After learning about Voltaire over a year ago in European history, I decided to casually study him. The easiest place to start seemed to be Candide, his most well-known work, and a fairly short one—I finished it in one night. Barnes and Noble Classics, translated by Henry Morley, was the version I read.
The story is amazing. Voltaire far exceeded my already-high expectations.
I give a bit of background in case the reader is not familiar with the author or work; Gita May’s introduction in this version of this book is quite helpful. Voltaire (1694-1778), a pen name for François-Marie Arouet, was a witty French writer and philosopher and, in the minds of many, the most prominent figure of the Enlightenment. His satirical Candide, or Optimism (1759) attacks the idea of philosophical optimism, which was advanced by German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz (1646-1716). Briefly, Leibniz said that our world is the best of all possible worlds, i.e. “God assuredly always chooses the best.” However, after the devastating Libson earthquake of 1755 and the beginning of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), Voltaire had second thoughts, and then rejected Leibniz’s outlook. Candide is an attack on Leibniz’s philosophical optimism.
The protagonist is named Candide, and sets off on an adventure that casts severe doubt into the concept of philosophical optimism, which is ridiculed in the book; it is called “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology.” In the tale, Candide’s teacher Pangloss blindly clings to this worldview, even when he is physically devastated and nearly killed on several occasions. Candide decides at the end that “we must cultivate our garden.”
Besides the philosophical criticism, Candide is also an attack against the “evils of religious fanaticism, war, colonialism, slavery, and mass atrocities.” The tale begins with Candide in a small perfect world, but once he is shoved to face the outside, he faces catastrophe after catastrophe, leading to terrible lives for not only himself but those around him. And this story picks up at a brisk pace. In fact, this book was so biting that it was officially banned almost right away in France, though it was still a best-seller as copies were exchanged beneath the counter.