How does Voltaire's Candide exemplify the ideas of the Enlightenment?
While Voltaire had many of the philosophical credentials of his fellow Enlightenment philosophers—namely, a belief in the power of reason, the importance of independent thought, and the rejection of religion as the sole bearer of truth—his perspective was somewhat less rosy. In Candide, Voltaire fleshes out his unique, and somewhat more pessimistic, perspective on human nature through the use of cutting satire.
Optimism was central to Enlightenment thinking, as philosophers believed that happiness could be achieved through human thought and action. In other words, the goal of life was not to achieve happiness on another plane but rather to achieve happiness in the present. Voltaire's Candide undermines that idea entirely though the satirical character of Pangloss, the optimistic philosopher.
Many Enlightenment thinkers believed that society should be governed by the "general will" of the people, usually through direct democracy. In Candide, Voltaire creates characters who are generally untrustworthy and often cruel, as readers can see in the way Cunegonde is treated. If people act like this, Voltaire intimates, perhaps they shouldn't be trusted to govern themselves. This pessimism about human nature goes against the belief of fellow Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that humans are inherently good.
Even so, Voltaire also satirizes a wholly pessimistic view of humankind through the character of Martin. While Martin seems to exemplify Voltaire's dark view of human nature, in reality, Martin's failure to learn and change based on his personal experience—a tenet of Enlightenment thought—proves that pessimism, like optimism, is worthless if it's not tempered by its opposite.
Voltaire demonstrates this through the character of Candide. While he initially is taken in by Pangloss's optimistic philosophy and finds common ground with Martin in his pessimism, Candide eventually moves past both into a more nuanced middle ground. In other words, Candide is the truest example of an Enlightenment figure—he learns from experience, rejects false authority, and comes to the conclusion "that we must cultivate our garden," relying on ourselves to find peace, not on systems of philosophy or religion.
Voltaire's Candide is an all-out attack on dogmatic beliefs, a frequent target of the philosophes' scorn. Pangloss's commitment to the belief, propagated by Leibniz, that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, is not just clearly in tension with the litany of misadventures suffered by Candide. It offers an excuse to overlook, and thus not to act to remedy, the terrible suffering experienced by many people. For example, when Jacques the Anabaptist is pitched overboard, Pangloss forbids Candide from jumping in after him, on the grounds that it is for the best:
He was just going to jump after him, but was prevented by the philosopher Pangloss, who demonstrated to him that the Bay of Lisbon had been made on purpose for the Anabaptist to be drowned.
Other characters, like Martin, demonstrate the folly of complete pessimism, which has the same effect as unfounded optimism.
Voltaire satirizes other institutions, as well. Candide is amazed, for example, that the people of Eldorado have no "monks who teach, argue, rule, plot, and burn people who don't agree with them." Voltaire, more than even most other philosophes, believed in relative freedom of conscience, and reserved special antipathy for the intolerance of the Catholic Church. He also satirizes superstition, as displayed by the decision of the people of Lisbon to engage in brutal executions in order to avert future earthquakes. All of these are themes common to many (but not all) Enlightenment thinkers. Candide stands as a gem of Enlightenment literature in that it subjects a number of assumptions, institutions, and closely held beliefs to criticism.
In Candide, Voltaire pokes fun at the optimism of the Enlightenment, the general belief that rational thought can rule the world, and the specific philosophy of Leibniz. Throughout his journeys around the world, Candide witnesses and experiences all of the horrors you can possibly imagine. His tutor Pangloss, a caricature of Leibniz, clings blindly to his optimistic philosophy—that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Regardless of what he sees or what happens to him personally, Pangloss repeats his mantra and explains to Candide how the tragic events prove his theory. For example, when James the Anabaptist drowns when trying to save the life of a more villainous man, Pangloss said the body of water in which he drowned was there so that he would drown. It could be no other way. The reader sees how absurd his logic is, as it is clearly unjust that James dies and the other man lives. Ultimately, Candide's faith in Pangloss's theory wanes, and he eventually wants to simply tend his garden in peace. He adapts the idea that keeping busy is the key to whatever measure of "happiness" is available in human life. The novel as a whole shows the impossibility of Leibniz's theory of optimism.