Hypocrisy And Wickedness: "Candide" By Voltaire

Francois-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name Voltaire, was a prominent French philosopher, historian, and writer during the Enlightenment period of the 18th Century. Voltaire, recognized for his wit and criticism, often made habit of his work to criticize bigotry, religious beliefs and the French societies of his day. From a young age, Voltaire did not agree with cultural norms and often got into trouble with the law. A strong believer in religious freedom, and a critic of tyrannical regimes, Voltaire wrote the satirical novel Candide. Published in 1759, it was recognized as a direct mockery and rejection of opposing enlightenment philosophers at that time. It specifically rejected the opinions of philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who famously said that “this is the best of all possible worlds. ” Voltaire makes direct comparisons between Leibniz and a character in the story, Dr. Pangloss. By doing so, he attempts to shed light on the problems with Leibniz’s theory of the world being “perfect”.

Voltaire tells us the life story of Candide, a young and righteous man in pursuit of the truest form of happiness. Candide, raised in a Castle of Westphalia, is the illegitimate son of the Baron’s sister. Candide and his two cousins, Cunegonde and the Young Baron, are taught by an optimistic philosopher named Pangloss, who teaches them that this world is “the best of all possible worlds”. Throughout the story, Candide is met with immeasurable challenges, but always remembers the wise words of his mentor. However, when he is later cast out of the magnificent castle in which he lives, Candide goes on a roller-coaster of adventures and misfortunes, which ultimately lead him to the acceptance of life’s disappointments.

One of the major themes observed in Candide, is the foolishness of optimism. Much of the humor in this novel lies in its use of irony which is done to highlight the many flaws in philosophy as well as the risks and downsides of being an optimist. In the story, both Pangloss and Candide bear witness and suffer a great deal of misery. They encounter beatings, rapes, unjustified killings, diseases, thefts, and even an earthquake. Voltaire shows us how tragedies as such serve no greater good, but show the cruelty and madness of mankind and the insignificance of the natural world. In chapter 1, Candide says “It is demonstratable, that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end”. After his exile from the castle, Candide was enlisted into the Bulgar army where he was court-martialed as a deserter and given a choice between execution or running the gauntlet thirty-six times. When he chose the gauntlet, he suffered a great deal of pain and nearly had his skin torn from his body. Although he later escaped, he encountered an orator and his wife where he was cursed at and had human waste dumped on his head. Then, a generous Anabaptist who observed the incident offered Candide some clean clothes, a meal, a place to live, and a job at his rug business. Forgetting his suffering, Candide still trusts everything to be for the best saying, “Master Pangloss has well said that all is for the best in this world, for I am infinitely more touched by your extreme generosity than with the inhumanity of that gentleman in the black coat and his lady”.

Voltaire also uses his novel to ridicule the hypocrisy of religion. Voltaire makes parody of traditional beliefs by using corrupt, and hypocritical religious leaders who appear throughout the novel. Aside from the fantasy world of El Dorado, religion is repeatedly portrayed as corrupted and ethically broken. Religious figures in Candide like the Protestant minister, the Inquisitor, and the Jesuit Baron are depicted as conceited and arrogant. Voltaire makes one exception to his satire with James the Anabaptist who helped Candide when he was in need. This also transpires because the Anabaptists were immensely ostracized and victimized during the time of his writing. In the story, we are introduced to an old woman who tells her tragic life story to Candide and Cunegonde of how she is the daughter of a pope.

Voltaire also introduces us to a Jesuit colonel with homosexual tendencies. The story also reveals how religious leaders would carry out vicious crusades of religious tyranny against anyone who disagreed with them or for no reason at all. For example, in chapter 6 while in Portugal, Candide, and Pangloss witness an earthquake that destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon. The leaders of that country believed that the only way to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, was to give people a “beautiful” auto-da-fe. “For it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking”. They believed that burning a man who was convicted of marrying his godmother, and others who refused to eat bacon would prevent another disaster.

However, even though Voltaire shows us several instances of hypocrisy and wickedness in religious leaders, he does not judge the ordinary believers, such as Jacques, who is perhaps the most honorable and caring character in the story.

10 October 2020
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