Candide: Voltaire’s Personal Attack on the Enlightenment



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Grace Park

Mr. Coleman

AP European History

15 August 2012

Candide: Voltaire’s Personal Attack on the Enlightenment

Francis Marie Arouet de Voltaire wrote his infamous novella Candide to point out the misconceptions of Gottfried William von Leibniz’s philosophy that God had endowed man in a world that was “the best of all possible worlds”. To do so, Voltaire writes in simple plots of the ghastly greed of supreme power with the brutality of war and confrontation of society’s hypocritical stance while head-on attacking the idea of optimism. Candide is most known for its well-written satire, which Voltaire uses to highlight the flaws in all the basic institutions of the 18th century European society and to expose of their true fallacy. He uses the naïve mind of the main character, a young man named Candide who lived in a noble baron’s magnificent castle, to explore such boundaries. In the beginning of the story, Candide was a solid believer to his beloved philosopher Pangloss’ theory that all was well in the world: “Things cannot be otherwise for since everything is made for an end, everything is necessarily for the best end. Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles; therefore we wear spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings; accordingly we wear stockings” (Readcentral.com). Yet their worldly view is challenged by numerous disasters, starting from when Candide gets kicked out of the castle for kissing the baron’s daughter and begins his perilous yet useless journey to win back her hand.

Throughout the entire novella, Voltaire writes of horrific tragedies to fall upon Candide , some due to the greed of corrupting powers. In the beginning, Candide gets a bitter first taste of how greed for something greater than what is given brings ill-fortune. After his exile from the castle, a civil war breaks out between the Bulgarians and the Abares, where the weapons of both armies strive for power and land. Citizens and soldiers of both sides suffered greatly because of their kings’ ambitions, and a sea of innocent blood was shed including of the inhabitants in the baron’s castle, where all were slaughtered or sexually demoralized (or thought to have) till their deaths. Another example underlining the corruption of the 18th century society was when in chapter 23 Candide witnesses an execution of an admiral for his failure to win a battle. Questioning this savagery, he is simply answered, “…it is a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage others” and watched as the crowd of people disperses, satisfied. The barbaric act in such a society plays an important role in slowly picking away at commonly-taught optimism.

Voltaire then takes aim –in the path to destroy Leibniz’s philosophy- at organized religion, specifically Catholicism. Religion men such as monks and clergies are portrayed as hypocrites for not following the religious standards they themselves had placed upon the fellow people. Such men were involved in sexual immorality and in the story, even a Catholic Inquisitor, who condemned and executed heretics and other non-Catholic followers to death, had kept a mistress, something that was strictly forbidden in the Catholic order. Voltaire uses these characters to produce a self-made trap of delusion. In his adventures, Candide blunders across both civilized and uncivilized people, including a wealthy mysterious city called El Dorado, whose people have no religion, and yet the people are all content and rich in their own ways. Candide notes that there is more happiness among the uncivilized community than would be in a cultured life. He realizes that because the people of El Dorado have no greed for each other’s possessions (for they were all equal) that they have found eternal happiness, something his own society could not do. The fact that El Dorado was the utopian society of Leibniz’s philosophy revealed the flawed world in which Candide lived, thus furthermore criticizing the way of optimism. At the very end of the story, when Candide had formed his own little society thanks to the hard work of Cunegonde, Pangloss, and other favorable companions, he has a conversation with Pangloss, who still has not given up on the philosophy of “the best of both possible worlds.” Candide answers, “But let us cultivate our garden,” meaning to work in the garden which was the closest thing to El Dorado, a place where he no longer is overwhelmed for riches or blinded for Cunegonde’s love. Here we can see that the overall message: happiness is found through working to make the best of things and seeing the good in the present moment, rather than dwelling in the misery of it all.

Reading Candide gave me a clear and rather pitied opinion of the 18th century European society. This novella was written after a great earthquake in Lisbon had claimed thousands of lives (the same earthquake in the story) and one year later, the dreadful Seven Years War began. Voltaire’s society was thrown into a pit of mass human suffering where man brought it upon himself the evils in which Candide had witnessed. War and its bloody sword had taken its toll; Eastern Europe had been ripped apart by her very people, and it was the picture of abusive suffering to Voltaire. By encompassing his main character with many disasters, he instills that a spirit of struggle and reform are essential to correct this abuse. By satirizing organized religion, exposing the corruption of money and power, and setting up a perfect utopian society to shadow the greys of the 18th century’s, Voltaire uses Candide to prove that Leibniz’s philosophy is a dangerous thing to believe in. Moreover, Voltaire recognized the faults of this society and poked fun at it, and to all, it seems like a dangerous and idiotic world to live in at that time.

Works Cited Page



Voltaire. The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version. Trans. William F. Fleming. Vol.1. New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901. Online Library of Liberty. Web. 10 Aug. 2012

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