Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Candide by Voltaire.

First editions of Voltaire's Candide from 1759.
Candideou l'Optimisme is Voltaire's most famous work. It's a short satire, first published in 1759, on optimism as a philosophical concept. In the 18th Century the German writer Gottfried Leibniz argued, in response to the problem of evil, that this world is the best of all possible worlds, yet this period was marked by some upheaval: the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which resulted in a tsunami and claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. In short, this world certainly did not feel like the best of all possible worlds, and this is what motivated Voltaire to write Candide.

Candide, who is not unlike Gulliver of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), is a young man, the illegitimate nephew of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, brought up in his uncle's castle in Westphalia (north west Germany). His tutor is Pangloss:
Pangloss taught metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-codology. He could prove wonderfully that there is no effect without a cause and that, in this best of all possible worlds, His Lordship the Baron's castle was the most beautiful of castles and Madam the best of all possible Baronesses.
However, Candide falls in love with his cousin Cunégonde, is discovered, and is thrown out of the castle. On leaving he is captured by the Prussian army (in the Seven Years' War the Prussians fought against France and her allies) where he is treated very badly, even flogged for apparent desertion. He manages to escape a during a battle (which Voltaire describes as "heroic butchery"), is reunited with Pangloss, now a syphilitic beggar. He tells Candide that Cunégonde, her mother and father were all murdered by the Bulgar army (the Prussians who Candide was forced to join), and goes to Holland where he is taken in by Jacques, an Anabaptist. Candide, Jacques, and Pangloss then travel to Lisbon, suffering a shipwreck and the earthquake. When they arrive they are arrested by the Portuguese Inquisition when Pangloss discusses optimism: he is hanged, and Candide is flogged. An old woman helps him dress his wounds, but to Candide's astonishment, she also reunites him with Cunégonde who is not in fact dead. She explains what happened in the castle, and how she came to be owned as a slave by Don Isaachar and the Grand Inquisitor of Lisbon. When they come looking for her, Candide kills them, then he, the old woman, and Cunégonde flee to South America where Don Fernando proposes to Cunégonde, Despite loving Candide and agreeing to marry him, Cunégonde accepts Don Fernando. To add to Candide's woes, the Portuguese authorities have followed him to South America. Along with Cacambo, his new valet, Candide manages to speak with the Jesuit commander, who turns out to be Cunégonde's brother. He then tells him he wishes to marry Cunégonde, her brother refuses, and so Candide kills him and once again is forced to escape. Eventually they arrive at Eldorado, a utopia:
... they were shown round the city, with its public buildings raised (and praised) to the skies, its market-places decorated with a thousand columns, its fountains of spring-water and rose-water and sugar-cane liquors, all playing carelessly in the middle of large squares paved with special stones which gave off an aroma similar to that of clove and cinnamon. Candide asked to see the law courts. He was told there weren't any, and that there were never any cases to hear. He asked if there were any prisons, and he was told there weren't. What surprised him most and gave him the greatest pleasure was the Palace of Science, in which he saw a gallery two thousand feet long all full of instruments for the study of mathematics and physics.
1761 edition.
Yet Candide misses Cunégonde, so they leave (with a fortune) to find her once more and to pay Don Fernando to release her. However much of Candide's wealth is stolen by Vanderdendur but, on the way to France, Candide and his new companion, the pessmistic Martin, discover most of it after Vanderdendur's ship has sank. Discovering that wealth attracts many false friends, Candide and Martin travel to Venice where Candide has arranged to meet Cunégonde and Cacambo, however they are not to be found. It's eventually revealed that Cacambo has been enslaved, as has Cunégonde, who is in Constantinople with the old woman. Candide buys Cacambo's freedom, and is even reunited with Pangloss and Cunégonde's brother, neither of whom actually died. Candide, Cunégonde, the old woman, Pangloss and Cacambo eventually find happiness when they put all their efforts into "cultivating their own garden", leaving vice and philosophical speculation behind and finally enjoying contentment and fulfilment.

If this sounds complicated, be aware this is my attempt to simplify it! But, complicated though it may be it's highly entertaining: characters die and are resurrected, and poor Candide swoons his way from one catastrophe to another. But it's not all fun and games, there is some degree of seriousness behind it. Voltaire attacked the notion of optimism, that a perfect God had in fact created a perfect world, and in Candide each character suffers horrifically for no greater good, and in fact only reach fulfilment when they "cultivate their own garden", and, in the process, reject philosophical speculation. Religious men in Candide don't fare too well either, drawing attention to the hypocrisies of men of the church. For that Candide is very harsh, but interesting nonetheless. I enjoyed it, am sure I missed a great many more subtle points, and thus happily anticipate reading it again one day!

Illustration by Adrien Moreau (1900 edition).
Further Reading


  1. i love Voltaire. satiricism ranging through sarcasm, he covered the gamut of human experience. we need him today... check out the "Philosophical Dictionary": some time, it's a riot...

    1. I love Voltaire too, and yes, agree very much it'd be good to have him around today... I've read Philosophical Dictionary, not too long ago - loved that too :)

  2. I'm not a fan of Voltaire, but that's only based on Candide, so perhaps my opinion will change. I loved Gulliver's Travels so I feel I'm fine with satire and exaggeration, but I wasn't fond of Voltaire's tone, which at times could be condescending and in Candide at least, I didn't feel that he went far enough explaining his views, either directly or indirectly. That said, I'm certainly open to reading more of his works and will ..... when I can get around to it .... ;-)

    1. I think so far my favourite Voltaire is Micromégas, so I think I'd recommend that (if you're looking for recommendations, that is!) :)


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