Voltaire’s Candide — a darkly satirical tale of human folly in times of crisis

“Italy had its rebirth, Germany had its reform, France had Voltaire,” historian Will Durant once commented.

Born François-Marie Arouet, Voltaire (1694-1778) was known in his lifetime as the “patriarch” of the French Enlightenment. A man of extraordinary energy and ability, he produced about 100 volumes of poetry, fiction, theater, biblical and literary criticism, history and philosophy.

Among his myriad works, Voltaire’s Candide or Optimism (1759) is widely recognized as a masterpiece. A dark satirical novel aimed at human madness, pride, and an overconfidence in the ability of speech to hydrate deeper metaphysical truths, it remains as true in this age of pandemics and savage conspiracy theories as it was first published.

Read more: The critique of Western Civilization is not new, it was part of the Enlightenment

Theological waves

In his earlier works, Voltaire had suggested an almost naive optimism, but the decade 1749-1759 was not easy for the philosopher-writer.

Personally, his great love, ilmilie du Châtelet, had died in 1749. Politically, he was forced into exile for his critique of monastic and graphic privileges in France and his essay on world history, manners and spirit. of nations (1756), which viewed Christianity as the only universal religion, despite the final truth revealed.

In the meantime, on November 1, 1755, a massive earthquake struck the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, and a tsunami struck. Within minutes, tens of thousands were dead.

Disputes soon began. The Protestants saw in the destruction of Lisbon a divine crisis for Catholicism. The Catholics suggested, with the same unjustification, the particular sin of Lisbon as the cause of the catastrophe. Fires were erected in the streets to burn heretics, as scapegoats for destruction.

This combination of stupid death and even more foolish human responses infuriated Voltaire. His first answer was the passionate “Poem in the Destruction of Lisbon” of 1755:

As the dying voices shout, you will dare to answer
In this terrifying sight of smoking ashes with,
[…] “God is taking revenge. Is their death the price of their crimes?

Then, several years later, came Candide.

An illustration of the earthquake of Great Lisbon on November 1, 1755.
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An ordinary child

As its name suggests, Voltaire’s hero, Candide, is an ordinary child. Growing up in a magnificent castle in Westphalia, in northwestern Germany, he is moved by only two passions. The first is the constant love for his beloved, Cunégonde.

The second is the admiration for his teacher, Pangloss (“all language”), an elevated professor of “metaphysics-theology-cosmology” who had the happy ability to explain everything that happens, despite appearances, as “about better”.

It is proven, “he said,” that things can not be different from what they are […] everything is necessary for the best end. Notice that the nose is shaped to hold glasses – so we have glasses. The legs are visibly designed for socks – and we have socks […] Pigs are made for consumption – so we eat pork all year round. Therefore, those who claim that everything is fine have said a foolish thing, they should have said: everything is for the better. “

In Pangloss, Voltaire satirizes the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the British poet Alexander Pope.

These two men defended what the former called “theodia”: the idea that a perfect God could only have created the best possible world. Therefore, the human perception that events such as pandemics, earthquakes, massacres and tsunamis are bad must be misled.

Read more: Floods and fires: the struggle for reconstruction, the search for meaning

Frontispiece and the first page of an early English translation by T. Smollett et al. of Voltaire’s Candide, 1762.
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Candide’s fate is determined by Voltaire as a reductio ad absurdum of this optimistic theory. Our hero was first expelled from his kindergarten when Cunégonde’s father came to her and Candide illegally experimented with what Voltaire gently called “natural philosophy”.

In Candide’s subsequent wanderings across Europe and America, Voltaire treats his hero to a veritable tour of all the evils of war, lust, wisdom, vanity, and colonialism.

Leaving war, rape and zeal in Bulgaria and the Netherlands, Candide arrives in Lisbon just for the quake. He has been chosen to be executed by fire as a heretic, before escaping to save Cunegod from the questionable, lustful representatives of the two great biblical believers of the West, Judaism and Christianity.

The lovers leave for America together. In Buenos Aires, however, the Spanish governor occupies Cunegond for his wife. Candide and his servant, Cacambo, are forced to flee from even more bloody evil interventions in the new world.

In a well-known passage, which finally sees Candide dismiss Pangloss’s teacher’s theodic as “evil” […] to claim that everything is right when it is wrong “, they come in contact with a disabled African slave whose teachers are Dutch merchants in Suriname:

“Yes, sir,” said the Negro, “it is customary. […] When we are working on the canes and the grinder grabs a finger, they cut off the hand. and when we tried to leave, they cut off his leg. both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe. “

Candide and Cacambo meet a slave from a sugar mill near Suriname.
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In this Europe, the increasingly frustrated Candide is back. The wealth he gained in the new world soon escaped the wicked social climbers of Paris and Venice. He reconnects with Pangloss, who has recovered nothing from his optimism despite being enslaved, flogged, hanged and violently dishonest, explaining that “I am a philosopher and I can not withdraw […]”

Very soon, Candide also hears news that Cunégonde is now a slave in Turkey, after her own procession of incredible troubles. So it hits last time. He was finally reunited with his half-broken lover, retiring to a small farm with their friends near Istanbul.

Here, in spite of everything, Pangloss sometimes comes to philosophy for no reason, as the story closes famously:

“There is a set of facts in this best of all possible worlds: why if you had not kicked out of a magnificent castle for Mrs. Cunegonde’s love: if you had not entered the Exam: if you had not walked over America: […] if you had not lost all your sheep from the wonderful country of El Dorado: you would not be here to eat canned citrus fruits and peanuts. “

“All of this is very good,” Candide replied, “but let’s cultivate our garden.”


In the entry in the “wit” (esprit) in the famous Philosophical Dictionary of 1764, Voltaire reflects that it is:

the art of either joining two things that seem distant, or separating two things that seem to be united, or opposing them […]

It’s Voltaire’s Candide art to leave readers unsure if they should cry, shout, laugh or all at once. The horrible sufferings are explained by the innocence of a children’s fairy tale.

Elevated issues of metaphysical philosophy, which for a century had divided the greatest Western minds, are collapsing on earth amidst the battles of militarized armies, collapsing cities, inhuman barbarism and slavery.

The Voltaire tower, with a garden, in Ferney, where he eventually lived for 20 years.
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It is easy to understand why critics have read Voltaire’s novel as a document written in despair. But the book’s laughter shows that this is only half the story.

Voltaire is outraged by human cruelty and calm. He despises the pride of the Panglossians, who pretend to justify the unjustified with self-confidence and vain sophistry. He despises any theory clever enough to explain human suffering, but not humane enough to dispel it.

This is because he believes that human beings can be better. For Voltaire, we can and must challenge all the just ideologies that reconcile us with the evils that others visit that we would not accept for ourselves.

Read more: A moral world in which bad things happen to good people

Let’s crush the infamous!

Voltaire at 70.
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Stateless, Voltaire had ended up in 1758 in a rural refuge at Ferney, near the Swiss-French border. At the tender age of 65, he launched a legendary campaign against religious fanaticism – associated with his famous slogan: rasecrasez l’infâme! (let’s crush the famous one!).

His 1763 treatise on tolerance sparked outrage over the illegal execution of the Protestant Jean Calas by Catholic zealots in Toulouse.

In 1778, the legendary author and supporter of a multi-religious society finally returned to Paris to be hailed as a hero. Tired of the voyage, Voltaire died shortly afterwards, claiming: “I die worshiping God, I love my friends, I do not hate my enemies, and I hate superstition.”

In 1791, the revolutionary government honored Voltaire as an inspiration. His remains were reunited in the Pantheon.

There is no pandemic in Voltaire’s Candide, and current conspiracy theories make Pangloss’s inhuman, super-rationalism seem balanced.

But there are few other books you could read more fondly in 2021 than this little gem of irony, destruction, and rampant rage for human madness and prejudice. And none that is more fun and entertaining.

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