The Worst of All Possible Worlds: Optimism and Pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide
Candide is a satirical novel of philosophical fiction written in 1758, exploring the life of a man named Candide, who is banished from his Uncle’s castle and the woman he loves, Cunegonde. He goes on many disastrous adventures to get her back, traveling with his teacher, Pangloss the philosopher, both of them holding the belief that the world they live in is “the best of all possible worlds”. This idea, as well as Voltaire’s views on pessimism and optimism, is explored with the portrayal of the characters and unfortunate events. Most people would assume that optimism is happiness, and pessimism is the opposite, but Voltaire’s work shows that neither topic is simple, and that too much of either can lead to strayed perceptions of the real world around oneself. With closer examination of the work, one finds that Voltaire believed you can not have one without the other. A commonly held view on the purpose of Voltaire’s writings is that he wrote to make fun of certain commonly held beliefs regarding Leibnizian optimism, pessimism, and common sense. However, in my essay I develop the idea that Voltaire was not just discounting these perceptions, but commenting on them and showing us his particular standpoint on these different philosophical ideas.
I explore optimism and pessimism in the context of the novel Candide by Voltaire, as well as Voltaire’s goal in using these ideas to get his point across about common sense and human nature, his point being a person’s circumstance can alter their world view. Though critics have commented on these ideas before, I want to explore more in depth his particular views and opinions on these philosophical doctrines, and how he explores different sides of optimism and pessimism with the use of characters and certain scenes in the book. Closer attention to the use of characters and catastrophic events reveal that rather than just discount optimism or pessimism, he uses satire and these situational events to comment on the way he views these ideas actually fit into the world he lived in.
During the time of Voltaire’s writing, there were many innovative ideas being explored within the context of philosophy, and many undergoing scrutiny, those of which are explained in “A History of Philosophy” by Frank Thilly. One of the most popular ideas was that of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who solidified ideas about the principle of sufficient reason and most notably, the notion of “the best of all possible worlds”. Leibniz created this phrase, and related it as an explanation as to why God would let bad things happen in the world, believing, “God is the final cause, and uses secondary or efficient causes as means” (391). He believed God chose to create the world we live in over any other he could have created, so therefore this must be the best. He also asserted that evil was necessary, because God must have created it to bring out the best aspects of humanity. Ideally, the best world would have the most amount of good, and a small amount of evil, both of them being necessary factors to make up “the best of all possible worlds”. This is referred to as Leibnizian optimism, which we witness with the character Pangloss the philosopher, who is the voice of Leibniz’s philosophy. Voltaire sets up the book to disprove it, and does not agree with his claims. With all the insane disasters Voltaire sets up for the characters, one has no choice but to discount Leibniz’s philosophy, because with so much suffering and evil it is hard to believe these evils could be regarded as “necessary” (or even that the good of man ever outweighs the evil). In modern comments on Leibniz’s ideas, we see authors like Thilly assert what Voltaire was attempting to with his writing of Candide, saying Leibniz based his ideas “on principles, not derived from experience”, showing Leibniz lacked other insight in his findings (394).
After exploring these ideas regarding the character of Candide, Voltaire’s views on optimism and philosophy have been elucidated and more clearly defined. We have come to see that Leibnizian optimism is a very hard doctrine to accept as completely true, because with respect to the actual physical world, Voltaire proves that blind optimism is not practical. The novel demands that we demand something ourselves: proof, based off of what we experience in the world around us, as well as looking at the whole picture to form opinions about philosophy that take into account other ideas such as optimism and pessimism. Close reading of previous scenes in the novel leave one to think: Well, what about the other characters? What do they represent? Voltaire has many characters coming and going throughout the novel, whom definitely represent something more, possibly other ideas or comments that Voltaire was trying to assert. Most notably, the old woman and the plights she has undergone throughout her miserable life, while still deciding to help others selflessly interests me with regard to human nature, because her character almost seems out of place compared to the evils and follies of man that Voltaire consistently points to throughout the book. It would be interesting to discern the point of such characters, as well as any underlying themes or assertions that Voltaire was exploring that have not yet been revealed. One thing is for sure; Voltaire was not a simple person when it came to philosophical doctrines, and that is why research surrounding Candide still leaves a lot to be desired.