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

“Italy had its renaissance, Germany its Reformation, France had Voltaire,” historian Will Durant once commented.

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

Voltaire’s Candide or Optimism (1759) is widely recognized as a masterpiece among his myriad works. A somber satirical novella that targets human folly, pride, and over-reliance on the ability of reason to plumb the deepest metaphysical truths remains as telling in this era of pandemics and savage conspiracy theories as it did when it was first published.

Read more: Criticism of Western civilization is not new, it was part of the Enlightenment

Theological shock waves

Voltaire had represented an almost naive optimism in his earlier works, but the decade from 1749 to 1759 was not an easy one for the philosopher-author.

Personally, his great love, Émilie du Châtelet, died in 1749. Politically, he had been forced from exile to exile because of his criticism of the privileges of the monks and clergy in France and his essay on the universal history, manners, and spirit of nations (1756), which considered Christianity as just a world religion and not treated as the finally revealed truth.

In 1755, on November 1st, a severe earthquake hit the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, followed by a tsunami. Tens of thousands were dead within minutes.

The accusations soon began. Protestants saw Lisbon’s destruction as a divine judgment on Catholicism. Catholics suggested with equal implausibility the particular sinfulness of the Lisbonites as the cause of the catastrophe. Pyrenees were erected on the streets to burn heretics as scapegoats for the disaster.

This combination of senseless death and even more senseless human reactions outraged Voltaire. His first answer was the passionate “Poem about the Lisbon disaster” from 1755:

When the dying voices call, you will dare to answer
To this horrific spectacle of smoking ashes with,
[…] ‘God is avenged. Is her death the price for her crimes?

Then, a few years later, Candide came along.

A depiction of the great Lisbon earthquake of November 1st, 1755.
Wikimedia Commons

A simple boy

As his name suggests, Voltaire’s hero Candide is a simple boy. He grew up in a magnificent castle in Westphalia in northwest Germany and is moved by only two passions. The first is the lasting love for his sweetheart, Cunégonde.

The second is the admiration for his teacher Pangloss (“all tongue”), a high-profile professor of “Metaphysico-Théologo-Cosmolonigology”, who had the fortunate ability to declare everything that happens despite the occurrence as “for the best”.

It is demonstrable, “he said,” that things cannot be different from what they are; For […] Everything is necessarily for the best ending. Note that the nose is shaped to wear glasses – so we have glasses. The legs are visibly designed for stockings – and we have stockings […] Pigs were made for human consumption – that’s why we eat pork all year round. Consequently, those who claim that everything is fine would have said something stupid, they should have said everything is for the best. “

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

These two men had defended what the former called “theodicy”: the idea that a perfect God could only have created the best possible world. Hence, the human perception that events like pandemics, earthquakes, massacres, and tsunamis are bad must be wrong.

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

Cover picture and first page of an early English translation by T. Smollett et al. from Voltaire’s Candide, 1762.
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Candide’s fate is presented by Voltaire as the reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity) of this optimistic theory. Our hero is first driven from his garden in Eden when Cunégonde’s father meets her and Candide and illegally experiments with what Voltaire delicately calls “natural philosophy”.

During Candide’s subsequent wanderings through Europe and America, Voltaire leads his hero on a regular guided tour through all the evils of war, lust, avarice, vanity and colonialism.

Candide flees war, rape and zeal in Bulgaria and Holland and arrives in Lisbon on time for the earthquake. He is selected as a heretic to be executed by fire before escaping to save Cunégonde from controversial, lustful representatives of the two great biblical faiths of the West, Judaism and Christianity.

The lovers flee to America together. In Buenos Aires, however, the Spanish governor confiscated Cunégonde for his wife. Candide and his servant Cacambo are forced to flee into the new world through more bloody misfortunes.

In a rightly famous passage in which Candide finally revokes the theodicy of his teacher Pangloss as an “abomination” […] to claim that everything is right when it is wrong, ”they come across a crippled African slave whose masters are Dutch merchants in Suriname:

“Yes, sir,” said the negro, “it is custom. […] If we work on the cane and the grinder snaps a finger, they cut the hand off; and if we try to run away they cut off the leg; Both cases happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe. “

Candide and Cacambo meet a mutilated slave at a sugar mill near Suriname.
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The increasingly disillusioned Candide is returning to this Europe. The fortunes he has acquired in the new world will soon be spotted by crafty climbers in Paris and Venice. He is reunited with Pangloss, who did not retract any of his optimism despite being enslaved, whipped, hanged and brutally mutilated. He explains: “I am a philosopher and I cannot withdraw […]”

Candide soon hears the news that Cunégonde is now a slave in Turkey after her own litany of improbable suffering. So he sets off one last time. Finally reunited with his half-broken lover, they retire with their friends to a small farm near Constantinople.

In spite of everything, Pangloss still sometimes comes to mindlessly philosophizing when the story ends famous:

“There is a chain of events in this best of all possible worlds: If you had not been thrown out of a magnificent castle out of love for Miss Cunegonde: If you had not been accepted into the Inquisition: If you had not gone through America :: […] If you hadn’t lost all of your sheep from the beautiful country of El Dorado, you wouldn’t be here to eat canned lemons and pistachios. “

“That is all very well,” replied Candide, “but let’s take care of our garden.”


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

the art of either bringing two seemingly distant things together, or sharing two things that appear to be united, or juxtaposing them […]

The art of Voltaire’s Candide is to leave readers unsure whether to cry, scream, laugh, or do everything at the same time. Cruel sufferings are told with the innocence of a children’s fairy tale.

Elevated questions of metaphysical philosophy, which had split the greatest Western minds for a century, are brought to earth amid the din of warring armies, collapsing cities, inhuman barbarism and slavery.

Voltaire’s castle and garden in Ferney, where he eventually lived for 20 years.
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It’s easy to see why critics have read Voltaire’s novella as a desperate document. But the laughs of the book suggest that this is only half the story.

Voltaire is furious with human cruelty and idiocy. He despises the Panglossian pride, which pretends to justify the unjustified with carefree self-assurance and futile sophistries. He despises any theory smart enough to explain human suffering but not human enough to decipher it.

But that’s because he believes people can be better. For Voltaire, we can and should challenge all fair-sounding ideologies that align us with outrages visited by others that we would not accept for ourselves.

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

Let’s destroy the notorious!

Voltaire at 70.
Wikimedia Commons

Voltaire was stateless and in 1758 landed in the countryside in Ferney near the Swiss-French border. At the tender age of 65 he started a legendary campaign against religious fanaticism – combined with his famous slogan: Écrasez l’infâme! (Let’s destroy the notorious!).

His 1763 Treatise on Tolerance was sparked by anger over the unlawful execution of Protestant Jean Calas by Catholic zealots in Toulouse.

In 1778, the legendary author and advocate of multi-religious society finally returned to Paris to be celebrated as a hero. Tired of the trip, Voltaire died soon afterwards, claiming: “I die by worshiping God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies and abhorring superstition.”

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

There is no pandemic in Voltaire’s Candide, and conspiracy theories today make Pangloss’ inhuman hyperrationalism look balanced.

But there are few other books you could read with greater sympathy in 2021 than this little gem of irony, misfortune, and restrained outrage over human folly and prejudice. And none that are more cutting and entertaining.

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