Candide Essays and Criticism
by Voltaire

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Voltaire's Satirization of Optimism and Pessimism

(Novels for Students)

Candide is a dazzling display of ridiculously brutal situations that dramatize the many evils of human experience. Voltaire speeds the reader through multiple episodes of extreme cruelty that prove both horrible and vibrantly comic. Nothing seems to escape his satiric treatment, and one is tempted to say that Voltaire's only purpose in the work is to condemn. A closer reading, however, reveals the limitations of this perception. Voltaire's criticisms are tempered by both comic exaggeration and a strong moral sense that wishes to expose wrongs in order to alleviate them. The key targets of Voltaire's satire are totalizing perceptions of the world, whether extreme optimism or extreme pessimism, both of which offer excuses for indifference to human suffering. Voltaire explores this subject through Candide's many misadventures; indeed, understanding Candide's haphazard growth is necessary for understanding the development of the story, which often seems patternless. But one cannot understand Candide without also understanding those around him and the roles that they play in the story. Through his characters' experiences, relationships, and final solution to their many troubles, Voltaire shatters the tenets of "rationally" optimistic and deadeningly pessimistic philosophies, replacing them with a vision, albeit tentative, of practical, communal work.

From the first chapter, Voltaire portrays systematized optimistic philosophies as totally divorced from lived reality. Voltaire's main proponent of this belief system, Doctor Pangloss, is a follower of Gottfried Leibnitz, who attempted to use logic to explain the existence of evil. Leibnitz asserted that laws of "sufficient reason," such as unalterable mathematical relationships, restrain even God's ability to create a perfect universe. Thus, while the world contains evil, it is still the "best of all possible worlds," one of the book's most memorable satiric refrains. Pangloss upholds such beliefs to the point of absurdity, justifying all events through cause-and-effect relationships. For instance, he contends that "things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: our noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles." His "lessons" are rife with such tortured logic, making him the epitome of a learned fool. Voltaire proceeds to bludgeon Pangloss's reductive, self-serving ideals by opposing them with constant examples of human cruelty and natural disasters that apparently defy all explanation, particularly Pangloss's.

Yet Voltaire does not characterize Pangloss's beliefs as simply foolish. They are dangerous. They allow people to justify any inhumanity and prevent them from actively helping to alleviate the suffering of others. If, for instance, one can relate another's miseries to preceding causes, no matter how slight, then one need not act on that person's behalf or even feel sympathy. Voltaire demonstrates the pernicious effects of Pangloss's beliefs in multiple episodes, but none more so than in his response to Jacques the Anabaptist's death. When Jacques is thrown overboard during a storm, Pangloss prevents Candide from trying to save him by "proving that the bay of Lisbon had been formed expressly for this Anabaptist to drown in." Instead of reacting with compassion, like Candide, or even explaining that Candide will only die in the futile attempt to retrieve his friend, Pangloss resorts to a bold-faced absurdity that excuses his passivity and callousness. Because he can construct the flimsiest of "rational" explanations for this tragedy, he can save his own skin and absolve himself of any culpability in Jacques' death. By presenting many such moments, Voltaire makes the philosophical vindication of rampant injustice and destruction into a caustic joke of seemingly cosmic proportions.

As he does with Pangloss, throughout the book Voltaire employs vivid secondary characters who serve...

(The entire section is 5,680 words.)