” If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?” (Ch. VI, p.29)
Ever since 1759, when Voltaire wrote Candide in ridicule of the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, this has been a gayer place for readers. The book has enjoyed a great success and scandal. The ridicule of the Catholic Church has rendered it banned in France and Spain. Yet Candide has not aged. Despite the change in circumstances, Candide is timeless, even more relevant today in its lambasting the vices of men. It is a fiercely relentless attack of men’s vices, unleashing against the evils of religions fanaticism, war, colonialism, slavery, avarice, and mass atrocities.
The villainy of mankind presented itself to his mind in all its deformity, and in his mind dwelt only on gloomy thoughts. (Ch. XIX, p.79)
Candide is a philosophical tale; a fast-moving and entertaining story combining adventures and voyages with an underlying moral theme. It’s the story of Candide, illegitimate nephew of a German baron, who catches Candide kissing his daughter, Cunégonde, and expels Candide from the castle. He is then forced to conscript into the Bulgarian army from which he later escapes and travels to Holland. Mistaken that Cunégonde had perished with her family when the Bulgars ravished the castle, he sails off to Portugal, where, upon, his arrival, is hit by an earthquake. To prevent future earthquake, the local church conducts a ceremony in which humans are burned as sacrifices. From there Candide travels across the Atlantic to Argentina, Paraguay, and back to Europe by way of France, and finally in Italy and Turkey. His voyage is a chain of shocking events that open the eyes of the gullible young man, who has been instructed in “optimism” by his master, Dr. Pangloss, whose credo that this is “the best of all possible worlds” has been humorously but effectively shredded by the story’s end.
In short, this world is nothing but one continuous scene of civil war. (Ch. XXII, p.93)
The moral lesson is life is made bearable by useful activity rather than by idle theorizing. Voltaire condemns this rife complacency. The very folly of optimism is that the existence of any evil in the world would have been a sign that God is either not entirely good or all-powerful. The variety of horrors that Candide witnesses (and experiences) only points to the cruelty and folly of humanity. What makes the book a scandal is Voltaire’s satirizing of organized religion by means of a series of corrupt, hypocritical religious leaders who appear throughout the novel. They steal, violate celibacy, perpetrate the vow to poverty, and carry out inhumane campaigns of religious oppression. Though Voltaire elaborates on these sins, he does not condemn the everyday religious believer. As terrible as the oppression and poverty that plague the poor and powerless may be, it’s clear that money, and the power that goes with it, is the root of evil. This book is an intelligent satire that remains as fresh and pertinent today as when it was written in the 18th century.
146 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]