Candide and the Context of Enlightenment Essay

Enlightenment is an imperative term of political philosophy that urges the application of intellect and logic in order to discover truth and reality from natural and social phenomena. It seeks its roots in liberalism which aims to get the man free from the clutches of fear, slavery, and ignorance. It refutes the very idea of accepting some presumptions and propositions without analyzing their validity through intellectual capabilities and sound examinations and lays stress upon the significance of doubtfulness about some specific belief or authority. In the same way, it also refuses to accept the authority of power without examining its validity. Enlightenment has its roots in ancient times and takes after Greek philosophy and its principles designed by Thales, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotelian schools of thought as its foundation. The enlightened thinkers and philosophers refute to bow before any authority that had its foundations on despotism, cruelty, social injustice, and inequality. Medieval and classical philosophers including Descartes, Machiavelli, Kant, Hobbes, Marx, Hegel, Locke, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Mill, Strauss, and others had great contributions in respect of illuminating the world by their valuable works, thought-provoking ideas, magnificent intellect, and remarkable foresight. All these philosophers and thinkers have focused their attention on human liberty, freedom, and equality, and strived for individual respect and equal chances of growth for all members of society.

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The main objective behind the enlightenment was to liberate the people from imitating fantasies, traditions, and mythology. It submits to state that unconditional surrender before an authority as well as blind faith in a set of beliefs is an awkward form of permanent slavery that is the vital cause of promoting inequality and injustice prevailing in the social setup. Only empirical analysis and pragmatic generalization make people understand the realities of life on the one hand and phenomena of nature on the other. It is enlightenment that lays stress on discovering the truth with the help of logic, personal experiences, and critical analysis on the basis of gifted perception and observation bestowed upon man by Nature. Unexamined, untested, and blind faith not only keeps man ignorant of the latest developments being made in the world but also drags him towards the slavery of the powerful stratum of society.

It is fact beyond doubt that there has always been a permanent situation of conflict between the haves and haves-not from the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras to the most modern ones, where the ‘haves’ on the basis of their power, pelf and possessions, have always exploited the deprived strata of society by inflicting their own will and applying their own policies of dictatorship, despotism, absolutism, and tyranny in the name of either religion or ethics or the set of so-called prevailing laws. The theory of enlightenment serves as man’s deliverance from the clutches of darkness, dullness, and drabness of ignorance and unawareness in a crude sense, and is stated as a reformative step to abolish the exploitation of humans at the hands of their fellow-beings in popular parlance. Thus, enlightenment is the exploration of mysteries of the universe with the help of wisdom and knowledge.

Enlightenment is the product of eighteenth-century Europe, which serves as a powerful blow to the despotic powers authorized to the so-called kings, emperors, nobility, and clergy of that time. Since it challenged the authority of the traditional views of people who considered the emperors, kings, and rulers as appointed by God. By this, they accepted and admitted their so-called divine right to rule over the people with absolute authority. Thus, according to these divine rights, they could impose any type of pain, suffering, and penalties upon them. Nietzsche strongly believes that the concept of God is the product of society; it is, therefore, the quantity, characteristics, and nature of God varies from culture to culture and from one set of religious beliefs to the other. The strongest and most evil spirits, Nietzsche submits, have so far advanced humanity the most: they have always rekindled the drowsing passions— all ordered society puts the passion to sleep: they have always reawakened the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of joy in the new, the daring, and the untried: (1882 4) Hence, he asserts that following of the traditional cult and values are considered as goodness by the followers of a certain belief without seeking evidence regarding its validity. A thing, an idea, a notion, he states, which is quite new and serves as an addition in religious practices, is strongly refuted by the majority of the people declaring it an object of hatred, deformation, and transgression as the product of evil and wickedness.

The thinkers and philosophers awoke the people from the deep sleep of ignorance and made them realize that all their political, social, religious, and cultural exploitation was because of their own false notions and unflinching belief on the sets of laws designed by the rulers, clergy, and nobility which had been articulated to keep them their slaves forever. Philosophers and thinkers are always the rebels of their contemporary society. The foundations of their philosophy are erected on human welfare. Since philosophy is the in-depth and systematic study of the nature and emotions of the human mind, it is philosophers that led humans from the darkness of ignorance towards the light of wisdom and vigilance. Before the mighty French Revolution, it was philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau, and others who awoke the sleeping nation and fought for the noble cause of equality and justice by their wonderful writings. The philosophical theme behind the literature of that time paved the way towards equal distribution of power, pelf, possession, and prestige for all strata of French Society. Thus unjust measures enforced by the French laws came to an end.

Voltaire is one of the most influential French philosophers who played a decisive role in bringing the great French Revolution of 1789 and destroyed the very foundations of the centuries-old social inequality and despotism from the very face of his society. Born in 1694 in a respectable middle-class French family, Voltaire maintained a critical approach and logical views since his childhood. Being a distinguished essayist, writer, and analytical thinker, Voltaire had a divergent opinion about social life in comparison with the common people of his time and observed and perceived the values and norms prevailing in his surroundings, from some different angle. He did not see eye to eye with the religious and royal traditions and looked for the implication of social reforms to build a society on the foundations of freedom, equality, and justice. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, Voltaire also strived for a system governed by the will and representative of all the social classes existing under political authority. If one wants, Machiavelli opines, to preserve a city that is accustomed to being independent and having free institutions, it is more easily held by using its citizens to govern it than in any other way. (Quoted in Porter, 1997: 226) Voltaire declares exploitation of the people by the authoritative group as the major cause of creating instability in society and stands for the eradication of the major causes of hostilities between existing social groups, in order to perpetuate harmony in the societies. Voltaire’s purpose of writing was to dethrone the mere pretenders to greatness and put the real great men in their place. (Thomas & Thomas ) He takes the rule of equal law as the most significant thing to combat conflicts and lays stress on the permanent implication of rule of law on an equal basis to avoid any hostility, conflict, and turmoil.

Like other philosophers including Descartes. Nietzsche and others, Voltaire also believes in the exploration of the true concept of God. He disclaimed the traditional idea of God, church, and the king, and in an ironical way conveys the message that the truth, validity, and legitimacy of this concept require comprehensive intellectual analyses to guide humanity to move towards the right direction. His works also indicate the same ideas where the great philosopher indirectly tried to preach enlightenment through his fabulous characters. His wonderful Candide serves as a magnificent satire on the existing political system, where the nobility and clergy are always ready to misguide, deplore and humiliate the people. He also blames the foolishness of the people responsible for their miseries and troubles. The character of the illegitimate orphan Candide symbolizes the stupidity of the general public, who have no opinion of their own, and merely run amuck according to the hear-say traditions of the clergy and nobility and perform accordingly. The novel gave the message that mere imitation of false notions cannot win any comforts for man. Rather, deep observation, seeking knowledge, applying wit, and laboring hard are the essentials to achieve happiness and mental satisfaction in life. Candide, the protagonist of the satirical novel “Candide ou l’Optimisme” (1759), has idealized the teachings of his tutor Dr. Pangloss that he is living in the best possible world where there is an ultimate end of happiness is on the way. Being quite a naïve and very simple person, Candide perceives that there exists total goodness everywhere in the world. He looks for happiness in many materialistic things including merry-making, love, drinks, jewelry, traveling, and others, but he is unable to achieve any happiness during the course of time. He travels widely in search of her beloved Cunegonde, though she preferred a luxurious life rather than leading a poor life in association with Candide. Sexual assaults, rape, political turmoil, and religious exploitations represent lawlessness, cruelty, and social injustices committed in the name of religion and church. The storms and earthquakes symbolize natural checks on the one hand and the permanence of change taking place in the world constantly on the other. The character sketch of Dr. Pangloss represents both goodnesses as well as blind optimism that is equally dangerous for the survival of both the societies and individuals at large, as such blind faith and too much optimism may jeopardize the very existence of social setup. Hence, being realistic and wise is the only way to combat the challenges of life.

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  • Nietzsche, Frederick Wilhelm. The Gay Science 1882
  • Porter, Jene M. Classics in Political Philosophy. Second Edition. Prentice-Hall Canada. 1997 293-402
  • Thomas, Henry & Thomas, Dana Lee. Great Philosophers. Bhavan’s Book University Bombay 1971 142-157
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