Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3621
Very early in his life, Voltaire gained a reputation as the outstanding poet and playwright of his time. Yet although his poetry and plays earned for him fame and considerable sums of money, most are now seldom read or performed. Henriade , his one serious epic poem, is considered heavy...
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- Critical Essays
Very early in his life, Voltaire gained a reputation as the outstanding poet and playwright of his time. Yet although his poetry and plays earned for him fame and considerable sums of money, most are now seldom read or performed. Henriade, his one serious epic poem, is considered heavy reading. Some of Voltaire’s poetry, however—especially pieces such as Le Mondain (1736; The Man of the World, 1764) and Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake—has survived the test of time. His best poetry presents his philosophical ideas in the critical, often satirical, and epigrammatic style that is so characteristic of almost all of his writing. The Man of the World and Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake were vehicles for Voltaire’s ideas—ideas that summarized the principal intellectual currents of the eighteenth century, the age of the Enlightenment.
Voltaire held firmly to the idea that reason, human intelligence, was the cure for all ills. He employed reason as a weapon in his attack against the social and political abuses of the old regime, as well as its religious intolerance. In The Man of the World, he stressed the importance of economic progress and the right of individuals to enjoy the luxuries and pleasures that modern society had begun to produce. In Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, written just after the terrible earthquake (1755) in Lisbon, Portugal, which killed some thirty thousand people, Voltaire questioned the philosophical optimism of the famous German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the English poet and essayist Alexander Pope. He soundly rejected the notion that “all is well” here on earth and that one should accept Divine benevolence as an explanation for all that befalls humans.
Voltaire’s concern for the individual’s place on earth, the role that humans play in making their own history, was also apparent in the approach that he took in writing The Age of Louis XIV and The General History and State of Europe. In both these works, Voltaire broke new ground in the serious writing of social history. He very carefully documented his many volumes, often using unedited texts or securing eyewitness accounts. Even today, his The Age of Louis XIV is considered an interesting history of the French king.
From one of Voltaire’s earlier works, Letters Concerning the English Nation, to one of his later works, the Philosophical Dictionary, he continued to define and spread far and wide his ideas on liberty, politics, religion, and literature. His Letters Concerning the English Nation, the principal literary result of Voltaire’s three-year stay in England, had a profound influence when first published on the Continent. “The first bomb launched against the old regime” is the way the well-known French literary historian Gustave Lanson summarized the impact that piece had on France. In much the same style as that of a modern journalist, Voltaire presented ideas and information on English society in clear, direct, and often cutting prose. Readers of his day had little difficulty in understanding that Voltaire was drawing direct comparisons—always to the detriment of the old regime—between the societies of England and France.
While living in England, he wrote especially on the religious and political liberties enjoyed by English citizens. In short “letters,” published in his book Letters Concerning the English Nation, he described the many religious sects (Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Unitarians, for example) that tolerated one another and avoided religious persecution. In another letter, this one on the English Parliament, Voltaire underscored the limitations that English government placed on its monarchy; the same restrictions on kings did not exist on the Continent, and Voltaire made a point to highlight the differences in the two political systems. The last letter of the volume, and also the most controversial of its time, was an attack on the religious pessimism of the Jansenist writer Blaise Pascal. Voltaire, concerned with worldly pleasures, refused to accept Pascal’s position that humans were fundamentally mean and condemned to be unhappy while on earth.
These themes are continued and elaborated upon in the Philosophical Dictionary. Short, caustic, satirical entries titled “tolerance,” “torture,” and “tyranny” in the Philosophical Dictionary are typical in style and content of so much of Voltaire’s writings. In these pieces, Voltaire denounces the folly of humanity’s intolerance, the despotism of unlimited political powers, and the excesses of religious fervor. The image that finally emerges in these works is that of a mature and measured writer, a writer who has completely mastered his craft. Also appearing in these works is the definition most widely applied to the term “humanist.” Voltaire, perhaps more than any other modern Western writer, defined and summarized European humanism and human emergence from the age of despotic religious and political authority. His impious expression Écraser l’infâme (to crush the infamous) became one of the slogans of the eighteenth century. It was not so much directed against religion or even the Church of Rome as against those people (enemies of Voltaire) who used religion to justify literary censorship and their own misuse of authority.
The themes of social justice, religious tolerance, and the acceptance of the relative nature of an imperfect world were the central subjects of Voltaire’s philosophical tales. Even though he expressed disdain for novels or short stories as a genre, it is these works that are most often read today. Beginning with Zadig, he finished some twenty-five philosophical tales. As with all of his tales, Zadig was meant to be entertaining without any regard for verisimilitude or the likelihood that so many adventures, or misadventures, could really befall his heroes and heroines. Voltaire never missed the chance to impart a message or to use literary entertainment as a means of propaganda. Zadig, the hero of the tale, tries in vain to understand rationally why some humans are happy and others are not. In the end, having become ruler of oriental Babylon, he opts to reign wisely in his own kingdom in order to establish peace for his subjects. Zadig (unlike the French monarchy) became the enlightened sovereign, giving his people abundance and glory.
The tale Micromegas was written while Voltaire was at the château of Cirey with Mme du Châtelet, and her scientific influence on Voltaire was evident. Micromegas, an intergalactic traveler, has more than one brush with the principal scientific theories of the age. Voltaire took the opportunity to ridicule the prestigious French Academy of Sciences for still adhering to Cartesian astronomy (named after René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician) and ignoring the explanations posited by Sir Isaac Newton (the English scientist, mathematician, and philosopher). Ridicule and exaggeration were at once part of Voltaire’s style and philosophical message. Exaggeration in Micromegas took the form of actual physical size: While visiting different planets of the universe, Micromegas is alternately viewed as a giant and a lilliputian. Voltaire meant to underscore the importance of maintaining an open mind and of avoiding a slavish devotion to one’s own perspective.
Candide, the most widely known of all Voltaire’s works, is the philosophical tale of young Candide’s fall from paradise (the château Thunder-ten-tronckh) and of his sojourns from Europe to Latin America and finally to Constantinople. Voltaire had recently arrived at his last home, the château of Ferney, and he was still shocked by the number of lives that had been lost in the huge 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. Candide became his angriest cry against those who would explain away both natural and human-made disasters by appealing to Providence. Voltaire’s prose was never more sarcastic and ironic in its condemnation of war, dogmatism, and intolerance than in this tale, which takes its readers from the torture chambers of the Portuguese inquisition to the golden streets of Eldorado and, finally, to the simple garden cultivated by Candide and his beloved Cunegonde.
First published: Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale, 1748 (originally published as Memnon: Historie orientale, 1747; English translation, 1749)
Type of work: Philosophical tale
Zadig, a wise and just man, seeks the definition of happiness in a chaotic and capricious world.
Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, Voltaire’s first published philosophical tale, was written at a time when the author was finally receiving official recognition for his many literary accomplishments. In 1745, Monsieur Arouet de Voltaire received a court appointment from the king of France, Louis XV. As royal historiographer and later ordinary gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, Voltaire moved easily through the long galleries of the royal palace of Versailles. A close look at courtly pettiness, intrigues, and plotting served only to reinforce Voltaire’s already low estimation of palace royalty and bootlicking government officials. This time was also the period when Voltaire’s long love affair with Mme de Châtelet was ending. She had chosen a younger man over him, and for a time Voltaire was in a jealous rage.
Zadig, a tale set in eighteenth century Persia, reflects both the personal circumstances of Voltaire and the more profound philosophical questions concerning the nature of free will and happiness. Voltaire asks the same question on almost every page of the story: Can an honest and wise person lead a happy life in a world filled with liars, scoundrels, and cheats? In a story with a very thin plot, the reader follows the intelligent and kind Zadig through his travels among dishonest, deceitful, and cruel people who attempt to do him harm at every turn. First married to one of the most noble, desirable, and beautiful women of all Babylon, Zadig, to his great dismay, learns that his wife is unfaithful. Having been disappointed by an aristocratic woman, a woman from the court, he next turns to a woman chosen among the people. Again he has no luck: She also proves to be lacking in true love for Zadig.
Though a person of bourgeois origin, Zadig so distinguishes himself for his intelligence among the citizens of Babylon that he comes to the notice of the king and queen. Zadig’s name is mentioned as one of the persons deserving of a prize that King Moabdar intends to give to his subject who has performed the most generous action during the year. With no attempt at disguising his ironic allusion to life in the French royal court of the eighteenth century, Voltaire has King Moabdar grant the most wonderful prize in all Asia (a golden goblet studded with precious stones) to Zadig, because he is the only one who has not spoken ill of a disgraced government minister who had incurred the king’s wrath.
Zadig, in complete favor with King Moabdar and Queen Astarte, assumes the heavy responsibilities of prime minister. His every act at court demonstrates the subtlety of his genius and the goodness of his soul. Ogled by women and praised by all in the kingdom for his fairness in settling long-standing disputes, Zadig appears to enjoy all the good fortune that fate could possibly bestow on him. He even succeeds in arranging a truce between two religious sects that have quarreled for fifteen hundred years over which foot—left or right—one should first use to enter the holy temples.
In spite of all the rewards and praise Zadig receives as prime minister, he continues to reflect upon the precariousness of his own good fortune and the tricks that life has played on him in the past. As prime minister, Zadig believes the laws of Persia must be applied evenly to protect the innocent. Still, these laws are not able to quell the fanaticism and ridiculous quarrels that seem to presage the fall of Babylon. As if to underscore the validity of Zadig’s personal and political fears, Voltaire has Zadig fall hopelessly in love with the wife of the jealous king, the beautiful and sensuous Queen Astarte. Then, because of war and competing factions within the country, all Persia is thrown into social and economic chaos. The reader of Voltaire’s tale cannot miss the striking similarities, first between Voltaire’s own romantic adventures and those of Zadig, and then between France’s dismal political condition and that of Persia. Voltaire, of course, makes little attempt at accurately describing the Middle East; his purpose instead is to explore the human condition, the questions of human freedom and determination, and to attack the political stupidities and excesses of his own country, France.
The wise and just Zadig is forced to flee for his life from Babylon. He seeks asylum in Egypt. During his flight, he reflects upon humankind: “He pictured men as they really are, insects devouring each other on a little patch of mud.” Though he remains a champion of light and reason, he encounters only brutality and prospering scoundrels on his voyage. After rescuing a woman from a savage beating by her husband, he is condemned to be sold as a slave. On another occasion, he persuades the women of Arabia that there is no reason to practice the custom of burning themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres; for this, he incurs the enduring wrath of the priests, who collect the women’s jewelry from the ashes. Wherever he travels—from Egypt to Arabia to the Isle of Serendib and back to Persia—Zadig gives wise and excellent counsel and saves women, men, and even kingdoms from disaster. He, however, can neither find personal happiness (he still yearns for the beautiful Astarte) nor understand why dishonest and corrupt people appear to prosper. The ways of Providence remain a deep and disheartening mystery to him.
While spending time with a prosperous brigand chief, Zadig learns that King Moabdar has been killed and that confusion reigns in Babylon. Arbogad, the brigand, repeats to Zadig that he (Arbogad) is the happiest of men, and he exhorts Zadig to follow his example. Zadig declines the offer to associate himself with one of the richest thieves of the East. He leaves the robber’s castle, plunged more deeply than ever in his mournful reflections about the sadness of life. He is grief-stricken to think that Astarte may have perished in the riots of Babylon.
On the road back to Babylon, Zadig sees a lady on the bank of a little stream. As he approaches, he notices that she is tracing, with a small stick, a name in the fine sand. To his astonishment, the name he reads is his own: Zadig. The lady is Astarte herself, the woman whom he adores and for whom he has returned to Babylon. Zadig, filled with joy, throws himself at her feet asking, “Can it be true? Immortal powers that preside over the destinies of frail mortals, do you give me back Astarte?” Chance has reunited the two lovers. Both recount their misadventures, and Zadig tells Astarte by what accident he happened to be walking along the banks of the little stream.
Although together again, Zadig and Astarte must yet undergo a number of trials and adventures before finally becoming the monarchs of Babylon. Zadig is obliged to participate in a medieval joust and to solve a number of riddles proposed by the Magi of the city. Before taking part in the knightly tournament, however, Zadig happens upon a hermit who speaks to him of fate, justice, and ethics and then proceeds to burn a home and murder a young man. The hermit fantastically transforms himself into the angel Jesrad and tells an astonished and angered Zadig that all on earth is meant to be and that events transpire as they must; what appears to be chance is not, and Zadig should go on his way to Babylon.
Voltaire ends his tale in both an ambiguous and a positive fashion: Zadig, as a mere human, cannot hope to understand why Providence acts in certain ways. Zadig could not know that a treasure is buried under the burned home or that the young man, if allowed to live, would kill his aunt in a year’s time and Zadig in two. In his story, Voltaire leaves unanswered the recurrent metaphysical questions asked by Zadig, questions about the nature of free will and the existence of evil in a universe created by a supreme Being. In an obvious optimistic conclusion to his tale, however, Voltaire describes the just Zadig and the intelligent and beautiful Astarte presiding over the peaceful and bountiful kingdom of Persia. In his philosophical tale Candide (1759), written some twelve years later, both Voltaire’s narrative tone (in Zadig only mildly satirical for Voltaire) and his views on metaphysical optimism and Providence would change dramatically. From an enlightened kingdom in Persia to the small garden plot of Candide, the journey is long and discouraging.
First published: Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme, 1759 (English translation, 1759)
Type of work: Philosophical tale
Through a long series of misadventures and catastrophes, Candide searches for his beloved Cunegonde.
Candide: Or, All for the Best is Voltaire’s most widely known work and one of the most widely read pieces of literature written in the French language. Voltaire invented the philosophical tale as a means to convey his own ideas and, at the same time, entertain his readers with satirical wit and ironic innuendo. Candide (the name refers to purity and frankness) is the tale’s main character. He embodies the philosophical idea of optimism that Voltaire intends to oppose.
As the story begins, Candide is forced to leave Wesphalia because he has been caught kissing the baron’s daughter, the beautiful Cunegonde. Candide is driven from the splendid castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, where Doctor Pangloss has been Candide’s tutor and has taught him that all is well in this “best of all possible worlds.” Little time passes before the naïve Candide finds himself conscripted into the Bulgarian army. As a soldier, he witnesses firsthand the terrible atrocities of war. Escaping to Holland, he miraculously encounters Pangloss, who is himself in a pitiful physical state. From the ever-optimistic philosopher, Candide learns that his former home in Germany has been burned to the ground and that all of those inside have been massacred by the advancing Bulgarian army.
Voltaire continues to narrate his story with a cascade of adventures. He nonetheless keeps close to the principal reason for telling his tale: discrediting the metaphysical idea that all that happens on earth has been determined by Providence and therefore must be judged as being for the good of humankind. Pangloss, who has lost part of his nose and one eye to syphilis, continues to insist that all is going well in spite of overwhelming adversity. Candide and Pangloss travel to Lisbon, where they arrive just in time to experience the famous earthquake of 1755. Not only are they caught in Portugal during this natural disaster, but they also become embroiled in the Inquisition. Only by the reappearance and intervention of Cunegonde is Candide saved (Pangloss is a presumed victim of the Inquisition). In rescuing Cunegonde, however, Candide must kill an Israelite and the Grand Inquisitor.
Candide, Cunegonde, and an old woman (the daughter of Pope Urban X) flee to South America. Even there, they are tracked by the agents of the Inquisition; Candide and Cunegonde must separate or risk being burned at the stake. Candide takes refuge in Paraguay, the kingdom of the Jesuits, where “Los Padres have everything and the people have nothing.” Candide comes upon Cunegonde’s brother among the Jesuit leaders. They quarrel because Candide, in spite of his humble origins, insists on marrying the young baron’s sister. Candide wounds him, apparently mortally, and again takes flight with his valet and companion Cacambo.
Throughout all the journeys of Candide, who next discovers Eldorado (the city of gold and precious jewels), Voltaire delights in attacking the excesses of humankind—from the brutality of wars to the ignoble institution of the Inquisition. In order to emphasize tolerance and moderation, Voltaire presents characters that are immediately identified as representing extreme philosophical positions: Pangloss (who reappears at the end of the story in Constantinople) holds tenaciously to an absurd optimism, and Martin (Candide’s companion on his trip back to Europe and on to Constantinople) affirms with equal stubbornness that there is little virtue and happiness in a world filled with evil.
While in Venice, Candide learns that his once-beautiful Cunegonde is now washing dishes on a riverbank for a prince in Turkey. From Cacambo, he hears that Cunegonde has even grown ugly and ill-tempered. Still, being an honorable man, Candide intends to marry Mlle Cunegonde, and he sets off immediately for the Turkish city. While en route, he finds Pangloss and Cunegonde’s brother (resuscitated) among the galley slaves on the Turkish boat. Candide still possesses some of the diamonds that he carried away from Eldorado and is able to buy his friends’ freedom. As chance would have it, all the characters of this tale end up living together on a small vegetable farm somewhere on the outskirts of Constantinople. Candide’s money is exhausted, Cunegonde grows more unendurable, Cacambo curses his fate as a vegetable seller, Pangloss despairs because he is not teaching in a good German university, and Martin persists in seeing humankind caught in either the throes of distress or the doldrums of lethargy. Candide does not agree, but he no longer asserts anything. Instead of arguing metaphysical and moral questions, he heeds the advice of an old man who tells him, “work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” From this lesson, Candide concludes “that we should cultivate our gardens.” In the end, the little farm yields well, and all eat candied citrons and pistachios. Voltaire ends the tale, on a note of neither pessimism nor optimism, with his characters working and living in peace together.