As an “Enlightenment” text, Voltaire’s enduring classic, Candide, is perhaps one of the best literary examples of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century philosophy, also known as the “Age of Reason.” European politics, philosophy, science and communications were radically reoriented during the eighteenth century through this movement in which “Enlightenment thinkers in Britain, in France and throughout Europe questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change” (Foucault, 32-50). As the predominant cultural and intellectual movement of its time, followers of this philosophy were not entirely united in their ideas, however Voltaire’s Candide satirically illustrates the primary tenets of this complex movement. At its core, Candide examines the age-old question of why a supposedly benevolent god would create a world so riddled with suffering and evil. This question troubled many intellectuals following the Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755, which killed as many as forty thousand people (Williams, p.15). The impact on Voltaire was profound, and arguably eradicated any vestige of optimistic belief (Wade, 93). In fact, “Optimism,” a philosophical system peculiar to the late seventeenth and mid-eighteenth century, was a main target of Voltaire’s criticism. Indeed, Candide’s subtitle is “ou l’Optimisme,” suggesting that Voltaire aimed “to reduce Optimistic theory to the well-known Panglossian slogan “tout est au mieux” or “all is for the best.” (Williams, 12) Drawing on these paradoxes, Voltaire creates a literary masterpiece while comically explaining the historical and intellectual climate of eighteenth century France. While there are countless characters in Candide that exemplify various traditional evils such as religious hypocrisy, superstition, social hierarchy, noble entitlements, that Voltaire and his Enlightenment “philosophes” attempt to expose, it is possibly Pangloss, the caricature-like mentor to Candide who embodies the novel’s central theme: the folly of optimism. Through Pangloss, Voltaire challenges God’s apparent injustice (Adams, 79) by mercilessly poking fun at Leibnitz’s view that evil and injustice will “be found to cause greater compensating goods”(Adams, 82). To illustrate this conflict and to refute Leibnitz, Voltaire creates the ultimate “optimist” in Pangloss who, despite extreme misfortune, exemplifies an inability to “dare to think” as Kant would have argued. With Pangloss placidly accepting disasters of such inconceivable magnitude such as the Portuguese earthquakes as part of “God’s plan” and that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Through Pangloss’s character, Voltaire’s expresses his concern with the “implications of the Optimistic approach to life for ordinary people trying to make sense of their lives in a dangerous, hideously absurd world (Williams, 19) while giving the reader a good laugh along the way. And while the spotlight is focused regularly on religion, Voltaire’s analysis of other powers that control the world like money, greed, vanity and sex are also touched upon in Pangloss’ character in this classic Enlightenment satire. Paralyzed by philosophical speculation and a trusting determinism, Pangloss often conjures nonsensical arguments. For example when he contracts syphilis he says, “It was something indispensable in this best of worlds, a necessary ingredient; for, if Columbus in an island of America had not caught this disease, which poisons the source of generation, and often indeed prevents generation, we should not have chocolate and cochineal” (Voltaire & Kent, 18). Pangloss continually supports these absurd claims with his platitude, “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." Throughout the novel, Pangloss’s overwhelming optimism becomes increasingly nauseating, though amusingly highlighted through Voltaire’s biting wit and sarcasm. It...
Bibliography: Byrne, James M. Religion and the Enlightenment: From Descartes to Kant. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997. Print.
Foucault, Michel, and Paul Rabinow. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.
Voltaire, and Robert Martin Adams. Candide, Or, Optimism: A New Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1966. Print.
Voltaire, and Rockwell Kent. Candide. New York: Literary Guild, 1929. Print.
Williams, David. Voltaire, Candide. London: Grant & Cutler, 1997. Print.
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