Candide, ou l’Optimisme is an 18th-century novel written by Voltaire, the French philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment. Focused on the story of a young man named Candide who was taught by his tutor, Professor Pangloss, in the spirit of Leibnizian optimism, it satirizes religion, the optimistic beliefs of the Enlightenment, social evils and political injustice. The purpose of this paper is to analyze how the values of the 18th-century European society are depicted and criticized by Voltaire, what alternatives he suggests, and how the ideas of the Enlightenment are reflected in the novel.
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The 18-th century French society was divided into three orders: nobility, clergy, and commoners, with the power shared between the two privileged orders and the King above them. The underlying social principle was formed by two contradictory ideas: first, that all people are equal and the natural rights and freedoms are bestowed equally on every individual. Second, that the society is governed by positive laws that establish the right social order and the superiority of some classes over the others. This contradiction manifested itself in the belief that individuals that are equal on their nature are joined together in a society consisting of groups that are unequal in their rights.
In his novel, Voltaire criticizes the principles that the 18th-century society is built upon by ridiculing and exaggerating the vices of the society, individuals, and institutions. He describes the world as being full of misery and injustice, and the people in power as the primary source of evil. Faced with all kinds of suffering throughout his journey, Candide finally gives up on the Leibnizian principle of all being “for the best” in “the best of all possible worlds.”
The author satirizes French government establishments, religious dogmas, popular philosophical ideas, and almost all social institutions of that time. His descriptions of the clergy and religious conflicts provide the best illustration of his ideas. Church officials are depicted as being the most sinful of all characters: greedy, brutal and vicious. They steal, impose severe punishments on innocent people, have mistresses and are engaged in homosexual affairs. When arriving at the ideal island of El Dorado, Candide asks in surprise, “What! Have you no monks among you to dispute, to govern, to intrigue, and to burn people who are not of the same opinion with themselves?” (Voltaire, 2000, p. 25). The prejudice and irrationality typical to the 18th-century institutions are ridiculed through characters like the Bulgarian Captain, the Grand Inquisitor, and the Young Baron. The Inquisitor executes and hangs citizens over philosophical differences, illustrating how the leaders of men who are supposed to spread morality are responsible for the prevalence of evil and injustice.
Voltaire criticizes hypocrisy and inequality characteristic to the French government institutions and executives of that time. Through the exaggerated comical portrayal of characters and situations he sharply points out the main contradictions of 18th-century society. For example, Candide’s servant describes the country of Paraguay as “an admirable government”: “The kingdom is 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” (Voltaire, 2000, p. 18). Voltaire ridicules the idea of a society divided into unequal classes with the clergy and nobility having all the power and resources, and the commoners believing this is the best possible social arrangement. The power and status derived from lineage are portrayed as corrupt and meaningless.
The idea of a utopian society free of human vices is represented in the image of El Dorado, an idyllic village where there is no poverty and religious prosecution, and people are always happy and thankful. It is an ideal society free of greed, suffering, poverty and religious contention. Voltaire believes in the power of human reason and equality between men. This principle is represented in the idea of “cultivating your own garden” — a practical approach, which states that every person is responsible only for their own garden and their own well-being. The good old man whom Candide meets at the end of the novel, says, “I have no more than twenty acres of ground, the whole of which I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and our labor keeps us from three great evils—idleness, vice and poverty” (Voltaire, 2000, 47). In order to achieve peace and harmony, every man should cultivate their own garden, constantly and patiently, without questioning the purpose and the meaning of their activities.
Voltaire’s novel Candide addresses the main issues of the 18th-century society in both satirical and tragical manner. The portrayal of people and situations in his works is comical, but the underlying problems are tragic. Voltaire criticizes the ideas of Leibnizian optimism by bringing up the problems of injustice, hypocrisy and corruption typical of the 18th-century European society. In his novel, the world is evil and full of misery and injustice, and the people in power are the main source of evil. The only way a person can be happy and live in peace is by “cultivating their own garden” and changing the world not by engaging in philosophical disputes, but by simple everyday actions.
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Voltaire. (2000). Candide or Optimism. Penguin.