Candide by Voltaire [A Review]

A satire on prevailing philosophical thought of its time, Candide is Voltaire’s most enduring and well-read work. Its relevance, arguably, has faded but its place in history will surely see it continue to endure.

Candide, a good-natured, open-minded, young man grows up in the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh. There his tutor, Pangloss, teaches Candide the philosophy of Optimism – that a world closely scrutinised by a benevolent God, is the best of all possible worlds and all is ultimately for the best. But when the Baron catches Candide in a moment of intimacy with his daughter, Candide is thrown out.

Candide, though, is unfazed at being abandoned. Imbued as he is with Optimism, he is content to accept whatever life throws at him without contemplation and to meet any difficult decision with indifference.

His attitude sees him recruited by the Prussian army and exposed to the horrors of war.

Never was anything so gallant, so well accoutred, so dashing and so well drilled as those two armies. Trumpets, Fifes, hautboys, drums and canon produced a harmony such as was never heard in hell. First the canon toppled about six thousand men on either side; then the muskets removed from the best of all possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface. Next the bayonet proved sufficient reason for the death of a few thousand more. The total may well have amounted to thirty thousand corpses. Candide trembled like a philosopher, and concealed himself as best he could for the duration of this heroic butchery.

Fleeing, he is soon reunited with his former tutor, Pangloss, who tells him the Baron and Baroness have bother been killed, their daughter raped and murdered, the castle destroyed. Pangloss himself is dying of syphilis and living on the streets as a beggar.

Done with the army, Candide takes the opportunity of going on a business trip to Lisbon with the restored Pangloss. They survive a disastrous shipwrecking after a storm only to arrive in time for the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami. In Lisbon, they are arrested by the Inquisition for their Optimistic views which are contrary to Catholic dogma of the Fall and free will. Candide is flogged but Pangloss is hanged.

Appalled, stupefied, distraught, covered in blood and shaking uncontrollably, Candide said to himself: ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like!’

From there, Candide continues to travel further and experiences only more catastrophe and any moments of good fortune are short-lived. And not just his own – the people he meets along the way have their own tales of extreme hardship. Having endured so much, Candide’s comes close to shedding his faith in Optimism yet he shows he retains a soft spot for it when challenged by alternatives. Reflecting on his woes and the suffering of others, Candide can see little consolation. Everyone seems to cling firmly to their own worldview, despite their flaws, which can be difficult to appreciate from within. Little can be safely said to be objectively true in life, and thus what truth there is to enjoy must be very simple, modest and rare.

Voltaire is one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the West and is a key early figure in what we now call the Enlightenment. Not restricted to writing of his views on philosophy, politics, religion and the law, he was also an accomplished writer of fiction, various forms of drama and in championing empiricism and the scientific method. Yet despite his range and influence, his writings are little read today. There are several reasons for this. One, for example, was his tendency to write his views in short, impactful essays – of which he produced a large number, difficult to collect and arrange – and not the weighty texts of his philosophical contemporaries. Candide, his satirical novella, is by far his most enduring, most translated and best-read work.

Even within this short book, Voltaire is attempting several things at once. A proper analysis of everything that is going on would probably result in a book significantly longer than Candide! The foremost intention in Candide is to satirise and attack the notion of Optimism as espoused by the German mathematician and philosopher, Leibniz. Candide’s journey from catastrophe to catastrophe, both natural and man-made, make a mockery of the philosophy he embraced as youth.

Perhaps the thing I liked best about Candide is the emphasis the story places on experience as a teacher. Candide is convinced of the virtues of Optimism while enjoying the privilege of a private tutelage in a Baron’s castle. But the real test of any idea, however reasonable and intuitive it may appear, is how it stands up in the real world. Whether learning from fellow soldiers, sailors, merchants and the less fortunate; witnessing war and natural disasters or experiencing first-hand imprisonment, torture and poverty; Candide quickly accumulates a lifetime of experiences. It is an aspect of the story that shows Voltaire’s convictions on empiricism and his ability to produce a common touch.

Because so much of Voltaire’s work is reactionary and empirical, it is difficult to separate Voltaire from the times he lived in. Brilliant as he was, would he have had the same impact if he were born just slightly later? If he had not lived, would there have been anyone able to fill the gap he left? Two events, influential to Voltaire and his contemporaries, play a large role in Candide – the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and the Seven Years War which was still ongoing while Candide was being written. In a letter of 1759 Voltaire writes:

The present war is the most hellish that ever was fought […] nowadays the earth is covered with blood and mangled carcasses almost every month. Let the contented lunatics who say that “All that is, is well” be confounded! Tis not so, indeed, with twenty provinces exhausted and three hundred thousand men murdered.

There were a few things I did not like about Candide. While it is meant as a satire and a critique of ideas, it goes a little further. The novel also serves as a criticism of Voltaire’s great rival; Rousseau. Particularly, Rousseau’s contention that life would be better in a state of nature than with civilisation. Some of it, I think, descends into score-settling and maybe even cheap-shots which may have humoured fellow critics of Rousseau at the time but can leave a bad taste for the rest of us. As you might expect from something written over 250 years ago, some aspects of the novel have not aged well. And though Optimism can still be found in some form, it is largely subdued, possibly in part due to the impact of Candide. The relevance of Candide to our own time may be diminished as a consequence.

All that being said, there were still some things to enjoy in Candide. The humour is present throughout and some of the later chapters are quite fun. The influence of other works on Voltaire’s writing – notably More’s Utopia and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was interesting to see too.

I probably did not get too much out of reading Candide. Because of Optimism’s diminished importance, Candide’s relevance has diminished as well and it is probably mostly read for its historical importance or as the most enduring work of an otherwise important, but difficult to access, figure. It had done enough to make me want to read more Voltaire, possibly his Philosophical Dictionary, excerpts from which are included in this Penguin Classics edition of Candide.

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