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Is Candide an Enlightenment Text?

Candide is one of the most famous works by Voltaire written during the Age of Enlightenment. Till nowadays it fascinates the readers with its profound penetration into the human world with all its evils, drawbacks, falsity and cruelty. The harsh irony and sarcasm of the author along with severe critics towards the existing cultural and religious norms made Candide also one of the brightest examples of the Enlightenment literature.

First of all it is seems necessary to be clear about the term “Enlightenment”. It appeared in the mid-nineteenth century on the bases of French philosophy. Enlightenment didn’t present the set of values as a single movement or school, but rather a set of ideas, centered on the critical examination of the traditional customs, morals and institutions. Researchers could not agree as for the start date of this age, however most of them consider it to be the beginning of the eighteenth century. Correspondingly there is no agreement as for the end of the Enlightenment era, for some scholars this was the Napoleonic Wars, whereas for others – the death of Voltaire. Speaking about the intellectual developments of that period, this is necessary to underline, that due to their strong influence upon social and political life, they served the driving forces for giving more rights and liberties to usual people, considering the natural law and natural rights along with individual rights and reasons. Practically the era of the Enlightenment symbolizes the disclaimer of the Middle Ages principles of oppression and acceptance of freedom in religion, scientific development and human communication.

Candid is said to be one of the best writings produced by Voltaire, although it had to go through success and scandal. When this book was published for the first time, it was banned, it was said to contain “religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of naïveté” (1). However, in spite of banning, the novel became rather popular within readers and other authors as well. The researchers state, that there were several historical events, which inspired Voltaire to write Candide; the two most important ones were the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and the Seven Years’ War. These events had a strong impact upon all theologians of those days, and were disillusioning for Voltaire, which he tried to reflect in his novel. The doctrine of optimism became as shaky as the earth after the earthquake, because it previously stated, that such events shouldn’t take place. The author of the optimism theory was Gottfried Leibniz; his main concept was, that all happens for the best, because God is a benevolent deity. After that earthquake Voltaire didn’t support this optimist concept any more, coming to the conclusion, that there were probably other better worlds. One of the central problems of Candide is the rejection of optimism. With the help of sarcastic depiction the author states, that such a terrible natural disaster took place “in the best of all possible worlds”. Voltaire himself explained the purpose of his novel in the following way: “Candide was to bring amusement to a small number of men of wit” (2).

Most critics agreed, that Voltaire actually managed to achieve this goal, thus creating a witty parody of classic adventure novel. The facts of the narration are presented in such a way, that they seem humorous instead of horrible. The whole of the story seems to the readers rather unreal, characters get into situations very close to death all the time and are always able to escape from it. One of the biographers of Voltaire characterized this writing as “short, light, rapid and humorous” (1).

This is evident, that humor and lightness are only on the very surface of the narration, in reality there is profound criticism of European civilization of those times, which certainly was one of the main reasons, why this writing was initially banned. Not only the government of England, but also those of France, Portugal, Prussia were criticized by the author for various reasons – for the Seven Years’ War, for the Inquisition and finally for execution of John Byng. The order of religious organization was also not approved by Voltaire. One of the brightest examples of this might be found in authors words about Jesuits. Voltaire’s version of the Christian mission to Paraguay suggested, that Jesuits were treating peoples there like their slaves and not aiming to provide help for them. There is no direct satire, there are mostly subtle hints, expressed through the names, like for example Pangloss and Pennecunde. Voltaire chose the satirical presentation of his ideas and attitudes, he actually played on the contrast between comedy and tragedy. There is no intentional exaggeration of the world’s evils and horrors, there is real presentation of the cores of the philosophies and cultural traditions.

“Thus Candide derides optimism, for instance, with a deluge of horrible, historical (or at least plausible) events with no apparent redeeming qualities” (1).

One of the brightest examples of profound satire of the author might be traced in the presentation of the historical event, which Candide and Martin were witnessing in Portsmouth harbour. The saw, how the spy, John Byng was executed on his own ship with the main target “to encourage others”. This kind of explanation for depriving somebody of his life is a typical example of Voltaire’s satire and wit, which made this phrase later one of the best quotes of the narration.

The whole depiction of the world, with all its evident drawbacks, the author tries to insert into the frames of optimistic theory. In the novel there are a lot of discussions of the evil theme. The only exception is the description of the fantastic village, called El Dorado. People living there are kind, rational, just. Actually El Dorado is the only positive image, contrasted to the whole pessimistic spirit of the novel.

William F. Bottiglia, one of the researchers of the Voltaire’s work, pointed out another important satirical element, which he called “sentimental foibles of the age” and Voltaire’s attack on them. (2). We have already mentioned, that narration about Candide is in whole a parody on romantic adventures, in reality aiming to reveal the criticism of the author of the flaws in European culture.

Each of the characters presents one of the manifestations: the image of Candide for example was related to scoundrels of the low class, Cunegonde – for *** interests, Pangloss the knowledgeable mentor and Cacambo the skilful valet (1).However by the end of the novel, their images are distorted completely in the eyes of the readers, because Candide turns out to be not a rogue, Cunegodne is far from being attractive and Pangloss is stupid. On the other hand all the characters, depicted by Voltaire, are simplistic and stereotypical.

We have already mentioned, that the author got completely disappointed in the theory of optimism and expressed his ideas through satirical presentation of philosophical and religious theories. After building such strong associations, the Leibnizian optimism even got the second name – Panglossianism. Some critics even came to conclusion, that the main concern of the writer was the theological interpretation of the world’s evils. In reality there is constant reminding about the various evils in the novel: war, thefts, murders, natural disaster. “Bottiglia notes Voltaire is “comprehensive” in his enumeration of the world’s evils. He is unrelenting in attacking Leibnizian optimism” (2).

The most criticized hero of the novel is certainly Pangloss, who claimed, that he was the follower of Leibniz and could teach his doctrines. Thorough mocking at the teachings and theories of Pangloss, Voltaire in reality wanted to underline his mistrust into the theories of Leibniz himself.

This can be traced in the first teaching of Pangloss already, where he can not differentiate between cause and effect: “It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles” (1). Another example is the hero’s argument as for existence of syphilis as positive fact: “… it was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for 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” (2).Candide, who tried to follow the teachings of Pangloss turned out to be incompetent student , because he tried to find justifications for evils and was finally “cured of his optimism” – “”Pangloss deceived me cruelly when he said that all is for the best in the world.” (3)

One of the main problems of Pangloss’s optimism was that is was based not on evidences of the real world, but on abstract arguments of philosophy. Within the whole flow of the novel Voltaire underlined the usefulness of philosophical speculation, as it only prevents the heroes of the novel from making rational and substantial conclusions about the things around them. Most of the critics agreed, that direct critic of Voltaire towards optimism philosophy didn’t touch his contemporary Alexander Pope, who also supported the optimistic principle – “all is right”. The convictions of Pope seemed to be different from those of Leibniz and in Candide all the attacks on the optimism were related to the position of Leibniz.

In the book by Norman Davies “Europe: A History”, the author underlined “the more positive achievements of European civilization such as parliamentary democracy, intellectual tolerance, religious freedom, the rule of law, the creation of the welfare state, equality of treatment for men and women, and the improvement of life brought about by pure and applied science.” (1). Probably all this could be reached only thanks to cultural and social upheaval during the epoch of the Enlightenment, which to our understanding symbolizes a serious historical turn point for the development of political, philosophical and theological views. By the example of one of the most appreciated literary works of that period, we tried to prove, that the age of Enlightenment was a crucial point for formation of European philosophical thought.


Ayer, A.J. Voltaire. New York City: Random House, 1996

Kamrath, M. L. “Brown and the Enlightenment: A study of the influence of Voltaire’s Candide in Edgar Huntly”. The American Transcendental Quarterly 5, 1991

Norman D. “Europe: A History.Harper Perennial, 1998

Voltaire . Bair, Lowell. ed. Candide. New York: Bantam Dell, 1959

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