- Candide by Voltaire


The Enlightenment in France was the trigger for the revolution in 1789. The debate tried to overcome traditional thinking by integrating the physical and the metaphysical. These were expressed in philosophical terms by British empiricism and French metaphysicians.

Voltaire published his most extensive philosophical work (anonymously) in 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. It consisted of 73 articles already published in the famous Encyclopédie. His dictionary was burned in Geneva, The Hague and Paris and banned by The Holy Office in Rome.

The concept of freedom is central to Voltaire's thinking. In his Traité de metaphysique (1734) he took a position between the determinism of rational materialists and the contemporary spiritual transcendentalism of Christian theology. For Voltaire humans are not machines determined by matter. For him, movement and free will exist. But humans are natural people governed by inexorable natural laws. In his ethics correct action was guided by the natural light of reason.

Voltaire used scepticism to defend freedom. He argued that no authority can be immune to the challenge of critical reason. He was not an atheist but a deist and criticised ecclesiastical power; he was monarchical but critical of the sacred mysteries that upheld the aristocratic authority of the Ancien Régime. In the same way, he questioned the philosophical authority of Descartes, Malebranche and Leibniz. Deep down his apparent anti-religiosity was really motivated by his skepticism and libertarian doctrine.

In the novella Candide ou l’Optimisme (published 1759) Voltaire attacked Leibniz's philosophy and his religious and philosophical optimism with satire and irony. He also criticised the pessimism of his philosophy of human depravity and tried to adopt a middle way in which moral virtue could be found through reason.


The young Candide is the student of Pangloss who teaches him that they live in the best possible of worlds. He falls in love with a noble's daughter, Cunégonde, but is expelled from the castle for kissing her.

He is forcibly recruited into the Bulgarian army but escapes to Holland. There he encounters a syphylitic Pangloss begging on the streets. He convinces his patron, James, to pay for Pangloss' medical treatment. They then leave by ship for Portugal. 

On arrival they are shipwrecked and James drowns. They arrive on shore to a huge earthquake. Pangloss says that everything is as it should be. He is accused of heresy and hanged. Candide is flogged.

Candide is reunited with Cunégonde who describes how she was saved from an attack on the castle, raped by a soldier and is now mistress to both a Jewish merchant and a Spanish inquisitor. Candide kills both of them.

The lovers flee to Cadiz and embark for South America. Cunégonde's lady's maid tells her story. Her parents were a princess and a pope. She was kidnapped by pirates and mistreated but escaped. 

On arrival in Buenos Aires they must flee the Inqusition and split up. The women are protected by the Governor of the city; Candide goes to a Jesuit commune.

Cunégonde's brother is in the commune  but refuses to agree to Candide marrying his sister. Candide murders him then flees. They are captured by a tribe but are set free in the wilderness. Later they arrive in El Dorado, a utopian society. They return home with a flock of sheep and riches, gifts from the El Dorado king. 

On the return journey to Surinam they meet a slave who tells his story of cruelty in the plantations. Candide loses many sheep and is swindled of many riches.

Next they travel to Bordeaux accompanied by Martin. Candide is cheated of his wealth especially by the abbot of Périgord in a Parisian gambling salon. He is then seduced by a noblewoman. The abbot has Candide arrested. He flees to England then to Venice.

Pangloss meets Pangloss' mistress, Paquette, and her brother, forced into monkhood. Martin, looking for someone happy in his life, visits a senator. He, however, is bored and disgusted with his wealth

Candide now sails for Constantinople where they meet up with Pangloss and the Baron who are condemned as galley slaves. Candide buys their freedom.

Candide is reunited with Cunégonde, now ugly and shrewish, and he marries her. They all settle on a farm in Turkey feeling miserable over all their losses. They work and feel happy. Pangloss insists that all is well but is ignored by Candide who focuses on cultivating his garden.



Candide has the narrative structure of a picaresque novella. This is the written equivalent of the 'road movie' where there is a starting incident which sends the main character off on multiple adventures.

The hero lives in a castle but the omniscient narrator questions if his life there is the paradisiacal 'best of all possible worlds' as the naive character and his teacher maintain. The incident of kissing Cunégonde will force him to explore the bigger world.

Candide's new experiences lead him through hope and despair. Most of his adventures demonstrate that optimism is the wrong view of the world: he experiences warfare, a natural catastrophe, a flogging by the Inqusition, loss of wealth, Parisian rapacity, finding Pangloss' as a syphalitic beggar, the mierable stories told by the lady in waiting, Paquette and so on. These make Candide doubt Pangloss' teachings on optimism.

This repetetive up and down of expectations in the novel is another part of the cumulative technique used. The picaresque narrative with it's movement from place to place allows the author to repeat dashed hopes in many circumstances. This reinforces the basic message of the book not by simply stating it but through the experience of the characters and readers:  optimism is not a realistic attitude. 

The climax for Candide is an anti-climax since he finds his paramour horribly changed. Since optimism has been eliminated through traumatic experiences, Candide adopts the stoic example in the grecorroman tradition and finds a new Eden in tending his garden. 


The storyteller in Candide is omniscient but occasionally allows readers to hear the main characters' opinion.  This is done in an ironic tone and shines doubt on their ideas. Voltaire uses this technique to promote his own ideas which are contrary to the book's naive optimism. Pangloss expresses himself in irrational terms and quickly loses credit with the reader. Candide asks reasonable people about optimism and they voice an opposite opinion. The reader concludes that the main narrative about 'being in the best of worlds' is false because, through dramatic irony, Voltaire shows the reader the fallacies of the characters' interpretations.


- Candide, far from being a realistic character as in a modern novel, embodies an idea. His name means 'white' and indicates fair, not corrupt. Candide begins the novella as a naive innocent under Pangloss' over optimism. As Candide  gains experience of the world he questions optimism but doubts remain when any event pleases him. The character changes little. He exchanges faith in Pangloss for blind faith in a farmer.

Although he is naive he remains sympathetic to the reader through his honesty and generosity to strangers. He even marries Cunégonde despite her  having become ugly and a shrew. The reader's confusion with the rocambolesque story is paralleled in unsophisticated Candide which also makes him very endearable.

- Pangloss is the spokesperson for the main idea in the book: all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. As a character he is a twisted exaggeration of Leibnitz's optimistic philosophy: the world is the creation of a good and powerful God and so must be perfect.

Voltaire satirises this idea using Pangloss demonstrating that his experiences contradict his ideas. The character ignores factual data that disproves his optimism. Further, he advances irrational arguments such as explaining eating pork because "since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round.”

Pangloss' complacent attitude is also satirised for dangerous passivity. If we live in the best possible world then there is no reason to change it. Pangloss prevents Candide rescuing  Jacques from drowning in Lisbon because that proves that the bay was there so that he could drown.

- Martin plays opposite Pangloss as his foil. His pessimism is as extreme as Pangloss' optimism. However he is more credible to the reader since his conclusions are more rational because they are based on experience. 

Martin's philosophy, however, also has some flaws. He is wrong about Cacambo's honesty which contradicts his pessimistic outlook. Voltaire criticises dogmatic viewpoints using both Pangloss and Martin. Both ignore views which disprove their own which in this case means they are not willing to change the social order. In the feverish pre-revolutionary times in France this must have appeared as an original sin to Voltaire.

In later novels, written within formal realism, specific time and locations are important in order to support the fiction of realism. In Candide there is no attempt at realism in the rocambulesque narrative, the stock characters, the geography or the temporality. This satire has no pretence about physical reality but aims at ideology. Voltaire is writing about ideas, not corporeality, so verisimilitude is of no importance.


The sentence structure is kept short and simple in keeping with the main characters' simplicity of vision. The second  paragraph  is an example of this straightforward prose:

"The Baron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his castle had not only a gate, but even windows, and his great hall was hung with tapestry. He used to hunt with his mastiffs and spaniels instead of greyhounds; his groom served him for huntsman; and the parson of the parish officiated as his grand almoner. He was called "My Lord" by all his people, and he never told a story but everyone laughed at it."

There is a 'once upon a time' beginning to the story which gives it the tone of a folk tale. This is underlined by the formulaic refrains throughout such as "Tout est bien."(All is well.) Pangloss' irrational interpretations of events are also  interspersed with the formula:

"...all is for the best. For if there's a volcano at Lisbon, it couldn't be anywhere else. For it's impossible for things not to be where they are. For all is well."

This reinforces the overall narrative which joins together the same disappointing experiences in many different locations.



This is the central idea of the novel. Pangloss and his pupil Candide are walking- talking proponents of this determinist vision of life. There is "no effect without cause" and everything has a good purpose. However experiences of disillusionment in the real world lead Candide to disbelieve the upbeat teachings of his professor and he chooses in the end to focus on his garden, not on grand ideas.

The discoveries in Science and natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 (4 years before Candide was published) led some to doubt the existence of an all-powerful and benevolent God. Theodicy was the philosophy which addressed this question and it was championed by Leibnitz. He argued that evil was a harmonious plan of God to ultimately bring about good.

Leibniz contributed to the metaphysical debate in his Monadology, originally written in French in 1714, a dualistic idealism programmed by God. The material world would consist of appearances of the real world. (It is similar to Plato's Forms and the modern idea of ​​the energy composite universe.) In an attempt to explain Descartes' problem of mind-body interaction, Leibnitz denied causation because everything is prefixed by a God or Almighty Being. (This has a parallel in Spinoza's determinism and Lutheran predestination.) God is also used in his Principles of Nature and Grace founded on Reason to argue that there was an explanation for everything and an answer to all questions. When asked about God, he replied that His existence was necessary and logical. (Hume and others would argue this claim.) Voltaire satirised this philosophy in Candide.

Enlightenment ideas

Enlightenment thinkers believed in using reason and scientific experiment, rather than doctrine and custom, as a guide in the remaking and improvement of life and society. They also advocated for greater legal and social equality between men.

Voltaire uses Candide to criticise most institutions of his time which did not come up to Enlightenment standards. The Church is denounced through the brutality of the Inquisitor; warfare the Bulgarian captain;  the aristocracy in the Young Baron. All these institutions are blamed principally for their irrationality. Reason and equality are offered in their place through the satire of naive optimism in Candide and Pangloss and equality in the farm commune at the end.

El Dorado is presented as a utopia, the opposite of contemporary Europe. Their inhabitants remained safe at home while the Europeans colonised the world. (The characters also travel around extensively and pointlessly.) In religion the Utopians maintained a simple faith but in Europe multiple religions were a source of conflict.

Pangloss professes a simplified version of Enlightenment philosophies as “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds". Voltaire uses his character's comments to lampoon this idea as irrational. Linked to this criticism is Pangloss' fondness of abstract philosophical speculation rather than physical evidence. His interpretations are often useless and prove unrealistic. Countering this Voltaire prefers the  Enlightenment's empirical approach to life which encourages science over religion and pessimism over optimism.

It is true that Candide promotes the Enlightenment ideology of building a better society through reason and its corollary of social reform. Yet the book also attacks the optimism that rationalism can end all the evils committed by humans. Voltaire  opposed the Enlightenment idea of a tolerant monarch instead of social reform. Similar to Hobbes' philosophy the enlightened  king would remain an absolute ruler but use his power to protect his subjects' rights. This was veiled despotism, especially in France where absolutism would not be abolished for another generation. Voltaire uses Candide's experience with the irrational Inquisitor to demonstrate that power was not necessarily reasonable or tolerant.

Ideas vs Experience 

Pangloss' optimistic view on life is set against the trials and tribulations of his actual  misfortunes. His idealism appears absurd when compared to his enslavement, hanging, shipwreck, syphilis and so on. His interpretations of events become more twisted as the story progresses. The final irrationality is to say that all the miserable experiences they went through were needed to bring them to tending their garden. Philosophical meanderings are no match for a chaotic real world.

Religious ideas are also satirised as a way of making sense of the world. Candide  is mistreated by religious fanatics of all types because he does not share their beliefs. He rejects both abstract and religious ideologies for the pragmatic choice of the stoic: managing his garden. The message is that practical work and reason are more useful than abstract thinking and faith. Voltaire advocates empiricism against idealism.


It is Cacambo who encourages Candide to focus on practicalities and put ideas to the test through experience.

Voltaire agrees with the British empiricists like John Locke that knowledge comes from sensory experience as opposed to the Cartesian view of mind over body. For the author the only way to confirm ideas is to relate them with something physical, verifiable through the human senses.

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