset and that the free will of humans is a great benefit to the world. This Leibnizian optimism is famously mocked by Voltaire in Candide, who wanted to destroy the credibility of optimism as a way of thinking. Voltaire wrote to a friend in 1756 and stated that “Optimism is dismaying. It is a cruel philosophy under a consoling name” (Stewart 2009: p. 132). Moreover, in Candide, Candide states that optimism is “a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.” (Voltaire 2008: p. 48).

In the novel, Pangloss is one of the characters in Candide and he is a philosopher and Candide’s tutor. Pangloss is a follower of Leibniz and represents his theory of optimism. Pangloss believes in the principle of sufficient reason, the notion that everything that happens must have a reason, a cause, or a ground. Importantly, Pangloss’s belief in the principle of sufficient reason implies determinism, the idea that everything that occurs is pre-determined. Indeed, “[Pangloss] could prove wonderfully that there is no effect without a cause and that, in this best of all possible worlds…” (Voltaire 2008: p. 4) – this optimistic attitude, that this is the “best of all possible worlds”, is the main target of Voltaire’s satire. Despite experiencing a series of misfortunes, Pangloss continually asserts several times throughout Candide that ‘all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’, which has become a well-known Panglossian slogan. Consequently, this slogan has echoed long-running and complex debates between philosophers relating to the problem of evil (Williams 1997). “I am a philosopher after all. It wouldn’t do for me to go back on what I said before, what with Leibniz not being able to be wrong, and pre-established harmony being the finest thing in the world, not to mention the plenum and materia subtilis.” (Voltaire 2008: p. 83). This attitude of Pangloss has a significant influence on Candide.

Candide is the protagonist of the novel: he is a good-hearted but naïve character who persists in the optimism that Pangloss preaches – “Martin said to him: ‘You really are rather simple…’” (Voltaire 2008: p. 66). His undiluted optimism is continually tested throughout the novel as he is banished from his childhood home and faces a wrath of misfortunes on his travels. Throughout the novel, Candide questions his belief in optimism due to the unfortunate events he endures. However, his faith in optimism can be seen to be continuously re-established when he experiences an event that pleases him. By way of illustration, when he encounters the kindness of the old woman in Chapter 7 or the death of Vanderdendur in Chapter 20, a merchant who stole from Candide. Candide understands that the death of Vanderdendur is a sign that retributive justice is at work in the world. Moreover, one may argue that his following of Cunégonde, the woman he loves, is perhaps one of the reasons why his optimism is unwavering – “The only sure thing is virtue and the happiness of seeing Miss Cunégonde again.” (Voltaire 2008: p. 47). Yet, at the end of novel, Candide ultimately rejects Pangloss’s Leibnizian optimism and embraces the practical labour that is introduced to him by the old farmer in Chapter 29 – “‘O Pangloss!’ cried Candide, ‘this is one abomination you never thought of. That does it. I shall finally have to renounce your Optimism.’” (Voltaire 2008: p. 48).

Martin, another character in Candide, is arguably the opposite of Pangloss. Martin is a cynical scholar whom Candide befriends on his travels. He is the embodiment of pessimism in the novel – pessimism being the view of human nature, the view of the human condition, or the view of the world as a whole as being very bad indeed. The notion of pessimism is sometimes, however rarely, used specifically to state that this is the worst of all possible worlds (Mautner 2005). Martin expresses his pessimism throughout Candide by continually asserting that everything is bad, even when things seem to be getting better. Martin argues that the evidence shows that one can draw the conclusion that a benevolent God simply cannot exist – “…when I look about me on this globe, or rather this globule, I begin to think God has abandoned it to some malign being.” (Voltaire 2008: p. 52). Debatably, Voltaire wrote the character of Martin to illustrate the contrast between optimism and pessimism. One example of Martin’s pessimism in Candide is his response to Candide’s question of why the world was created, in which Martin’s reply was “To drive us mad” (Voltaire 2008: p. 55). Additionally, another example of Martin’s pessimistic attitude is when Voltaire writes “Martin kept on proving to [Candide] that there was little virtue and little happiness in this world.” (Voltaire 2008: p. 67). Indeed, the character of Martin may in fact reflect Voltaire’s own view in that Voltaire was first labelled as a pessimist due to his critique on Alexander Pope’s (1688 – 1744) poem An Essay on Man (1734) (Stewart 2009).

Another reason why Voltaire was labelled a pessimist was due to his poem Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (1756), which he composed as a response to the earthquake and tidal wave that struck Lisbon in 1755. This poem, arguably, was a savage literary attack on optimism. In addition, Voltaire’s poem on the Lisbon earthquake was subtitled “or examination of the axiom that all is well” (Stewart 2009: p. 126), which is a clear foreshadowing of the way Voltaire treats optimism in Candide. Voltaire was particularly adamant that no moral explanations could justify or explain the amount of human suffering that was endured due to the Lisbon earthquake. To suggest that there was a correlation between the suffering endured and the sins that the victims may have committed, is an offence to human reason and suffering according to Voltaire (Stewart 2009). The fictional role of the Portuguese Inquisition in Chapter 6 of Candide, where Pangloss is hanged, can be argued to be related to the assumption of people at the time that the Lisbon earthquake was a direct punishment for the sins committed by human beings. In the preface to the poem on the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire writes that “the expression that All is well, taken in an absolute sense and without future hope, is but an insult to our life’s suffering” (Stewart 2009: p. 126).

In addition, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) – a Francophone Genevan philosopher whose political philosophy influenced the Age of Enlightenment – wrote a letter to Voltaire in 1756, responding to his attack on Leibnitz, Pope and his poem on the Lisbon earthquake. He states: “It might be said that you fear I don’t feel my unhappiness enough, and that you are trying to soothe me by proving that all is bad.” (Rousseau 1967: p. 37). Perhaps, from the letter, Rousseau not only considered Voltaire’s poem on the Lisbon earthquake a personal attack on him, but also believed that the poem had a lack of understanding and distorted God’s prevalent actions. In the letter, while Rousseau understands that the existence of a benevolent deity cannot be proven, his belief in a theistic God will not waver, no matter how much Voltaire attacks the concept – “I sense it, I believe it, I wish it, I hope for it, I will uphold it until my last gasp” (Rousseau 1967: p. 50). Whilst Voltaire never responded to this letter from Rousseau directly, it may be that his response came in the form of Candide a few years later. Although, most scholars have doubted that Voltaire had specifically Rousseau in mind when writing the novel (Stewart 2009).

Moving forward, the city of Eldorado in Chapter’s 17 and 18 of Candide can be described as a utopia. For instance, Candide states that “If our friend Pangloss had seen Eldorado, he would no longer have said that the castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh was the best place on earth.” (Voltaire 2008: p. 44). Particularly, Eldorado is Voltaire’s utopia where there is no organised religion or religious persecution. Voltaire himself was a deist and not an atheist, but as he grew older he found it more and more difficult to subscribe to the concept of a benevolent deity. In the novel, when the old man of Eldorado was prompted with the question “You mean you don’t have any monks to teach and dispute and govern and intrigue and burn people to death who don’t agree with them?” he replied, “We’d be mad to…We’re all of like mind here, and we can’t see the point of your monks.” (Voltaire 2008: p. 44). It can be seen that the city of Eldorado promotes religious toleration, a key element in the Age of Enlightenment. However, despite the fact that Eldorado is portrayed as a utopian society, Candide and Cacambo still choose to leave – “…the two happy men resolved to be happy no longer…” (Voltaire 2008: p. 46). Arguably, this may mean that nothing can be perfect, a perfect place cannot exist. While not an optimist himself, Voltaire believed in progress, which is not only the idea that the advances of science and technology can improve the human condition, but it also refers to spiritual and moral progress – a concept that emerged in the Enlightenment period (Honderich 1995). Therefore, one may argue that when Candide chooses to leave Eldorado, it is Voltaire’s way of expressing that while Eldorado seems a perfect place, it is severely lacking in progress.

Moving forward, whilst Candide, Cunégonde, Pangloss, Cacambo, Martin and the old woman are finally all together in Chapter 30 (the concluding chapter), in which they thought that they “would be leading the most agreeable of all possible lives” (Voltaire 2008: p. 85) – they are all deeply unhappy as their dreams and desires for life had been thwarted. For example, Candide was finally able to marry Cunégonde, but it turned out she “grew uglier with every day that passed” (Voltaire 2008: p. 85) Moreover, Pangloss was “in despair” (Voltaire 2008: p. 85) because he was not teaching at some German university. It should be noted that Martin “was firmly persuaded that one is just as badly off wherever one is” (Voltaire 2008: p. 85), he simply dealt with whatever was handed to him, reaffirming his pessimistic attitude. It may be argued that through the outcomes of the characters, Voltaire is making the point that experiences of misfortunes are not unique, but are in fact a necessary part of human nature. Arguably, the overall message in the conclusion of Candide is that we must make the best of what we have. This can be understood from Candide’s final words when he states that “…we must cultivate our garden” (Voltaire 2008: p. 88). In other words, this could be interpreted as the only way to find happiness is to deal with the cards we are given, to make the most out of the experiences presented to us, or to ‘tend our garden’ so to speak.

In conclusion, one may find themselves asking the question of how exactly Voltaire’s Candide and its attack on optimism impacted the Enlightenment. In short, Candide relates to the crucial principle of critical reasoning – a central theme in the Enlightenment period – and the reason perhaps why the novel was so successful. Moreover, Candide indirectly embodies two of Voltaire’s most cherished moral themes. Firstly, simply do not inflict pain and suffering on others and, secondly, the notion of  toleration (Stewart 2009) – another key element of the Enlightenment. Ultimately, Candide teaches, however does not preach, that nobody owns the truth. While Voltaire does attack other ideas in Candide, the significance of optimism is apparent. Voltaire asserts that to be an optimist is a fundamental attempt to deny the sordid details of human life, as can be understood from reading the satirical novel. Finally, Voltaire condemns the philosophical optimism proposed by Leibniz and instead teaches that the notion of progress is far more sufficient.

Reference List


Pearson, Roger. (2008). ‘Introduction’. In Candide and Other Stories, edited by Roger

Pearson, pp. vii – xliii. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.


Porter, Roy. (2001). The Enlightenment. 2nd Edition. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1967) [1756]. ‘Rousseau to Voltaire, 18 August 1756’. In

Correspondence Complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, Vol. 4, edited by J. A. Leigh,

translated by R. Spang, pp. 37 – 50. Geneva.


Stewart, Philip. (2009). ‘Candide’. In The Cambridge Companion to Voltaire, edited by

Nicholas Cronk, pp. 125 – 138. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.


Strickland, Lloyd. (2010). ‘False Optimism? Leibniz, Evil, and the Best of All Possible

Worlds’. Forum Philosophicum: International Journal for Philosophy vol. 15, issue 1: pp. 17 – 35.


Voltaire. (2008) [1759]. ‘Candide or Optimism’. In Candide and Other Stories, edited and

         translated by Roger Pearson, pp. 3 – 88. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.


Wade, Ira O. (1959). Voltaire and Candide: A Study in the Fusion of History, Art, and

         Philosophy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


Williams, David. (1997). Voltaire Candide: Critical Guides to French Texts. London: Grant

& Cutler Ltd.


Worcester, David. (1940). The Art of Satire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.



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