Human Condition The grand theme of the novel is the human condition. Candide wonders, what is the best way to approach life? In the story, Candide has been educated in the system of optimism. It is all he knows, but if Candide had been a flat enough character to accept optimism, the book would be without hope. Instead, Candide doubts the philosophy of optimism and eventually rejects it.
The quest of Candide centers on whether the doctrine of optimism taught by Dr. Pangloss is true. If it is, optimism must be reconciled with what Candide experiences. The reconciliation is not possible without some absurd postulations. For example, Pangloss says that syphilis "is an indispensable el-ement in the best of worlds, a necessary ingredient, because if Columbus, on an American island, hadn't caught that disease which poisons the source of generations ….. which often prevents generation ... the great goal of nature, we would now have neither chocolate nor cochineal." (Cochineal is a dye made from squishing millions of bodies of a certain insect native to Central and South America. The dye was used, most notoriously, to make the British Army uniforms scarlet red.) The example also shows how the attempt of a philosophical system to explain every single phenomenon leads to ridiculous connections.
Candide doesn't find such incidental and simple explanations for everyday occurrences as interesting or as valid as his big question, "Do you believe that men have always slaughtered each other as they do today, that they've always been liars ….. hypocritical and foolish?" To which Martin replies that that is the nature of the human animal. But the point is made that humans have free will, and the discussion moves beyond the realm of optimism. Candide eventually defines optimism as, "a mania for insisting that everything is all right when everything is going wrong."
The only possible defense of optimism is Candide's luck, which is regularly recited as evidence of that philosophy. For example, "if I hadn't been lucky enough to thrust my sword through the body of Lady Cunégonde's brother, I'd surely have been eaten ….. instead ….. these people showered me with polite kindness as soon as they found out I wasn't a Jesuit." Still, Candide realizes there is no perfection in the world. He realizes this at the end when he finally has everyone he has been looking for together on a farm. By then, his search appears to be in vain.
Religion The old man in Eldorado expresses the most positive view of religion. The people of Eldorado, who always agree with each other, are all priests who don't pray for anything. Instead, "we constantly thank him." The old man's presentation stands opposite to Candide's experience of religion: "You have no monks who teach, argue, rule, plot, and burn people who don't agree with them?" The old man replies, "we'd be mad if we did." Both in the story, and for Voltaire religion is something between a man and God—not something that lends itself to power dynamics, priests, churches, and inquisitions.
Happiness Martin and Candide play a game as part of their debate over optimism. They place bets on whether passersby are happy. Candide always bets that they are, and he always loses. Whenever it appears, happiness is unmasked (usually by Martin) as a cover for anger, grief, and discontent. Happiness, it seems, is the method one uses to get through another day of miserable living.
War The art of war is not a noble art in the novel. Instead, it is a barbaric system governed by its own rules and using its...
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own reason.Candide's experience of war is as a conscripted soldier. That is, he is arrested and forced to fight. War is revealed as a complete waste of resources. One element of war that is constantly evoked is the idea of acting in "accordance with international law." This is an idea we hear a good deal about today. For Voltaire, through Candide this meant that soldiers had the right to rape every woman, plunder and pilfer every village. "International law" is the excuse for conducting war. The end of war is always the same, as "the ground was strewn with brains and severed arms and legs."