Candide by Voltaire is a satire about a young, good-natured, naïve man (Candide) who faces a series of tragedies. Candide was tutored by an old philosopher and author (Pangloss) who instilled in him the idea that “everything is the way it should be” and that they lived in the “best of possible worlds.”
There is nothing deeper to this philosophy other than the belief that man is essentially good, and one should be thankful of the situation he finds himself in. Pangloss taught, even after he stopped believing it (as cleverly insinuated by Voltaire), that one should always aspire to be virtuous and be optimistic about reality.
Candide first falls in love Cunégonde, and then after losing her, meets a philosopher named Martin who accompanies him for a good part of his adventure. Candide treats Pangloss’s philosophy like a law of nature, never doubting its validity. And he never hesitates to bring up the ideas of his old tutor whenever confronted with misfortune or the skeptical. This is where Martin comes in.
Martin, unlike Candide, does not really buy the whole “virtue” thing, or that they lived in “best possible worlds” and after learning about his new friend’s philosophy, made a wager with him that the Panglossian philosophy that Candide was so fond of would prove to be wrong. Martin won.
But Candide meets other interesting characters along the way. At one point, he travels to El Dorado, and is treated kindly. They give him the shiny dust that Candide’s people seem to be so excited about — the Incas didn’t care about or see the value of gold. Candide eventually reunites with Cunégonde, but many deaths and horrible twists of fortune leave us with a bittersweet ending.
The main thing to pay attention to is Candide’s discussion with Martin. Voltaire shows us the contrast between Candide’s earnest, almost silly optimism with Martin’s wily pessimism.
“Do you believe,” said Candide, “that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?”
“Do you believe,” said Martin, “that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?”
“Yes, without doubt,” said Candide.
“Well, then,” said Martin, “if hawks have always had the same character why should you imagine that men may have changed theirs?”
“Oh!” said Candide, “there is a vast deal of difference, for free will — “
And reasoning thus they arrived at Bordeaux.
Candide was an entertaining story and not very long. What stuck out for me was Candide’s innocence and naivety throughout the story. He represented the spirit not of the child, but of the adolescent — who enthusiastically believes without question the first thing he hears. There was nothing special about Pangloss’s philosophy, but since Candide hadn’t done much thinking himself, and was not aware of other ideas — as clearly evidenced by his incredulous reaction to Martin’s ideas — he almost had no choice but to accept that Pangloss’s ideas were true.
In the modern world, it is not hard to find Candides, indeed — we were all Candides at one point in time. No one is born a critical thinker. We are impressed upon by everyone, particularly professors who are talented and eloquent speakers. When a student comes across someone who can wield the instrument of language so masterfully to make their point, the student is instantly bewildered. How can he not be? The other people in his life seem to be obeying a philosophy they aren’t even aware of, or simply incapable of properly articulating their ideas in a way that is both captivating and intelligent.
But tragedy inevitably shows itself, in one way or another, to rob the Candides of their good nature, and makes them skeptical and bitter.
Candide (Dover Thrift Editions)
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.