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, an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, killed between thirty and forty thousand people. This catastrophe provided Voltaire with a perfect springboard for his skepticism about the basic goodness of the world. “If Pope had been at Lisbon,” he wrote, “would he have dared to say All is well?” His fellow Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau responded that human beings, not God, are to blame for evil, including earthquakes: Human beings bring misfortune upon themselves by congregating in cities instead of living naturally in the country.
Voltaire continues the debate in Candide, where he creates a young, impressionable protagonist and sets him upon an incredible string of adventures, many of which he drew from real life. Historical events include the Lisbon earthquake and subsequent auto-da-fé, the political chaos of Morocco, and the execution of an admiral (Voltaire had tried to intercede in just such a situation). Like such other wandering heroes as Gulliver and Huckleberry Finn, Candide is naïve. For a time, like a schoolboy, he reacts to such events as torture, war, and catastrophe by recalling the favorite sayings of his tutor, Pangloss, among them “Every effect has a cause” and “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” As horror piles on horror, however, his doubts increase. Pangloss reappears periodically to soothe his pupil with further examples of illogical logic, but harsh experience begins to have its effect.
Candide’s visit to Eldorado, the famed lost city of the New World, is a high-water mark. Here all is placid and serene. People live in absolute harmony. Suffering and poverty are unknown. There is no greed, and the natives smile at Candide’s interest in the gold and jewels that lie on the ground as “clay and pebbles.” Eldorado is utopia. Because of his desire to regain his lost love, Cunegonde, Candide leaves Eldorado; having however seen a truly harmonious world, he can no longer accept cruelty, catastrophe, and suffering as necessary ingredients for a universal good.
In the final chapter, Candide and his little band, including Pangloss, his more recent friend, the pessimistic Martin, and Cunegonde, who has now grown old and ugly, settle on a small farm “till the company should meet with a more favorable destiny.” There they become almost as distressed by boredom as previously they had been by disaster until two neighbors bring enlightenment to them. A dervish, questioned about the existence of evil, responds, “What signifies it whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt does he trouble his head whether the rats in the vessel are at their ease or not?” This echo of a metaphor that Voltaire had contrived as early as 1736 briefly asserts the notion that the world may in the view of the “divine architect” be excellent indeed, but it is not designed for human beings, the “mice” in the hold. The second neighbor, a contented old farmer, advises Candide’s group of the value of labor, which “keeps off from us three great evils—idleness, vice, and want.” For once, those philosophical opposites, Pangloss and Martin, agree; the little community settles down to work in earnest, each member doing his part with good will and deriving satisfaction therefrom.
Candide, although it is an attack on philosophical optimism, is not a pessimistic work. Its ending, with the hero remarking that “we must cultivate our garden,” reminds the reader of the words of another realistic but hopeful man, Anton Chekhov, who was to observe more than a century later, “If everyone in the world did all he was capable of on his own plot of land, what a beautiful world it would be!”