Candide: classic satire gives a dose of reality to optimism

Voltaire’s Enlightenment-era work punched holes in rose-colored glasses

In this world, misfortune strikes every day. Anyone who denies this has to look no further than events such as the Holocaust or the atrocities committed in Darfur. Is there room for optimism and hope in such a world?

During the Renaissance, many of the prominent philosophers and theologians had formulated a worldview saturated with optimism. Pain, suffering and the problem of evil still troubled the intellectuals of the day, but they found ways to reconcile an all-loving deity with these alleged inconsistencies and saw room for optimism and hope.

Men such as Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, wrote convincing works advocating a doctrine of optimism. Though this view was prevalent through much of the Renaissance, the 18th century period of the Enlightenment brought derision and castigation from men who saw this optimism as misplaced and foolish.

Voltaire, the penname of French writer Francois-Marie Arouet, was one of the most notable critics of optimism. He wrote a variety of intellectual work during his tenure, but his magnum opus and most berating work against optimism was Candide.

Candide is Voltaire’s celebrated satire of optimistic philosophy. He pokes fun at the teaching of men such as Leibniz throughout his entertaining story of a simple man who experiences the worst the world has to offer.

Candide is the bastard nephew of a wealthy baron, who employs a philosophy tutor named Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss’ philosophy is that of unbridled optimism, and he quickly convinces Candide of the necessary truth behind optimism.

Candide falls in love with the daughter of the baron and is subsequently banished from the kingdom. Despite his misfortune, he is unfazed and continues to think everything in the world is as it should be. He proceeds to have a wealth of misfortunes accost him, including being flogged, nearly dying in an earthquake, losing a great fortune, and having the love of his life stripped away from him.

In spite of his terrible suffering, Candide continues to cling tightly to his now seemingly foolish optimism. Though he stays committed through a ridiculous amount of hardship, he ultimately rejects the philosophy of optimism and concludes with the famous line, “We must cultivate our garden,” meaning that the individual must only take pains to avoid the three great evils: boredom, vice and poverty.

The character of Pangloss is the driving force behind the philosophy of optimism throughout the book. Many believe that Voltaire uses Pangloss to represent Leibniz and the optimism of the Renaissance philosophers.

Voltaire’s legendary wit is showcased throughout the story, but to truly understand much of the humor, one must be somewhat familiar with the philosophy of optimism and the key supporters of it.

Voltaire certainly heightened awareness toward the blatant issue of evil. He did such an efficient job that many lean toward pessimism in the modern day.

Due largely to the impact of “Candide,” horrific events through antiquity will be viewed with decreasing hope and little optimism.

Right or wrong, Voltaire’s stinging denunciation has reversed the way many view the world in the modern day. His influence on popular thought is critical to understanding the manner in which religion and evil are treated today.

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