Candide - A Contrast to Optimism
Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire was the French author of the
novella Candide, also known as "Optimism"(Durant and Durant 724). In
Candide, Voltaire sought to point out the fallacy of Gottfried William
von Leibniz's theory of optimism and the hardships brought on by the
resulting inaction toward the evils of the world. Voltaire's use of
satire, and its techniques of exaggeration and contrast highlight the
evil and brutality of war and the world in general when men are meekly
accepting of their fate. Leibniz, a German philosopher and
mathematician of Voltaire's time, developed the idea that the world
they were living in at that time was "the best of all possible
worlds." This systematic optimism shown by Leibniz is the
philosophical system that believed everything already was for the
best, no matter how terrible it seemed. In this satire, Voltaire
showed the world full of natural disasters and brutality. Voltaire
also used contrast in the personalities of the characters to convey
the message that Leibniz's philosophy should not be dealt with any
Leibniz, sometimes regarded as a Stoic or Fatalist because his
philosophies were based on the idea that everything in the world
was determined by fate, theorized that God, having the ability to pick
from an infinite number of worlds, chose this world, "the best of all
possible worlds." Although Voltaire chose that simple quality of
Leibniz's philosophy to satirize, Leibniz meant a little more than
just that. Even though his philosophy stated that God chose "the best
of all possible worlds," he also meant that God, being the perfection
he is, chose the best world available to him, unfortunately it was a
world containing evil. It seems as though Voltaire wanted to ridicule
Leibniz's philosophy so much that he chose to satirize only the
literal meaning and fatal acceptance of evil of Leibniz's philosophy.
To get his point across in Candide, Voltaire created the
character Dr. Pangloss, an unconditional follower of Leibniz's
philosophy. Voltaire shows this early in the novella by stating, "He
proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause and that, in
this best of all possible worlds....(16)" Pangloss goes on to say that
everything had its purpose and things were made for the best. For
example, the nose was created for the purpose of wearing spectacles
(Voltaire 16). Because of his "great knowledge," Candide, at this
point a very naive and impressionable youth, regards Pangloss as the
greatest philosopher in the world, a reverence that will soon be
contradicted by contact with reality (Frautschi 75). The name Pangloss
is translated as "all tongue" and "windbag." The colloquialism
"windbag" implies that a person is all talk, and he takes no action.
In this case, Leibniz's philosophy is Stoic acceptance of the evil of
the world. As the story progresses, though, Pangloss loses faith in
the Leibnizian philosophy. Although Pangloss suffered many hardships,
he still sticks to the philosophy to avoid contradicting himself
(Frautschi 69). Voltaire uses Pangloss and a contrasting character,
Martin, to point out the shortcomings in Leibniz's philosophy.
A contrast to the views of Pangloss is the character Martin.
Martin, a pessimist, is a friend and advisor to Candide whom he meets
on his journey. Martin continuously tries to prove to Candide that
there is little virtue, morality, and happiness in the world. When a
cheerful couple is seen walking and singing, Candide tells Martin, "At
least you must admit that these people are happy (80)." Martin answers
Candide's comment with the reply, "I wager they are not (80)." Martin
suggests that Candide invite the couple to dine at his hotel. As the
young girl, now found to be Paquette, tells her story, Martin takes
pleasure in knowing he has won the wager.
Another contrast to this "best of all possible worlds" is
Eldorado. Voltaire describes Eldorado as an extremely peaceful and
serene country. Eldorado, a place that is "impossible" to find, has no
laws, jails, war, or need for material goods. Voltaire uses Eldorado
as an epitome of the "best of all possible worlds." It contrasts the
real outside world in which war and suffering are everyday
Another example of how Voltaire ridicules Pangloss' optimistic
philosophy is the mention of the Lisbon earthquake and fire. Even
though the disastrous earthquake took over 30,000 lives, Pangloss
still upheld his philosophical optimism by stating, "For all this is
for the very best...For it is impossible that things should not be
where they are.(26)" The disaster in Lisbon affected Voltaire's life
so much that he wrote the Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, but Pangloss'
philosophy said that the Lisbon earthquake was necessary in the course
of nature, and there was definitely a rationale for the situation.
War is another evil which Voltaire satirizes in Candide.
Voltaire used the Bulgarians and their brutality as a basis for his
satire on war. Voltaire writes how Candide was captured by the
Bulgarians and is given a choice "to be beaten thirty-six times by the
whole regiment, or receive twelve lead bullets at once in his brain
(19)." Being the "hero" he is, Candide chooses to run the gauntlet.
Instead of the thirty-six times he was to run the gauntlet, our "hero"
made it only two until he pleaded to the Bulgarians to smash in his
head (19). Another satire of war included in Candide is the
Bulgarians' burning of the Abarian village "in accordance with the
rules of international law.(20)" Voltaire also shows his satire on war
in that the Bulgarian soldiers do not just kill other people, they
rape disembowel, and dismember innocent women and children. In fact,
Candide's training as a soldier involved being brutalized and beaten.
Voltaire uses this example to demonstrate the inhuman vulgarity of
many belligerent groups. He thought that this torture was cruel and
unjustified. If this were the "best of all possible worlds," innocent
people would not be harmed, and violent peoples such as the Bulgarians
would not exist.
Upon arrival in England, Candide witnesses another instance of
brutality, the execution of an admiral because of his failure to
win a battle(Voltaire 78). A reply to Candide's questioning of the act
is, "...it is a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time
to encourage the others (78-79)." This is an obvious allusion to an
incident Voltaire himself witnessed. Admiral Byng of England was
court-martialed for the same outrageous reason, and although Voltaire
tried to stop the execution, Byng was still killed (Durant and Durant
Although the novella Candide was partially written for
entertainment purposes, it was written primarily to satirize the views
of Leibniz's philosophy. Voltaire looked at the world with the idea
that there could be something done about all of the evil in the world.
He achieved his goal of satirizing Leibniz by tearing apart Pangloss'
philosophy, using Martin as a contrast to Pangloss, showing the
destruction caused by natural disasters, and the brutality of war.
Durant, Will, Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: Part IX: The
Age of Voltaire. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.
Frautschi, R.L. Barron's Simplified Approach to Voltaire: Candide. New
York: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1968.
Voltaire. Candide. In Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories. Trans.
Donald Frame, New York: Penguin Group, 1961.
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