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. Swifts
Gullivers 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
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.