Candide, Voltaire’s tour de force, surpasses most other famous satires. Like Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), it takes a swipe at the pretentiousness of the upper classes; like George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), it undercuts political systems; like Jonathan Swift’s ambitious Gulliver’s Travels (1726), it sheds sharp light on the grossness, cupidity, and stupidity of human beings, as well as on their crude and frequently cruel institutions. Voltaire’s satire goes beyond human beings and their society, however, to examine the entire world in which they find themselves. Its thesis is contrived in explicit response to the Leibnitzian optimism that this is “the best of all possible worlds.”
The existence of evil in the world has been a problem for human beings ever since they began to speculate about the nature of things. It is treated in the literature of the West at least as early as the book of Genesis, which attributes evil to human beings’ disobedient nature. St. Augustine and, later, John Milton enlarged on this theory, claiming that God limited his own interference in the world when he created people “sufficient to stand though free to fall.” The book of Job in the Bible centers more specifically on the problem of suffering. Its answer is essentially no answer, a restriction to an overwhelming (some have said obscene) demonstration of God’s power, which humbles Job into acceptance. A third century Persian philosopher, Mani, devised the theory that Earth is a field of dispute between two nearly matched powers—one of light, one of darkness—with human beings caught in the middle.
Most later explanations appear to be variations on these three approaches. The seventeenth century Frenchman Blaise Pascal believed, like the author of Job, that human vision cannot perceive the justice in God’s overall plan. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz developed this explanation further. In his Theodicée, published in 1710, he described a harmonious universe in which all events are linked into a chain of cause and effect, and in which apparent evil is compensated by some greater good that may not be evident to the limited human mind. The English poet Pope expressed similar views.
In his early life, Voltaire was generally optimistic. Beginning in 1752, however, his writings evidence growing pessimism. On November 1, 1755,...
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