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Candide and the Enlightenment

Conor Brown Western Civ.9/17/11 Candide: A Reflection Harsh criticism abounds in the enlightened satire Candide by Voltaire.The author constantly goes against the popular flow and challenges the status quo of the Enlightenment.

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Nothing is off limits for Voltaire and topics stretch from love, class, warfare and even religion. In the ever-changing society of the Enlightened period many just believed in the teachings of the supposed leading philosophers of the time, but Voltaire challenged these ideas and brought about new and what he believed were logical ways of thinking.

Even though the Enlightenment is constantly satirized in the book it is in its self a work of the Enlightenment. Which is very ironic but true nonetheless. However, through these harsh criticisms Voltaire presents his work in an extremely humorous and approachable way. Perhaps the best example of how the Enlightenment is satirized is Voltaire’s view of optimism. One of the movements most regarded philosophers was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. He founded this idea of supreme optimism. His theory was that since God is a benevolent deity all is good in the world no matter what happens.

In other words everything happens for a reason, but that reason is always a good one. Voltaire saw it otherwise and gave multiple examples to back his defense. The first example revolves around Candide’s teacher Pangloss who is a supreme believer in the optimistic teachings of Leibniz. Pangloss had gone missing for a while but Candide soon finds him as a beggar with many sores all over his body. Pangloss explains that he had contracted syphilis from a servant in the Baron’s mansion. Now, usually any terrible disease is a bad thing but in Pangloss’ mind it is a good thing.

He explains to Candide that syphilis comes from Columbus’ discovery of the New World and says that without it Europe would have never been able to benefit from the new discoveries made there. For example without syphilis the Europeans would have never had the privilege of enjoining chocolate. That definitely seems extremely far-fetched that in order for someone to enjoying chocolate millions needed to suffer from syphilis. Voltaire’s satirizing is clearly evident in this example. Another example of optimism is the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

This was one of the worst tragedies of the time and over 30,000 people were killed during it. Even Jacques, a faithful friend to Candide, dies drowning while trying to save a bad sailor. How the heck could this be thought as a good thing? Well Pangloss reveals that it is for the best because the Lisbon harbor was constructed in order for Jacques to die and even though the harbor and thousands or people suffered it was completely necessary. This is totally ridiculous and not realistic. These exaggerations of optimism are meant to be unrealistic simply to bring about how flawed Voltaire sees the views are.

Personally to me optimism is a good trait to have in certain situations. When 30,000 thousand people must suffer or millions must contact syphilis in order to get a piece of chocolate optimism does not seem like a logical term. Optimism is good to help people get through tough times but it should not be the sole reason for why things occur. I do believe that everything does happen for a reason but I also believe that not everything occurs for a good reason. Sometimes things just happen because that is what God intended but it will not always lead to something good.

The Enlightened leaders did present some good ideas in optimism beliefs but they were not all true. There are quite a few elements in Candide that show Voltaire’s criticism on society. Class and order is visited frequently through out the book. There is this belief of how class and order are the only things that matter in life and that’s how one can get far in life. Frequently individuals and families in seats of authority abuse their power by hurting and mistreating servants and slaves. Voltaire presents these characters as ruthless idiots who care nothing about the subjects they rule over but only look out for themselves.

At this time in history the servant and master relationship was still alive and well. Voltaire criticizes this view by showing how corrupt and distraught this system really is. Voltaire harshly criticizes warfare. Candide shows us how he hates warfare and believes it to be futile and wasteful. He is forced into the army and is beaten for reasons he cannot explain. Women are also raped and beaten badly. Candide finds all of this so bad that he escapes from the army. Voltaire is providing an anti-war view that seems very logical.

Excess war is not good and most times war is not good because of how people go about it. Voltaire has very strong beliefs concerning this and he shows it through his character Candide. Voltaire also criticizes religion quite often. Whether it is by mocking a faith or showing the true side of an accepted belief. When Candide enters Holland and refuses to call the Pope the antichrist a group of Protestants calls him a heretic and pours waste on him. An Anabaptist named Jacques comes over and helps Candide by cleaning him and giving him some food.

The Anabaptist helps again by trying to save a sailor who has fallen off the ship during the earthquake. Jacques’ only reward for helping others is his own death by drowning. Voltaire shows how society hates a man just because his religion is different even when the man is nothing but good to others. The Protestants are accepted by society even though they are frequently mean and intolerant of others religious beliefs. A harsh but true criticism is explored here. Several punches are thrown at Catholicism throughout the book.

The clergy of the Church especially gets the worst of it. When in Lisbon an old woman takes care of Candide after he is flogged. They share stories and she casually states how she is the daughter of Pope Urban X and the Princess of Palestrina. The supposed corruption of the Catholic Church was revealed here in order to show how the Catholics were being ruled by a liar who was suppose to be celibate. A serious problem for a religion considering their leader is a fraud. Society is asked how can you truly believe in your religion when your leader does not even believe?

Another huge criticism of religion and society in general is when Candide visits the mythical city of El Dorado. Voltaire paints this utopian society that criticizes the modern day beliefs of religion and tries to show the ideal religion in El Dorado. Here is a place where they believe that God has created everything and simply then left it alone, providing a Deist approach. The real kicker that Voltaire throws in is how the inhabitants of El Dorado constantly thank God but they do not attend mass and there are even no priests.

Voltaire believes that priests are unnecessary and often get in the way and a much simpler approach to religion should be thought of in Europe. Even in this paradise of great religion Candide leaves to find his love and become happier. Which shows that Voltaire believes that society is never completely happy and always wants more even when they are in paradise. Candide has many humorous moments through out but some of my favorite revolve around the over exaggerations in order to criticize. Each approach to optimism is funny because of how wildly outrageous it is.

The fact that someone could believe that syphilis was a good thing because it brought about chocolate or that 30,000 people dying was necessary are so outrageous that it is hard not to chuckle even just the slightest. I also find the names of all the things very humorous. The term metaphysico-theologico-cosmoloonigology is very funny and also pokes fun at how the philosophers of the time considered themselves to be very sophisticated and extreme intellectuals. The name of the area where Candide is from, Thunder-Ten-Tronckh, is also quite humorous and might be used to show how the Baron thought he was extremely powerful.

The humor provided a very approachable way to talking about very touchy topics at the time while still stating Voltaire’s mind as well as making fun of people along the way. Regardless of Voltaire making fun of the ideals of the Enlightened period, Candide is still a book of Enlightened values. The Age of Enlightenment is also often referred to as the Age of Reason. The philosophers and intellectuals of the time were just simply trying to give reasonable explanations to numerous topics and mysteries. In reality that is all Voltaire was trying to do as well.

He was providing a critique to the intellectual beliefs and reasons and he himself was providing his own reasoning through this book. By showing his own paradise and criticizing the religion of the time he was trying to provide a reasonable approach to society’s view on religious beliefs. He was also reasonable explaining how ridiculous the idea of optimism really was. Voltaire was of the Enlightened age and he himself was trying to reason. Sure he did it through some bold and unorthodox ways but all he was trying to do was enlighten the reader and explain how he viewed the great mysteries and beliefs of the world.

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