J. Roth

World Masterpieces 272

Candide and Voltaire


The Role of Optimism in Candide

From the essay Attacking Optimism: Everything isn't for the best, and Voltaire knew it by Eric Jonas

Jonas, Eric. Attacking Optimism: Everything isn't for the best, and Voltaire knew it. <http://www.ericjonas.com/features/candide/optimism>

(The page numbers below reflect those of our text.)

What is optimism?

In 1686, a prominent German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz emphasized the role of a benevolent creator ((Discours de Metaphysique (Discourse on Metaphysics)). Here are the basics of this philosophy:

  Monads are the constituent components of the universe.

  All monads are linked in a complex chain of cause and effect.

  A Creator had linked these in a particular order to create a harmonious universe.

  Since this Creator is benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, He, by logical extension, would create the best of all worlds.

  Hence, everything that happens in the universe is part of this greater plan, and thus must be for the best.

  The reason that we humans cannot appreciate how the evils encountered in everyday life contribute to the best of universes and universal harmony is the fault of our limited perception.

  According to the theory, no matter how confusing and unfair life may seen, everything happens for the best because each event is a precisely placed monad in the Creators universal chain.

  Thus, the theory of Optimism

Optimism was attractive to many because it answered a profound philosophical question that mankind had been grappling with since the beginning of faith: if God is omnipotent and benevolent, then why is there so much evil in the world? Optimism provides an easy way out of this philosophical dilemma: God has made everything for the best, and even though one might experience personal misfortune, God (via your misfortune) is still helping the greater good.

What was Voltaire opposed to?

Voltaire's experiences led him to dismiss the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. Examining the death and destruction, both man-made and natural (including the Lisbon earthquake), Voltaire concluded that everything was not for the best. Bad things do happen, and they happen without being part of a greater good.

How, then, did Voltaire answer the question so easily solved by optimism, namely, why does evil exist in the world? As a Deist, Voltaire's God was one who initially created the world, and then left it to its own devices. When, at the end of Candide, Pangloss asks the dervish as to why man exists, the dervish responds, "What does it matter whether there's good or evil? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry whether the mice on board are comfortable or not? (378)" To Voltaire, men were the mice, and "his highness" was not concerned in the least with their day-to-day existence.

How are Voltaire's views expressed in Candide?

Pangloss is meant not to attack Leibnitz, but rather optimism as a philosophy. Thus the reader cannot forget that all of Pangloss's ramblings in some way represent an often-humorous characterization of the "typical" optimist, or Leibnitz follower.

Pangloss, writes Voltaire, "Proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause, and that in this best of all possible worlds the Baron's castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses" (319). Thus Voltaire establishes Pangloss as the champion of optimism.

Yet just as quickly, Voltaire points out the absurdity of this doctrine. "Observe," says Pangloss, seeking to demonstrate that everything has a cause and effect, "noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches" (319). The sheer stupidity of these illogical conclusions will likely put a smile on the reader's face, and points out Voltaire's problem with most Optimists: the illogical degree to which they would carry their doctrine. Voltaire would argue that noses were not designed for spectacles, but rather spectacles were designed for preexisting noses. Pangloss's interpretation of cause and effect (and via proxy, all Optimists) is so ignorant as to be comical.

The attack on the claim that this is "the best of all possible worlds" permeates the entire novella. When Candide is reunited with the diseased and dying Pangloss who has contracted syphilis, Candide asks if the Devil is at fault. Pangloss simply responds that the disease was a necessity in this best of all possible worlds, for it was brought to Europe by Columbus's men, who also brought chocolate and cochineal, two greater goods that well offset any negative effects of the disease.

The Lisbon earthquake and resulting fire in 1755 led Voltaire to attack optimism with a renewed vigor. The earthquake, which "wiped out three quarters of Lisbon," killed 20,000. In seeking to explain this phenomenon, Pangloss attempts to console victims by proving that things could not be otherwise. "For, said he, all this is for the best, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon, it cannot be somewhere else, since it is unthinkable that things should not be where they are, since everything is well" (326). This complete nonsense does nothing to console the people of Lisbon; Voltaire indirectly makes his point that optimism, as spouted by most, is complete philosophical gibberish.

The chief function of the adventures of Cacambo and Candide in Eldorado (Chapters 17, 18) is to allow Voltaire to contrast the fictional utopia of Eldorado with the harsh reality of eighteenth century Europe. Previously, Candide had been content with his home in Westphalia, and all discontent had been medicated by Pangloss's arguments. Now, Candide has truly seen the best of all possible worlds--Eldorado; for the remainder of the work, he pines for Eldorado.

The multitude of disasters that Candide endures after leaving Eldorado culminates in his eventual (if temporary) abandonment of optimism. Due to natural causes, Candide loses four of his sheep laden with priceless jewels and then sees his two remaining sheep stolen. The local magistrate is indifferent to the theft. "Certainly," says Candide, "If everything goes well, it is in Eldorado and not in the rest of the world" (352). After hearing the plight of a slave, Candide goes a step further:

--Oh Pangloss, cried Candide, you have no notion of these abominations! I'm through, I must give up your optimism after all.
--What's optimism? said Cacambo.
--Alas, said Candide, it is a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell. (350).

Candide finally begins to recognize the futility in his beloved Pangloss's philosophy. Voltaire concludes Candide by having Candide discover the content of a Turk farmer who claims that simple work keeps him from the three greatest evils: "boredom, vice, and poverty" (378). Candide deeply considers these words, and decides that they "must cultivate their garden."

Candide even stops Pangloss mid-sentence to reiterate the fact. "I know also, said Candide, that we must cultivate our garden" (378). When Pangloss attempts to agree with a dose of philosophical commentary, Martin responds "Let us work without speculating; it's the only way of rendering life bearable" (379).

Even when the entire group has accepted the pastoral lifestyle, and has found content, Pangloss the Optimist attempts to prove how all their prior misfortunes were part of the necessary chain of events for them to reach happiness. Voltaire paints Pangloss as the true dolt of optimism, never realizing the errors in his own logic. How does Candide respond, in closing, to his friend the Optimist?

"That is very well put, said Candide, but we must cultivate our garden" (379).