Voltaire wrote Candide, he wrote a masterpiece of satiric literature in which he explored many philosophical questions of the day. Many of those issues intersected with each other, so putting them together in one treatise was a useful way to look at them as they interacted in a fictional story. This paper will look at five of those issues: fate, evil, personal choice, religion, and optimism.
To tell this tale, Voltaire used two main characters: Candide and Pangloss. Neither name seems to be an accident. Candide wants to discover the true nature of the philosophical issues he is grappling with. Pangloss is optimistic to a level of caricature, which suggests his name, glossing over everything, no matter how unpleasant or even evil it seems.
In Chapter 20 (third paragraph from the end), this conversation takes place about fate:
You see," said Candide to Martin, "that vice is sometimes punished. This villain, the Dutch skipper, has met with the fate he deserved."
Very true," said Martin, "but why should the passengers be doomed also to destruction? God has punished the knave, and the Devil has drowned the rest."
In this exchange, Voltaire reveals the difficulty of assuming that some divine power rules our fate, using it to mete out justice. Candide has judged the Captain "a knave" and finds him worthy of death. His companion points out, however, that many people apparently not as worthy died as well. Why should their fate be tied to that of the Captain's? If God is good, then He cannot be responsible for the death of the others. Is it then God and Satan working together? Has God agreed to let Satan take innocent people so God can punish the guilty? If so, then God is not completely in charge of fate. Voltaire suggests that perhaps disasters just happen when they will happen, without any divine intervention. It seems unlikely that there's any rational plan to drowning many innocent passengers just to deal with one evil Captain. The boat could have burned when only the Captain, or Captain and crew were on board, reducing the innocent carnage. The Captain could have been hit by a runaway cart in the market.
Chapter five opens with a discussion of an earthquake in Lisbon that destroyed three fourths of the city. Once again one must assume that most of Lisbon's residents did not deserve this fate.
Voltaire spared no words when describing evil events - that is, acts of mankind against mankind. Candide has a discussion with an old woman who describes the horrific experiences of one young woman. The old woman says (Chapter 12, 10th paragraph):
Figure to yourself the distressed condition of the daughter of a Pope, only fifteen years old, and who in less than three months had felt the miseries of poverty and slavery; had been debauched almost every day; had beheld her mother cut into four quarters; had experienced the scourges of famine and war; and was now dying of the plague at Algiers."
Later in the book (Chapter 14, 8th paragraph) he describes the evils of war in the ability of men to rationalize what they do. Cacambo says:
Oh, it is an admirable government, that is most certain! The kingdom is at present upwards of three hundred leagues in diameter, and divided into thirty provinces; the fathers there are masters of everything, and the people have no money at all; this you must allow is the masterpiece of justice and reason. For my part, I see nothing so divine as the good fathers, who wage war in this part of the world against the troops of Spain and Portugal, at the same time that they hear the confessions of those very princes in Europe; who kill Spaniards in America and send them to Heaven at Madrid. This pleases me exceeding justice and reason. For my part, I see nothing so divine as the good fathers, who wage war in this part of the world against the troops of Spain and Portugal, at the same time that they hear the confessions of those very princes in Europe; who kill Spaniards in America and send them to Heaven at Madrid. This pleases me exceedingly..."
The issue of good vs. evil appears often throughout Candide and goes to the heart of the book. It forces the reader to consider whether optimism is always appropriate. Candide comes across other examples of evil as well through his travels, such as the easy confidence of Inquisitors.
The notion that Candide and Pangloss lived in the "best of all possible worlds" is first introduced beginning paragraphs of the first chapter in the description of the Baron's castle and life:
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 never told a story but everyone laughed at it. My Lady Baroness...did the honors of the house with a dignity that commanded universal respect. Her daughter was about seventeen years of age, fresh-colored, comely, plump, and desirable. The Baron's son seemed to be a youth in every respect worthy of the father he sprung from. Pangloss, the preceptor... could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses..."
This phrase, "the best of all possible worlds," appears frequently throughout the book and reflects Pangloss' blind optimism while Candide begins to realize that the world may actually need some work. They hear of horrendous slavery, epidemics, devastating earthquakes, humans committing atrocities against other humans, innocent people drowned at sea and other catastrophes and incidents that amply demonstrate that life is not fair. Candide comes to see this, but not Pangloss.
Voltaire addressed the issues of personal choice in the book, including this particularly satiric situation in Chapter Two (18th paragraph):
One fine spring morning, he took it into his head to take a walk...conceiving it to be a privilege of the human species, as well as of the brute creation, to make use of their legs how and when they pleased. He had not gone above two leagues when he was overtaken by four other heroes, six feet high, who bound him neck and heels, and carried him to a dungeon. A courtmartial sat upon him, and he was asked which he liked better, to run the gauntlet six and thirty times through the whole regiment, or to have his brains blown out with a dozen musket-balls?
In vain did he remonstrate to them that the human will is free, and that he chose neither; they obliged him to make a choice, and he determined, in virtue of that divine gift called free will, to run the gauntlet six and thirty times.
He had gone through his discipline twice, and the regiment being composed of 2,000 men, they composed for him exactly 4,000 strokes, which laid bare all his muscles and nerves from the nape of his neck to his stern. As they were preparing to make him set out the third time our young hero, unable to support it any longer, begged as a favor that they would be so obliging as to shoot him through the head..."
All of these philosophical issues, and many more, are woven through the story of Candide, but this example demonstrates not only the limits of free well but the ability of some men to do evil with ease, the unlikelihood that a divine providence causes both good and bad things to happen, and the limits of rational optimism. The only icon chosen for this…