"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

"Common sense is not so common."

"Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world."

"I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it."

"Illusion is the first of all pleasures."

"If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him."

"No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."


An Introduction

The universality of Candide depends not so much on the historical context of its philosophy and satire (though this is widely documented here), but upon the applicability to nearly any assemblage of humankind as it attempts to discover happiness, build society, reconcile evil, or explain God. The operetta Candide in 1956 was widely seen as an attack on McCarthyism. But the 2006 revival of the show was applied quickly to the authors of the US war on Iraq. “Whenever we are faced by dogmatism and absurdity,” writes Nicholas Cronk in his Norton introduction, “it is to Voltaire’s Candide that we turn” (vii).

The novel makes is easily read and makes us laugh–but our laughter is uneasy. We are compelled through reading to think, too, on what it means to live.

Do we and can we learn from experience?

Candide is a blank slate (Locke’s tabula rasa) and his name is Latin for “white.” As he and Cunegonde are thrown out of Eden to experience the world, do they grow from the experience? Does Pangloss? It is the entire motive of the Enlightenment that, as Kant says, humans must “Dare to know!”

How do we achieve happiness?

The Enlightenment’s U.S. Declaration of Independence ends with the “pursuit of happiness.” They did not argue an abandonment of faith but a genuine engagement in what that meant in terms of human agency. And how do we therefore account for evil? Does it exist by chance or design, by human will or human ignorance? Voltaire often referred to “God the Watchmaker,” a phrase akin to our most recent debates on Intelligent Design.


The novel, of course, can be read as comedy, as history, as satire, as philosophy, as religious reflection, and probably a number of other ways! And this may be in how it is framed as we enter it, or how our own expectations shaped a text phenomenologically. Nevetheless, it is difficult to deny that it is a novel of disruption, what Cronk calls “radically subversive” (xi). We may impose order upon it by selecting its allusions and parallels, but it too often slips from our grasp. But so long as absurdity in the world exists, there is room for Voltaire.

Some Reading Tips

Tone / Satire

  • We might define satire in part as a technique to express our moral rage. Satirists are pessimists; it is not their job to find a solution to the world, only to point out the failings and hypocrisies of humanity. In Candide, several characters are seemingly wholesome, or at least more so than the Bulgars, Huns, Catholics, and various others who commit atrocities. Jacques the Anabaptist, the servant Cacombo, the old woman, and Martin, are all characters who just work, more or less, to survive. Voltaire does not mock them in the same way as the rest of the society, and they may, therefore, be examples of virtues, such as work, charity, loyalty, and practicality–even moderation. If we are to reach Voltaire’s grand Enlightenment, then we must find a society of Freedom, Toleration, Justice, and Truth. If Voltaire expresses satire in the novel, as he does in seemingly every phrase, it is only against these principles for which we must never apologize.


  • There are two primary ways we might see Candide through allegory. The first is that the novel acts as a large allegory for the philosophical, political, religious, and even military arguments for his times. In this sense, each character, each scene,  and each circumstance represent a position, idea, and consequence.  Pangloss is obviously a parallel to the philosopher Leibniz and his philosophy of optimism. Another way to see the novel as allegory is to examine it as a parallel to earlier works, such as the Old Testament Book of Job.  Job suffers in the Old Testament for no personal reason, and he finally comes to challenge why God might allow evil to occur in the world if God is all good. God’s answer is, *I am God.“

Euphemism and Understatement

  • Each of these techniques are an essential element of effective satire. Euphemism is scattered throughout the passages of the novel, most readily in the first chapter of the novel where Pangloss is giving the maid “a lesson and experimental physics.” This adds, of course, humor to the scene, but also underscores the lengths to which people will go to avoid calling something what it is.  Understatement is also an essential element to satire as when Candide is told “the king will receive you in a manner that cannot displease you.” Or, “They entered a very plain house, for the door was nothing but silver, and the ceiling was only of beaten gold.”

Reading Schedule

Chs. 1-10Tues, Jan. 30
Chs. 11-19Tues. Feb. 6
Chs. 20-30Fri., Feb. 9

Voltaire’s Narrator

The “I” appears just once at the beginning of the novel and does not reappear. The rest is a cloud of irony and ambiguity. Be cautious in seeking too neat a conclusion about the author’s editorializing, even in its closing. If the war is “heroic butchery,” exactly where does the satirical blade of his irony point? 


As silly and dark as it is, this is a novel of philosophy, mostly of Voltaire’s response to that of Leibniz and Pope. Milton, in Paradise Lost, writes:

That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. (1.24-26)

The Enlightenment attempted to impose the rational upon the irrational faith of Christianity, and Leibniz, Pope, Rousseau (and later Abbott!) wrote their philosophies upon this reconciliation. Of course, Voltaire, Aquinas, Spinoza, and others found objections.  Some points:

The Optimism of Leibniz:

It’s important not to use our modern definition when thinking about this, though the connection is clear. For Leibniz, truth is about the “predicate in the subject.” That is, rather than think of cause –> effect, imagine the effect as predicating or insisting upon a just cause. This idea is powered by the idea that God (the primary Cause) would only order a just universe. It is from this idea that we can better understand the nature of free will, the problem of evil, etc.  For instance, the apparent problem of Effect–>Cause posed above is not a problem if we imagine that Time is not linear but a part of the overall preconceived Order. (A more thorough summary of Leibniz.)

  • Principle of Sufficient Reason — A singular effect or predicate is not enough to explain a single cause. Instead, there must in an ordered universe be an entire network of interlinking bases for a concept or justification. If this were not true, philosophy and science would be impossible in an unordered universe, even if the human mind cannot see the entire picture of that universe.
  • The Law of Contradiction might better be phrased the Law of Non-Contradiction. That is, God can make any cause and effect He chooses, but only to the degree that it does not contradict anything else in the same universe. There cannot, for instance, be more women than men and also more men than women. The system all must hang together, which means that the universe God has designed is the “best combination” possible with this rule: “the best of all possible worlds.” 
  • The Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. If something is alike in every aspect, it must be the same object. Two snowflakes, for instance, may appear alike, but if they are (in God’s universe) why would there be a need for both? Therefore, no two snowflakes are alike.  This may seem like a less important point, but it is necessary for the previous two principles (and truth) to exist. There can be no sufficient reason (and thus no order) in a world where multiple identical causes exist. 


  1. God has the idea of infinitely many universes.
  2. Only one of these universes can actually exist.
  3. God’s choices are subject to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, God has reason to choose one thing or another.
  4. God is good.
  5. Therefore, the universe that God chose to exist is the best of all possible worlds.

The Optimism of Pope

Alexander Pope. too, founded his philosophy on the notion of a pre-ordained order incomprehensible to Man: it the Great Chain of Being. He denies that he was influenced by Leibniz, but, well . . .  In his famous “ An Essay on Man” (actually a poem), he writes:

Is the great chain, that draws all to agree,
And drawn supports, upheld by God, or thee?


Cease then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: This kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav’n bestows on thee.
Submit.—In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow’r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony, not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

A Caution and Closing:

It’s tempting to read all of this as a binary opposition, Optimists vs. Pessimists, but it’s important to understand that these arguments were made largely amongst thinkers who engaged richly in the nuances of philosophy, Voltaire respected Pope and agreed with many of his ideas; but the improper use or application of idea is where they contest each other. 

  • Leibniz – Best of all possible worlds
  • Pope – All is well
  • Voltaire – The earth is what it ought to be

But different conclusions by very different arguments. Leibniz hated Locke and Newton and argued to defend God against Manicheism; Pope and Voltaire supported Locke and Newton, but Voltaire argued for deism against Christianity and Pope defended both against atheism. Whew!

What is the role of evil in the world? of Providence? Is a writer capable of arguing against his own convictions? Bakhtin will later argue that novels are dialogic in nature, as is the human mind. 

Some Literary Allusions

 “driven from terrestrial paradise…” (Ch. 2) 

Voltaire draws a parallel between Westphalia and the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve were expelled (“driven”) after Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

while the two kings were causing Te Deum to be sung each in his own camp…”.

Te Deum is a hymn of thanksgiving. So each side is singing of giving thanks for having done as well as they did that day.

“This is the Last Day…”  (Chapter 5)

The Last Judgement, or Judgement Day. In the Bible. Candide’s horror in this scene is a result of the devastation and not fear of Judgment (as an innocent young man, he’s likely to go to Heaven).

“a German professor named Robek…” (Chapter 12)

Johan Robeck, a Swedish-German philosopher who wrote an essay that legitimized suicide from a theological perspective. His primary argument was that life was a gift from God, and that, as a gift, we are free to dispense with it as we please.

The Lisbon Earthquake, 1756

 The plagues of Europe, the 1699 China earthquake which killed 400,000, and the Lisbon quake which killed 30,000. Any who witness may challenge the supposition that “All is well.” Voltaire’s “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” recounted in Chs. 5-6, in part:

And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?
Was less debauchery to London known,
Where opulence luxurious holds the throne? . . .

Yet in this direful chaos you’d compose
A general bliss from individuals’ woes?
Oh worthless bliss! in injured reason’s sight,
With faltering voice you cry, ‘What is, is right’? . . .

Once did I sing, in less lugubrious tone,
The sunny ways of pleasure’s genial rule;
The times have changed, and, taught by growing age,
And sharing of the frailty of mankind,
Seeking a light amid the deepening gloom,
I can but suffer, and will not repine.

A caliph once, when his last hour had come,
This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:

“To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear
What thou dost lack in thy immensity—
Evil and ignorance, distress and sin.”
He might have added one thing further—hope.

* * * * *

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau having been sent a copy of the poem, wrote to Voltaire that:

All my complaints are . . . against your poem on the Lisbon disaster, because I expected from it evidence more worthy of the humanity which apparently inspired you to write it. You reproach Pope and Leibnitz with belittling our misfortunes by affirming that all is well, but you so burden the list of our miseries that you further disparage our condition. Instead of the consolations that I expected; you only vex me. It might be said that you fear that I don’t feel my unhappiness enough, and that you are trying to soothe me by proving that all is bad.

Do not be mistaken, Monsieur, it happens that everything is contrary to what you propose. This optimism which you find so cruel consoles me still in the same woes that you force on me as unbearable. Pope’s poem alleviates my difficulties and inclines me to patience; yours makes my afflictions worse, prompts me to grumble, and, leading me beyond a shattered hope, reduces me to despair . . . .

“Have patience, man,” Pope and Leibnitz tell me, “your woes are a necessary effect of your nature and of the constitution of the universe. The eternal and beneficent Being who governs the universe wished to protect you. Of all the possible plans, he chose that combining the minimum evil and the maximum good. If it is necessary to say the same thing more bluntly, God has done no better for mankind because (He) can do no better.”

Now what does your poem tell me? “Suffer forever unfortunate one. If a God created you, He is doubtlessly all powerful and could have prevented all your woes. Don’t ever hope that your woes will end, because you would never know why you exist, if it is not to suffer and die . . . .”

Rousseau became convinced that Voltaire’s Candide was a response to this return letter. 

But to his Social Contract, Voltaire wrote:  “Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.”

And in general, to his detractors, Voltaire said, “I have asked God for only one thing in my life and that is that he should make people laugh at my enemies. And he did.”

François-Marie Arouet: nom de plume, Voltaire


 Perhaps the most prolific writer of the Enlightenment, Voltaire has produced enough plays, histories, essays, stories, and letters to fill 220 volumes of work (written by hand, remember!). Famous and infamous, while he was fortunate enough to end his life in his native France as a hero, he was also imprisoned and exiled many times for his words and provocations.

A progressive of his age, he frequently angered the government and also the Catholic Church, insulted various nobles, and therefore found himself in the Bastille, or being banished to England or Prussia (or once, spending 15 years in exile with his mistress at her husband’s home!).

His infamy did not end with his death, however. Fans of Rousseau hated him (for his attacks on Christian thought and later libelous comments on his personal life), and after 1800 scholars blamed him for the French Revolution.  But his pragmatism and biting irony found him eventually reputed for what he brought to France the “necessary philosopher in a world of bureaucrats (Lanson).”

A perpetrator of falsehood where it suited his rhetorical purposes, Voltaire was pronounced in November 2017 by the Voltaire Foundation to be the originator of “fake news.”

Additional Resources

  • Voltaire’s Love Letters. Beginning when he was 19, and his interest in Catherine-Olympe du Noyer (“Pimpette”) finally faded a few years later. Even so, these do sound very close to a certain protagonist’s infatuation . . . .
  • Letter to Frederick, Prince of Prussia, 1737. (pdf) From age 42 until his death, Voltaire sent over 700 letters to the younger ruler who was an admirer of Leibniz’s optimism. Three elements of Voltaire’s philosophy appear here as he works to move the man from his determinism: 1) that our behavior is chosen; 2) that skepticism of the world (especially of God and the soul) is a healthy habit: we can believe only our senses; and 3) that there is a universal principle of justice we might discover. Consider the “little society” that the characters of Candide form.
  • Letter to Jean-Robert Tronchin, 1755. This letter about the Lisbon earthquake which appears in the novel reveals how acutely it affected Voltaire. Striking on All Saints’ Day 1755, it klilled 30,000 people in six minutes. His reference to “best of all possible worlds” appears in Candide and is a reference to the optimism of Alexander Pope. Here is its main body:

November 24, 1755

This is indeed a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds— where a hundred thousand ants, our neighbours, are crushed in a second on our ant-heaps, half, dying undoubtedly in inexpressible agonies, beneath débris from which it was impossible to extricate them, families all over Europe reduced to beggary, and the fortunes of a hundred merchants — Swiss, like yourself — swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a game of chance human life is! What will the preachers say — especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike. I believe it is our mountains which save us from earthquakes.

  • Letters on the Publication and Authorship of Candide, 1759. (pdf)  Censorship was common enough in Voltaire’s time (he was imprisoned because of it), so the first edition of the work was written by a “Docteur Ralph,” and Voltaire went to some pains (with likely some real humor) in avoiding credit for the work. Here is a quick sample from an investigator and Voltaire’s response. Voltaire called the Omer Joly de Fleury a “little black balloon puffed up with stinking vapours.”
  • Voltaire on Slavery. (pdf)   Here are two brief documents, Louis XIV’s famous Black Code and Voltaire’s revision of his “Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations.” One of the most famous lines from Candide was added later as Voltaire wrestled with the issue of slavery. Spoken by a slave: “It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe.” Consider this struggle as you read Ch. 19.


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