The Philosophy Of Optimism In "Candide" By Voltaire

Candide, or ou l'Optimisme, is a French book written by Voltaire in the eighteenth century. Voltaire was a philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment and because of his beliefs, challenged authority and normal traditions in society. Because of the controversy, Candide has had great successes but also great trouble. After its first secret publication, the book was banned and ridiculed for the ideas brought up. However, despite the problem, Candide has flourished and emphasizes the role of philosophy and beliefs in different characters. Voltaire successfully uses satire as a crucial role in his writing to convey his own beliefs about the aspects of European life in the eighteenth century. In Candide, Voltaire’s satire mocks the philosophy of optimism by developing contrasting irony and absurdity in his characters.

Voltaire portrays optimism as being absurd through his use of exaggeration. Exaggeration is applied to show Europe’s deteriorating society by showing the superstition of things, the church, faulty rulers, war, earthquakes, and the punishment of innocent people. These exaggerated events ultimately show the complete absurdity of the situations and helps gets the points of controversy across to the reader. Suffering is seen as one of the worst wrongdoings in society but characters such as Pangloss and Candide believe that that is what is best for society. For example, early on in the book, James, the Anabaptist, saves a frenzied soldier from drowning in the water. Through his efforts, however, he fell in and everyone watched as he drowned in the Lisbon. Pangloss stops Candide from saving James, the good man, as “the Lisbon harbor was formed expressly for the Anabaptist to drown in,” Voltaire satirizes this event, the theory of optimism, and being positive in situations such as these to show the complete absurdity in it. The excuse that “all is for the best” and the annoying repetition of optimism from Pangloss and Candide leads to mishappenings much like the drowning of James. Unfortunately, characters with such optimism and positivity get themselves into problems and can’t get themselves out because of their absurd loyalty to philosophy.

In addition to Voltaire’s use of absurd satire, he applies irony to his plot. After Candide discovers that Cunegonde is still alive, Cunegonde explains her story of being raped at her castle, “A lady of honor may be raped once, but it strengthens her virtue. ” The irony in this quote is apparent because you normally wouldn’t think that people with so much power and royalty like Cunegonde would get raped. Another ironic instance was, “. . . the Inquisitor decided to celebrate an auto-da-fé. He did me the honor of inviting me to attend it. I had a very good seat…” The events of punishing someone publically was found joyful for people in this time and this seems erroneous to believe. In a normal society, people wouldn’t find joy in punishment, but rather depressed and scared emotions. Voltaire also uses past experiences to show the ironic misery of many characters. The Old Woman explains how she used to be a beautiful princess that witnessed the poisoning of her handsome prince on their wedding day. She was forced to flee but got attacked by pirates and suffered the death of her family and being raped. She says confidently, “I’m a woman of experience, and I know the world… if you find a single one who hasn’t cursed his life, you can throw me overboard head first. ” The Old Woman has a pessimistic attitude about life but because of her experiences, has a smarter and less naive outlook on life. This can relate to Martin, a pessimistic philosopher who believes in his philosophy, but not as aggressively as Pangloss does. He seems much more calm and experienced with life compared to Candide and Pangloss.

On the other side of the argument, however, some could argue that being optimistic has better benefits than being pessimistic. You can either be extensively positive about everything or extremely negative and down about things. Pangloss and Martin are two different characters with these different philosophies. Martin has a pessimistic outlook on life and goes against the theories of optimism. He continually tries to prove that there is scarcely any happiness in the world. The evil that Martin lived in blinded him from any good in the world, including the utopian city of Eldorado. The accumulation of the miserable experiences Martin endured influences his own thinking in a good way. Martin doesn’t have as strong of philosophical views as Pangloss and although he stands up for what he believes in, he doesn’t stop to philosophise in the middle of a crisis. His negativity comes with a reality check that allows him to think things through, supporting what he believes but also considering the other side of the situation. In response to Candide suggesting that there is good in the world, Martin simply responds, “Perhaps so, but I haven’t see it. ” Although Martin is pessimistic, he doesn’t allow his viewpoints to get in the way of things in his life. Pangloss, on the other hand, is fixed on his beliefs and doesn’t allow anyone to tell him otherwise. At the end of the book, Candide realizes, “But, isn’t there pleasure in criticizing everything? In being aware of defects where other men see beauties?” Being pessimistic allows you to pick your head up and look at the different perspectives in life, while optimism blocks your vision to things that could truly be good.

The claim that the world is the best of all possible worlds is brought up extensively throughout the book. The optimistic character of Pangloss believes that everything happens for a reason and everything was therefore great. Optimism plays a key part in the duration of Voltaire’s writing because although suffering is apparent throughout the plot, every little thing seems to “happen for a reason”. In fact, Pangloss believes in his philosophy so much, he accepts no other reasons for what could happen in life. Candide travels and adventures all around the world and experiences evil and disaster everywhere. He adheres to the teachings of his mentor, Pangloss, and believes the absurdity of the philosophy, “Pangloss was right: everything is for the best. ” Satirical references to this theme differ from the numerous amounts of natural disasters and the wrongdoings of humans. In all cases of disaster, Candide stays loyal to his teachings and believes that whatever happens is truly the best. When Candide was accused of being a Jesuit and the Oreillons wanted to boil and eat him, his immediate reaction was, “All is well, I won’t argue about it. ” Candide’s reaction is juxtaposed with the content of the problem and readers are able to see the absurdity in it. Candide’s demanding sense of loyalty for his beliefs add up throughout the duration of the book, and concludes with a repetition of wrongdoings for Candide, Pangloss, Cunegonde, the Old Woman, Cacambo, and other characters associated with Candide’s adventures.

In conclusion, Voltaire satirizes the philosophy of optimism in Candide by portraying characters with irony, exaggeration, and absurdity. Voltaire presents his dissatisfaction with the philosophy of optimism and the controversy of typical authority and traditions in the Age of Enlightenment through his writing. By being a critic of his own society, Voltaire’s ideas allow the audience to see what it was like during that time era and what the author was trying to suggest in his writing. If the uses of satire and absurdity were removed from the book, without a doubt, the element of flawed and erroneous feelings would be harder for the audience to comprehend while reading. Voltaire’s main criticism in Candide is that the philosophy of society and what you choose to believe in will have an effect on your everyday life choices and views. Through the actions of his absurd characters, Voltaire concludes that you can’t live life knowing and seeking for what you want, you have to live and think in the moment.

10 October 2020
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