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Candide

Voltaire (1694-1778) would have been most surprised if he had known that Candide was to turn out to be the most popular of his works. His greatest ettort was dedicated to making known to the French the scientific theories of Newton and to drawing philosophical and social consequences from them. He wrote Candide (1759) more or less as an occasional joke, but the brief span of time that he dedicated to it was the most inspired of his life. It is the most profound work written in the eighteenth century, an age not characterized by profundity of thought. Its form and contents are deceptively simple, as is the case with another similar and equally penetrating work of the same period. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

It starts as a criticism of the doctrine of Leibnitz (1646-1716) that there is no evil in this world, since it is ruled by a benevolent providence: if something appears evil it is only because we take a short-range view. The doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds was a product of scientific rationalism carried to its extreme consequences and was already implied in the writings of Spinoza (1632-1677).

But in the process of satirizing the rationalism of Leibnitz, Voltaire criticizes most of the main ideologies of the Enlightenment including his own. The student must find out how many specific ideas ot the period are mentioned with sarcasm. Like many other writers of the eighteenth century, Voltaire criticizes existing institutions and prejudices. The background is provided by the evils of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), but the criticism is directed not only against war, militarism, religious intolerance, dogmatism, but further against all political institutions (France, England, Turkish Empire) and even international law (according to which the actions of the Bulgarians are perfectly regular). Even the Jesuits of Paraguay, who had tried to protect the Indians from Spanish colonial exploitation by organizing them in communistic communities, are thoroughly condemned.

The great belief of the Enlightenment, that a good or perfect society should be organized by reforming existing institutions, is made to appear ridiculous, although perhaps all that Voltaire wanted to do was to present the history of his century as the theater of the worst abominations. The student must ask what can be done to improve society and the numan condition it men are liars, swindlers, traitors, ingrates, robbers, cowards, envious, greedy, ambitious, bloodthirsty, lecherous, fanatical, hypocritical, and stupid. Is this the product of human institutions as Rousseau would have said? Could one accept the belief in progress if the world and man are as described in Candide?

The conclusion of Voltaire is that one must reject both optimism (represtned by Panglos) and pessimism (represented by Martin): man cannot erase cruelty from the universe, but he can protect some corners by prudence. The conclusion that we must cultivate our garden is inspired by Epicurus, but this philosopher believed that the world is made at random, whereas the main belief of the eighteenth century was that this was an orderly universe; this view was shared even by those who called themselves atheists (in other works Voltaire defended the belief in a Supreme Being against them). Voltaire here seems to subscribe to the skepticism of Hume (1711-1776), a dissonant voice in the age of the Enlightenment. Voltaire certainly subscribes to radical Empiricism, because the main point is that the simple observation of facts proves the contrary of most theories accepted at the time.

Candide, in spite of its artistry, reveals a characteristic of eighteenth-century writings, the total lack of psychological insight: the inner feelings of the main characters remain totally opaque to us. The simple, direct style without any rhetorical ornaments is typical of the prose of the time.


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