Candide (or Optimism) by Voltaire

Candide being swindled (in Voltaire's Candide,...

Candide being swindled (in Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


At least 250 years after its publication in 1759, Candide is still very funny satire. My favorite line from Candide is, “let’s eat some Jesuit“–probably because a good portion of my education is due to the Jesuits. Perhaps it would be even funnier to me if I was a Catholic, or maybe I would just laugh guiltily.The book is simultaneously brutal and humorous. Although you will find it in the literature section as it is considered a novella, some of the “fictional” events are based on historical facts, and it was the failure of the period’s intellectuals (Leibniz in particular) to deal with the harsh realities of the world (a major earthquake in Lisbon, the plague, and the Spanish Inquisition) that prompted Voltaire to write such a scathing rebuttal to some of those individuals. His lampooning of various governments and religions eventually landed him in prison. One point of contention in our discussion of Candide was what Voltaire meant to say at the end of the novella. A straightforward way to approach the ending is in the literal sense, i.e., we should simply become farmers as opposed to traveling around the world, trying to figure out why human beings have an unlimited capability to act cruelly to each other. That advice works if it is 1759 and the industrial revolution is not yet in “high gear,” so to speak.

Another approach would be to view the characters’ retreat to a farm as Voltaire giving us the advice that it is better to retreat from the world–in whatever way you can–than to engage oneself with it. The ending of Candide is enigmatic: when Candide says for the second time that “we must cultivate our garden,” is Voltaire trying to dissuade us from philosophizing about the existence of evil in the world? Is he critiquing the field of philosophy in general while simultaneously engaging in philosophy?

ADDENDUM: At the end of War and Peace (1869), Tolstoy (like Voltaire) spends a fair amount of time sharing his thoughts about the shortcomings of other intellectuals. Specifically, Tolstoy criticizes different methods of historical analysis. Tolstoy is particularly critical of historians who fail to recognize the role of “necessity” in their analysis of human interaction, and cites Voltaire as someone who has prematurely disregarded the role of religion. You can find this discussion on the second to last page of War and Peace (p.1,443) if you have the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Publishing note: My edition of Candide was a Norton critical edition, translated by Robert M. Adams. Other group members had other editions and translations. We discovered that they were all fairly similar, but not identical. Adams’ translation uses slightly more formal language, however, so if that is what you prefer, then I can recommend the Norton edition which also has a number of critical essays following the text.



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