Voltaire, Candide, and Unfounded Optimism

Voltaire, Candide, and Unfounded Optimism

Apr 27, 2014


A college assignment.


While “Candide” was written as satire, Voltaire’s descriptions of outlandish violence and brutal hardships bear truth in the world today. Many would discount Voltaire on the basis of his religious and political views, but I believe him to be one of the most enlightened individuals of his time. His views were well ahead of other philosophers of the late 1700’s, and his insights are a warning to the follies of a blindly optimistic population.

To accurately assess Voltaire’s philosophy, one must place themselves in his position. A French writer and public activist, Voltaire would just as soon satirize religious dogma and political corruption as he would support religious freedom and political debate. However, this open-mindedness would also be his greatest enemy, and many of his works would never see the light of day. Indeed, “Candide” has been banned in a number of places, including the Geneva Council of Paris, the Roman Catholic Church, and even U.S. Customs in as late as 1944. So how, then, did one of Voltaire’s greatest works sell 30,000 copies in the first year, if so many people were out to keep it hidden? (2)

Perhaps Voltaire was in the right place at the right time. The Age of Enlightenment brought forth an era of science and literacy that until this point had never before been seen by a populace which craved freedom. This terrified the powers-that-be because an educated population, learned past a certain point is increasingly difficult to control. An educated population is a force to be reckoned with, but as Voltaire would argue, so is an uneducated population of optimists. Rather than embrace knowledge and reason, the rulers of that time (who, in France, was primarily the Catholic Church) would ban the sources of knowledge, imprison the dissenters, spread misinformation and sow misfortune. Take for example “Candide’s” black slave that “lost a hand because it was caught in the millstone and a leg because he tried to escape." This serves to illuminate the worst of humanity, but also the effect of a population that is willing to believe the lies given to them. Now, look at the right-wing political parties of America; in how many different ways can they propose legislation to replace a well-known science such as evolution with religious doctrine in school textbooks? Time and again these cases are silenced – religion is not science, after all - yet they resurface… yearly? Monthly? Those in power crave legitimacy, and the lack thereof is disconcerting to a populace that feels that they are losing it – tormenting them to the point of inanity. This effect makes controlling powers hypersensitive to new ideas. They already feel oppressed (even though they aren’t), and they respond by lashing out at the dissenters. It is as though one cannot be a true “Tea-Partier” without also being a liberal-hating, bible-thumping, fear-mongering, gun-owning, science-denying bigot. Your affiliation comes with the baggage of the whole, both in the eyes of your own party and of your opponent’s. I say this somewhat hesitantly, as I personally know a good amount of Republicans that are decent, hard-working human beings which do not at all fit this description. However, it seems clear that the further up the chain of command one goes, the more common this type of person becomes. The unfortunate truth is that the vocal minority will always reflect poorly on the large majority. We see this in other parties as well. Power breeds the desire – nay, the need - to hold onto that power, and this is exactly what Voltaire satirizes in the story of “Candide.” Why else would Voltaire destroy all semblance of optimism with his stories of rape, persecution, violence and misfortune? It is a warning to those that would close their mind to reason and give in to the whim of controlling rulers.

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” (often credited to Voltaire, but the source is unclear)

So, then, did the world today heed Voltaire’s words? Perhaps, though not everyone would agree with this evaluation. To some extent, in the U.S. at least, we still cannot criticize religion. We cannot step on the feet of countries in which we have major trade agreements with. We cannot disagree with a family member that embraces homeopathy over science. We cannot even disagree with the political party that we are forced to support. While we are not punished by law - and this is certainly something to celebrate - there is a social stigma associated with going against the norm. To criticize the things that hold power over us is, in some twisted way, is to defect to the enemy in the eyes of some. It is as I said earlier: to affiliate with a group is to embrace all of the included baggage. Voltaire warned of this as he described the actions of the Bulgars, whom were nothing more to him than mindless drones following the demands of their supposed king. In the same way, Voltaire might say that that your run-of-the-mill democrat’s inability to criticize Barack Obama is a flaw in their ability to truly reason. He might even say they are “sheep” to be shepherded.

In the 1789 review, “The English Case Against Voltaire,” Bernard Schilling seeks “to show that the condemnation of Voltaire as a prime mover of the French Revolution proceeds naturally from the prevailing English opinion that popular religious belief, especially Christianity, is absolutely essential to the maintenance of the government and that anyone who weakens religious reverence opens the way to disorder and rebellion.” (3) It is well known that Voltaire gave little credence to the merits of optimism with regards to religion’s influence in politics, though today it is as if we give it too much so.

Take for example the aforementioned example regarding our president. In the same way that Voltaire criticizes the idea that “…everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” we hold dear to the optimism that our leaders espouse. Because we must carry the baggage of our political party, our religions, our families and more, we too begin to deify them. To question is to alienate oneself from the majority, which breeds entirely new problems. One sees examples of blind optimism in Pangloss as he witnesses rape, robbery, violence and natural disaster – his eternal positivism is completely unwarranted. Why should one expect nature to behave any differently than it ever has? Voltaire would argue that nature itself has no intent, no care for an individual’s unfounded optimism. He would also argue that these atrocities have no greater purpose, that the cruelty of humans is not something to be morally justified. If Voltaire were alive today, he would be a humanist, and he would say, “We create our own morality.”

Both in “Candide” and now, this stands in stark contrast to the idea of a higher cause. Yet the vast majority still hold to the idea that a lost loved one is, “in a better place now,” that a cancer-stricken child is, “especially given to parents whom can take care of him/her,” and that a career criminal set free will, “serve his time one day.” These are ideas passed down through generations, from powerful rulers and from books written long before mystical claims could be properly verified by the scientific process. These ideas are not useful in Voltaire’s eyes. They serve to pacify a population that largely does not care for the truth. They serve to pacify a population that is eternally optimistic because they are forced to be; their beliefs demand it. These ideas are dangerous because they are not brought forth from reason; they are from dogma, they appeal to authority, and they breed a population of “sheep.” A shepherd of a billion-strong flock is an insurmountable force; I do not think even Voltaire realized how right he would be on a global scale. How could he know? The world was so much smaller then.

Regardless of how the world has turned out, there is still reason for optimism. In no first-world country can a person be put to death for their beliefs. In no first-world country is freedom of knowledge outlawed by government, is free speech shuttered by the threat of a crowd, or is an idea something to be feared. Only in nations which have not yet hit their “Age of Enlightenment” do we see a true, physical threat from even the government for an idea. Rest assured that these places do still exist, and they are a threat to the people that must live with them - but their numbers are dwindling. The spread of knowledge, and especially they Internet, has all but killed the ability for our leaders to spread lies. No claim goes unquestioned anymore. Any idea can quickly be proven or disproven given a few minute’s time, the internet, and logical reasoning.

Playing off of that idea, let’s pretend that it’s the year 2100. All dogma is gone. Ideas and governments are completely open. Political parties work together instead of picking sides. Countries prioritize free-will and human rights over conspiracy theories and mass control. Is the world a perfect place? Voltaire would not say so, and he would debate even the possibility of a perfect world. Voltaire would cite the indifference of nature and man, and he would extrapolate a world much like the one we currently live in – a world of ideas and debate, of political factions and division, of innovation and technology. However he would leave one specific minority for all of the violence, the hate, and the corruption – and he would call it “the hypocrites”.

In “Candide,” the reader encounters a daughter of the Pope – a man who should be celibate. One encounters a jewel thief that is also a friar, despite the vow of poverty taken by members of the Franciscan order. One even encounters Jewish men with homosexual tendencies. Whether then, or now, or the year 2100 – there will always be “the hypocrites” which seek to gain power over us through deception and lies. However, it stands to reason that in a world of science and ideas, the worst of such would be methodologically crushed by the reasoning masses. In a world such as this, ideas can never be silenced, but remain as a warning to what could have been if humanity kept on a path of blind obedience – blind optimism – to ideas which do not bear weight in reality. There will always be rulers, tradition and dogma, but one should never stop questioning. (4)

It is because of this that I must side with Evelyn Hall as she wrote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” (5) Indeed, there is reason to be optimistic, but it does not reside in myth or politics. It is in the scientific process, logical reasoning, the spread of ideas and in humanity itself.

Works Cited

  1. Puchner, Martin, Suzanne Akbari, Wiebke Denecke, Vinay Dharwadker, Barbara Fuchs, Caroline Levine, Pericles Lewis, and Emily Wilson, eds. Norton Anthology of World Literature: 1650 to the Present. New York: W W Norton, 2012. 355-413. Print.
  2. Davidson, Ian. Voltaire in Exile: The Last Years, 1753-78. New York: Grove, 2004. Print.
  3. Schilling, Bernard N. “The English Case Against Voltaire: 1789-1800.” Journal of the History of Ideas 4.2 (1943): 193. Print.
  4. Voltaire, and Peter Constantine. “Chapter 14.” Candide, Or, Optimism. New York: Modern Library, 2005. Print.
  5. Hall, Evelyn Beatrice. The Friends of Voltaire. New York: Putnam’s, 1907. Print.