Running and Laughing: ‘Candide’, God, and the Meaning of Life

When Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’Optimisme was (pseudonymously) published in February 1759, it was simultaneously released in the three great publishing centres of Continental Europe: Geneva, Amsterdam, and Paris. This was in part to shift as many copies as possible before it was pirated, but mostly to make it difficult for the authorities to ban it. The latter happened quickly in any event. The Advocate General of Paris declared the novella to be ‘contrary to religion and morals’, and by the end of the month, the Parisian parliament and the Grand Council of Geneva had both banned the book, seizing and destroying all the printed copies they could find. New editions immediately sprang up, reaching double figures by the end of the year and including three separate English translations. By the measure of any publishing epoch, Candide was a bestseller, its author becoming one of the first writers in history to achieve international celebrity and commercial success on a level that we would recognize today.

This little piece of Enlightenment satire has remained in print ever since, frequently cited as one of the most influential books ever written. And unlike other classics that appear in lists like Martin Seymour-Smith’s The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, Candide is an easy and enjoyable read, coming in at a mere 38,000 words, not one of them wasted. It also packs a heavyweight philosophical punch – because you don’t get cited alongside works like the Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, the Bible, The Communist Manifesto, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Shakespeare’s first Folio, War and Peace, and Dante’s Divine Comedy (to name but a few) without content that is as sublime as it is seismic – but Voltaire achieved this on the wings of a butterfly. As Anatole France said, ‘in Voltaire’s fingers the pen runs and laughs.’

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694 –1778) was no stranger to controversy. Fiercely critical of the Ancien Régime and the Catholic Church, and a fearless, eloquent and lifelong champion of free speech, religious freedom, constitutional monarchy, the separation of church and state, and the abolition of slavery, his writing got him beaten up more than once and locked up twice in the Bastille. Often fearing for his safety, he spent several years of his life living in exile in England, then Prussia and finally Switzerland, where Candide was written; he didn’t return to France until shortly before his death. A prolific writer across several literary forms – he was a dramatist, satirist, poet, novelist, historian, philosopher, scientist, pamphleteer, and prodigious correspondent – the sale of much of Voltaire’s published work was forbidden in his native country during his lifetime, and it was frequently burned in the street. As he cheerfully addressed his oppressors in his Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (Philosophical Dictionary, 1764): ‘I have from necessity the passion to write this; and you, you have the passion to contradict me: we are both equally foolish, equally the playthings of fate. Your nature is to do evil, mine is to love the truth and publish it in spite of you.’ In print and in private, Voltaire’s clarion call was ‘écrasez l’infâme’ – ‘crush the infamous’, by which he meant the royal and religious authorities that were often interlinked in Europe, the superstition and intolerance encouraged by the clergy (especially the Jesuits, who had educated him and whom he despised), and the ignorant masses – the ‘other idiots’ – who went along with it all.

Candide, then, was a continuation of this lifelong political/philosophical project, and the one that has endured, probably because of Voltaire’s profound blend of insight and irreverent humour. And rarely has an author got to the heart of the human condition with such concision…

Voltaire’s petit roman is somewhere between the Bildungsroman or ‘coming of age’ story, and the picaresque novel (from the Spanish word pícaro, meaning ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’). The ‘pícaro’ is usually a likeable, lower-class ne’er-do-well who lives by his wits in a corrupt world, his episodic adventures building up a portrait of contemporary society in a satiric reflection of the Chivalric romance. Candide is not easily pigeonholed, but it certainly borrows from both genres. There’s something of the fairy tale about it as well, only turned on its head. The plot is relatively straightforward. The hero of the title, a young man of ‘the most agreeable manners’, is the ward (and possibly bastard nephew) of a Westphalian Baron. Along with the Baron’s son and daughter, Lady Cunégonde, Candide is educated by the tutor Dr. Pangloss, a strict Theodicist and follower of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Names are important here. Candide comes from the Latin candidus, meaning ‘white’, ‘pure’, ‘beautiful’ and, by extension, ‘honest’, ‘sincere’, and ‘innocent’. Pangloss comes from the Greek pan (‘all’) and glossa ‘(tongue’), suggesting he is all talk (in opposition to the character ‘Panurge’ in Rabelais’ Third Book of Pantagruel, whose name means ‘all energy’ or ‘all work’); and ‘Mademoiselle Cunégonde’ is just filthy, leaving us to ponder whether Voltaire’s hero seeks an ideal, true love, or simply sex. As George Saintsbury wrote in A History of the French Novel (1917), ‘nobody will ever know anything about style who does not feel what the continual repetition in Candide’s mouth of that Mademoiselle does.’

Caught kissing Cunégonde by her father, Candide receives twenty kicks on the backside and is ejected from the castle. He is pressed into service in the ‘Bulgar’ (Prussian) army during the Seven Years’ War, flogged repeatedly and flung into bloody battle against the ‘Abars’ (the French). He manages to desert, and upon reuniting by complete accident with his old tutor in Holland, now a bit worse for wear, he embarks on an epic journey across the world in search of his lost love. Along the way, he is occasionally helped and mostly hindered by an array of colourful characters, and conned, robbed, and generally abused on a regular basis. Despite many setbacks, Candide remains essentially upbeat, although he grows to doubt the ‘optimistic’ teachings of his mentor as he sees more of the world for himself. Can it really be, as Pangloss argues, ‘the best of all possible worlds’?

The primary target of Voltaire’s satire is signalled in his subtitle, ‘Optimism’. First used in print in 1737, the word as Voltaire knew it represented the philosophical position of the Theodicists, most notably Leibniz, that – as Pangloss repeatedly states – the world as created by God must necessarily be optimal among all possible worlds as God is by definition all-powerful and perfect in every way. Theodicy seeks to answer the question of why a supremely good God allows evil in the world – ‘moral’ (human), ‘physical’ (pain), and ‘metaphysical’ (apparent imperfections in design; natural disasters, pandemics, spiders and so forth):

Pangloss was a professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

‘It is demonstrable,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all year-round. Consequently, they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.’

Candide listened attentively and believed innocently…

The absurd logic is entirely intentional, and Pangloss’ justifications for every circumstance, however horrible, become increasingly ridiculous as he ceaselessly argues that ‘all is for the best’ (Tout est pour le mieux) despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When he loses his nose to syphilis, for example, he counters that the then incurable STD ‘was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds.’ This was because ‘if Columbus had not caught in an island in America this disease, which contaminates the source of generation, and frequently impedes propagation itself, and is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should have had neither chocolate nor cochineal.’ ‘Panglossianism’ would go on to become a philosophical term itself for ‘naive or unreasonable optimism’ (later to be joined by ‘Pollyannaism’.)

The ‘problem of evil’ has dogged the philosophy of religion for centuries. For atheists and people of faith alike, it is a familiar argument. How do Christians reconcile the attributes of their God – that he is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent – with a world in which suffering abounds? Could not he have made a better world, in which bad things didn’t happen? If he could, why didn’t he? (Perhaps he is not all good.) If he could not, then he is not all-powerful. To medieval theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury, should one attribute of God be logically disproved, then God himself did not exist? The logical proofs for the existence of God remained common cultural currency into the Enlightenment, endlessly debated and reframed, as can be seen in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated (1641). Moral – that is human – evil can be countered by the argument that the Creator granted human beings free will to choose between good and evil. To force humanity to do the right thing would remove this freedom of choice and render moral goodness meaningless. Physical and Metaphysical evil and the apparently random injustice of life are harder to refute in the Christian model unless muddled with original sin and redemption through suffering, which still doesn’t vindicate the supposedly benevolent architect. In times of crisis, for example during plagues, wars and natural disasters, these questions become much more urgent.

Leibniz took on the problem of evil in his Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (1710). He then streamlined his ‘perfect world theory’ in his metaphysical cosmogony on the divine totality of all things, The Monadology, in 1714:

1. God has the idea of infinitely many universes.

2. Only one of these universes can actually exist.

3. God’s choices are subject to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, God has reason to choose one thing or another.

4. God is good.

5. Therefore, the universe that God chose to exist is the best of all possible worlds.

‘All is for the best’ is then reverse-engineered from this position, like Pangloss’ pox, which raises another problem, one of perspective: for whom is all well in any given situation? The plus side of this is to accept that things going badly for you does not mean the world itself is a bad place. The downside of this argument, however, leads to provincial ignorance, complacency, and selfishness; essentially: All is well everywhere because I’m doing alright in the tiny corner of the world I know and inhabit. (This is the point of Pangloss’ Edenic view of the obviously rather ordinary Westphalian castle and its masters, and a not unfamiliar attitude nowadays either.) Pangloss seems to be going for the greater good, his nose (and later an eye and an ear) a small price to pay for the ‘pre-established harmony’. As Alexander Pope concluded The Essay on Man (1734):

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;

All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony, not understood;

All partial evil, universal good:

And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Or, as Candide explains to his Manichean companion, Martin: ‘I have seen the worst. But a wise man, who since has had the misfortune to be hanged, taught me that all is marvellously well; these are but the shadows on a beautiful picture.’ Pangloss, paraphrased by his pupil, had been paraphrasing Leibnitz, who had written of the dark side of nature and humanity that ‘the shadows bring out the colours’. Martin, who believes that ‘man was created by the forces of evil and not by the forces of good’ sees only ‘horrible stains’ on the canvas.

Voltaire was no atheist; it was religion, not faith that he questioned. Initially, he wasn’t overly bothered by philosophical optimism and admired its English advocates such as Bolingbroke, Shaftesbury, and Pope. To the brilliant joker, philosophical optimism was like a lot of theological posturing: tautological and intellectually redundant. ‘Their all is well means nothing more than that all is controlled by immutable laws,’ he wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary, ‘Who does not know that?’ What appalled him, however, was the Theodicists’ indifference to both collective and individual suffering implicit in the doctrine of ‘Whatever is, is right’/‘All is for the best’ – the callousness of the position that certain horrors are not just an inevitable part of the design but a necessity.

This was brought into sharp focus by the ‘Great Lisbon Earthquake’ of 1755 and the subsequent firestorm and tsunami, which destroyed several cities, including the capital, and killed somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people in Portugal, the Iberian Peninsula, and Northwest Africa. This catastrophe stimulated both sides of the Theodicy debate. How and why, wondered the Enlightenment intelligentsia, could God have allowed such a thing to happen? (To add insult to injury, the quake happened on November 1, All Saints’ Day, and all of Lisbon’s many packed churches were demolished.) Portugal’s economy took a vast hit, derailing its colonial ambitions just as the great European empires were on the rise. Many Catholics viewed the disaster in terms of Old Testament punishment: God’s wrath visited upon the sins of the Portuguese, particularly Protestant heretics and Jesuits. Protestants, meanwhile, saw the event as a divine judgement against Catholics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed the earthquake was the result of urban overpopulation and used it as an argument against ‘unnatural’ cities; Immanuel Kant formulated a scientific theory for the cause of earthquakes (he got it wrong, but this was still the first step toward the science of seismology); and the Theodicists fell over themselves to rationalise the event within the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire was horrified.

The Lisbon earthquake is a central episode in the early chapters of Candide, although this was not the first time Voltaire had written about it. His first response was the much rawer Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, written and widely distributed in December 1755 before being formally published in March the following year. The tone of the poem and its prose preface is as serious as Candide is playful. In the poem, one can see any sympathy or at least indulgence, Voltaire might have felt for the philosophical optimists collapsing like the Portuguese capital itself and his commitment to a rather bleak form of deism (rationalistic theology) hardening.

Subtitled ‘An Inquiry into the Maxim, “Whatever Is, Is Right”’, Voltaire begins his preface: ‘If the question of physical evil has ever deserved the attention of man, it is when those melancholy events occur which put us in mind of the feebleness of our nature…’ Citing Pope and Leibnitz by name, Voltaire then advances several arguments against optimism:

If it be true that whatever is, is right, it follows that human nature is not fallen. If the order of things requires that everything should be as it is, then human nature has not been corrupted and consequently has no need for a Redeemer. If this world, just as it is, is the best of all possible worlds, we have no room to hope for a happier future state. If all the evils by which we are overwhelmed contribute to the general good, then all civilized nations have been misguided in endeavouring to trace out the origins of moral and physical evil. If a man devoured by wild beasts brings about the well-being of those brutes and thereby contributes to the order of the universe; if the miseries of individuals are merely the by-product of this general and necessary order, then we are nothing more than cogs which serve to keep the great machine in motion; we are no more precious in the eyes of God than the animals by which we are devoured … ‘Whatever is, is right’, if taken in its absolute sense and without any hopes of a happy future state, only insults us in the miseries of our present life.

He also takes the optimistic doctrine to its absurdly logical conclusion, mocking many of the arguments made by Theodicists to justify the disaster:

‘All this is as it should be; the heirs of those who have died will multiply their fortunes; masons will make money by rebuilding the houses; beasts will fatten themselves on the bodies buried under the ruins; this is all the necessary effect of necessary causes; your personal misfortune is as nothing, you are contributing to the general good.’

The poem itself begins:

Oh wretched man, earth-fated to be cursed;

Abyss of plagues, and miseries the worst!

Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show,

That man’s the victim of unceasing woe,

And lamentations which inspire my strain,

Prove that philosophy is false and vain.

Throughout the 180-line poem, Voltaire grieves for the victims of the earthquake and rejects any claim that a just and compassionate deity would ‘punish sinners’ so sadistically. He also argues that the God of Pope and Leibnitz could have prevented the innocent suffering alongside sinners, limited the damage, or at least announced his purifying purpose. He rails against Pope’s mantra, refutes any assertion that such events are part of some ineffable plan and allows that anyone caught up in such suffering has every right to moan about it: ‘When the earth gapes my body to entomb/I justly may complain of such a doom.’ Close to the disaster, this is a very angry poem.

By Candide, Voltaire is able to look at the crater, or at least reflect on the theories that surround it, and laugh at it, much as one might the grave. Candide sees it as the last judgement, Pangloss seeks ‘sufficient reason’, and the sailor with whom they wash up embraces the opportunity to loot. ‘For all that is for the best,’ decides Pangloss, after not much deliberation. ‘If there is a volcano at Lisbon it cannot be elsewhere. It is impossible that things should be other than they are; for everything is right.’ He is overheard by the Inquisition and sentenced to death at an auto-da-fé ‘for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.’ Candide is also arrested for ‘listening with an air of approval’. (To find out how they get out of this you’ll just have to read the book.)

In Candide, Voltaire’s assault on the optimists is relentless, and all the more effective for being funny. Hypocrisy, corruption, slavery, torture, murder, rape, prostitution, theft, and even cannibalism abound, to the point the emotional and physical violence becomes surreal. ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds,’ cries Candide after Lisbon, ‘what must the others be like?’ When Candide seeks a companion on a long sea voyage, he chooses the poor scholar Martin after conducting a poll to find the person who ‘was the most dissatisfied with his state, and the most unfortunate in the whole province’. Such a crowd of candidates presented themselves, we are told, ‘that a fleet of ships could hardly have held them’. Only the South American City State of El Dorado is exempted, following the 18th-century literary tradition of protagonists stumbling upon utopias (Candide is clearly inspired by Gulliver’s Travels). But then, El Dorado’s not a real place, is it?

So where does this leave us? Voltaire himself said that the purpose of Candide was to ‘bring amusement to a small number of men of wit’, but behind the joke there was harsh criticism of contemporary European civilization that managed, at the time, to offend just about all the governments of the day, including our own. (In Chapter 23, Voltaire depicts the historical execution of Admiral John Byng, court marshalled for his failure to relieve the siege of Minorca in 1756, because, Candide is told, ‘in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.’) But this is not the work of a pessimist, a fatalist, or a sceptic. There is always hope, embodied by Candide’s quest for Lady Cunégonde, even if it doesn’t turn out exactly as planned. This is what sets him apart from the Manichean Martin and the self-deluding (possibly hypocritical) philosopher Pangloss. Also, however bad things get, life finds a way. As the ‘Old Woman’ (Lady Cunégonde’s servant, once a fine lady herself, now sans one buttock) concludes her history: ‘A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself; but still I loved life.’ She admits she finds this position ‘ridiculous’ but adds of all the misery she has seen she has rarely encountered anyone who voluntarily chose to end it all, only: ‘three negroes, four Englishmen, four Swiss, and a German professor named Robek.’ (Johan Robeck was a Swedish-German philosopher who wrote an essay theologically justifying suicide and then drowned himself in the river Weser.) Even Martin seems happy in his way, resigned to things as they are rather than depressed by them. (‘I don’t know what to do about it,’ he says of his Manicheism, ‘but that’s what I believe.’) He also keeps himself amused by constantly busting other peoples’ bubbles. Candide’s servant Cacambo, meanwhile, who has every opportunity to betray his master just as nearly everyone else does, remains steadfastly decent and loyal. The world of Candide is definitely bad, but not that bad; there is still love, loyalty, humour – albeit pretty dark – and always hope for a better tomorrow.

Voltaire ends as he began with a dig at philosophical optimism. As he was soon to write in his Philosophical Dictionary – which reads like an afterword to Candide much as his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster was the prelude: ‘So far from the notion of the best of possible worlds being consoling, it drives to despair the philosophers who embrace it. The problem of good and evil remains inexplicable chaos for those who seek in good faith. It is an intellectual exercise for those who argue: they are convicts who play with their chains.’ Pangloss, you will remember, is ‘all talk’. He is finally shut up by ‘the best philosopher in all Turkey’:

‘Master,’ said he, ‘we come to beg you to tell why so strange an animal as man was made.’

‘With what meddlest thou?’ said the Dervish; ‘is it thy business?’

‘But, reverend father,’ said Candide, ‘there is horrible evil in this world.’

‘What signifies it,’ said the Dervish, ‘whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he trouble his head whether the mice on board are at their ease or not?’

‘What, then, must we do?’ said Pangloss.

‘Hold your tongue,’ answered the Dervish.

‘I was in hopes,’ said Pangloss, ‘that I should reason with you a little about causes and effects, about the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and the pre-established harmony.’

At these words, the Dervish shut the door in their faces.

For Voltaire, an avid gardener, the pragmatic antidote to all this pointless chatter is honest labour. This is not anti-intellectualism, as Roland Barthes would later claim, but more anti-BS. In the text, this is personified by the Turkish farmer the heroes meet after the Turkish philosopher, who is content not to bother with either philosophy or politics and who works on a small parcel of land with his children. ‘Our labour preserves us from three great evils,’ he explains, ‘weariness, vice, and want.’ Martin and Candide are greatly taken by this: ‘Travaillons sans raisonner, dit Martin, c’est le seul moyen de rendre la vie supportable’, which has been variously translated as: ‘Let’s work without reasoning, said Martin, it’s the only way to make life bearable’; ‘We must work without arguing,’ said Martin; ‘that is the only way to make life bearable’; ‘Let us work,’ said Martin, ‘without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable’; and ‘Let us set to work and stop proving things,’ said Martin, ‘for that is the only way to make life bearable.’ You might want to think about that the next time you get into an argument on social media…

Stephen Carver

Image: Candide in a Scottish Opera & Old Vic co-production at the Old Vic, London in 1988

Credit: Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo