CANDIDE (1759), by Voltaire

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© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

“Voltaire” was the pen name adopted early in his career by the French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (born in Paris in 1694). Voltaire was one of the most important European authors of the eighteenth century and one of the leading figures of the French Enlightenment. He is known as a crusader against tyranny and bigotry and noted for his wit, satire, and critical capacity. In some cases, his satires recall those of Jonathan Swift. It is important, however, to note that Swift’s concerns were principally conservative, his satires aimed at the new order that was replacing the old, medieval order. Voltaire, on the other hand, aimed his barbs at the remnants of the old order, criticizing the new only when he felt that it had not gone far enough in replacing the old order of the Catholic-dominated Middle Ages.

Voltaire’s attacks on the clergy and the aristocracy led to his imprisonment in the Bastille in 1717. In 1726 he was exiled to England, though he returned to France in 1728 or 1729. He moved to Berlin in 1750 and on to Switzerland in 1754, living there until his death in 1778. He published Candide, his best-known work, while living in Switzerland, a strongly Protestant country where the Catholic Church had little power to take action against him. Philosophically, Candide is aimed primarily at philosophical optimism, as espoused by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716), embodied in the attitudes of the tutor, Pangloss. Its strongest barbs, however, are aimed at the Catholic clergy. The aristocracy are pilloried as well, though Voltaire seems to have muted his criticism thereof, probably for political reasons.

Candide is very much a work of the eighteenth century. Indeed, it has come to be recognized as one of the key works of European literature in that century[1], even if it stands apart from some of the main trends of eighteenth-century European literature. In particular, as a work of satire, Candide should not, strictly speaking, be considered an example of literary realism, the rise of which was the most important literary phenomenon of the century. At the same time, it shows much evidence of the influence of the trend toward realism that was so prominent in the eighteenth century. For one thing, Candide can clearly be considered a novel, the genre that is most closely associated with literary realism. Like realist novels, Candide is a long prose narrative that features human characters performing various actions in an environment that is clearly modeled on the real world. It is, however, a particular form of novel known as a “picaresque” novel, of which the first great example was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. This type of novel thus predates the realist novel of the eighteenth century and differs from the realist novel in a number of ways, the most important of which are the fact that the characters are not fully developed individuals with psychological depth and the fact that the narrative tends to be quite episodic, only loosely tied together by an overall story arc (as opposed to the largely continuous story arcs of realist novels). Candide certainly displays both of these characteristics. The narrative is quite episodic and includes a number of segments that are narrated retrospectively, so that the events are not even arranged in chronological order. In addition, the characters are so superficial that they are often named allegorically, identified by their function within the text more than by their vividly realized individual backgrounds and traits. Thus, the title character is so named largely because he is so innocent and naïve (the word candide in French means “candid,” “ingenuous,” or “naïve”), which, among other things identifies him as a particular type of character known as a picaro, from which the picaresque genre takes its name. Generally, the picaresque novel is narrated from the point of view of the picaro, whose innocent perspective allows him to observe events in a particularly unfiltered way.

Candide actually participates in a number of genres and modes as part of its engagement with contemporary popular culture. Satire in general was a popular genre in the eighteenth century, and Candide was almost certainly influenced by what was perhaps the greatest of all eighteenth-century satires, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). It was also likely influenced by the even earlier German satire, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669), by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. Candide is also a somewhat ironic version of the Bildungsroman, or the “novel of development,” which typically told the story of the coming to maturity of a young protagonist, who in the process learns the ways of the world. Candide is certainly such a protagonist, though the ironies of the text are such that it is not entirely clear how much he has really learned. Finally, Candide is also something of a mock travel narrative as well as a mock utopian narrative, reflecting Voltaire’s awareness of these popular genres of his day.

Despite its satirical nature, Candide intersects with realism in a number of ways, some of which might not be immediately obvious. For example, while this information is omitted in many modern editions, the early editions of Candide contained, on the title page, an announcement that the text had been translated from the original German of one “Dr. Ralph.” Such identifications of obviously bogus sources were quite common in the eighteenth-century realist novel. Ostensibly designed to make these novels seem as if they are nonfictional, these attributions in fact do just the opposite, serving as an announcement that the story that is about to be read is purely fabricated. At the same time, these claims to authenticity serve as a reminder to readers that the upcoming story does extensively intersect with reality and might well contain events that could easily happen to real people in the real world. Indeed, thus gesture winks at readers and establishes a sort of compact between text and reader, in which the reader agrees to suspend his or her disbelief and to regard the events of the narrative as if they are really happening.

However seemingly extreme its events might be, Candide maintains a sense of connection with reality in a number of ways. For example, as the narrative begins, Candide is introduced as a youth who has grown up in a magnificent castle in “Westphalia,” which is a real region in what is now the northwest part of Germany. Subsequently, most of the events of the novel are identified as taking place in locations that correspond to locations in the real world, even though Voltaire is not always scrupulous about geographical accuracy and even though he sometimes includes mythical settings, such as the legendary city of El Dorado.

The dynamic between reality and fiction is a particularly complex one in Candide. This satirical text surely exaggerates the amount of hardship, even horror, that a typical person is likely to encounter in real life; at the same time, virtually everything that happens in Candide could happen in the real world, even if not so many horrible things are likely to be encountered by any one person as are encountered by various characters in Candide. Still, much of the satirical power of Candide comes from the fact that so many events in the text that seem preposterous turn out to be so close to things that have actually happened in the real world.

Some Key Illustrative Episodes

Candide’s Childhood and Pangloss as Spokesman for Philosophical Optimism

Candide spends his childhood in the castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronkh, tutored by the Preceptor Pangloss, a pretentious would-be intellectual who serves as the text’s central spokesman for the philosophical position known as optimism, which holds that, by definition, the world in which we live is the best of all possible worlds and that everything that occurs in this world is ultimately for the best. In this sense, Pangloss is something of a stand-in for Leibniz, a key figure of Enlightenment thinking who made many important contributions to the development of the kind of scientific/rational thinking on which the Enlightenment was built. He is perhaps best known today (along with Sir Isaac Newton) as a co-inventor of the mathematical field of calculus. His contributions to philosophical optimism have worn less well and now seem almost silly in places—partly because they were so thoroughly skewered by Voltaire in Candide. Leibniz’s notion of optimism is based on essentially religious principles, on the notion that the world was created by a good and all-knowing God and therefore could not be other than the best possible world. On this view, any imperfections that we might think we see in the world are a result of our limited understanding and perspective and of our human inability to understand the scope and grandeur of God’s plan. In the long run, however, Leibniz felt that the wisdom and perfection of God’s plan would ultimately be revealed.

Leibniz’s view is thus very much concurrent with the generally optimistic and even utopian nature of Enlightenment thought, even if the course of history since the seventeenth century has cast repeated doubt upon the Enlightenment confidence that humanity would ultimately be able to build a better and better world, ultimately moving toward a perfect one. At the same time, Voltaire’s contempt for philosophical optimism is also very much an Enlightenment position, built on the notion that humanity is best served by taking an honest and practical view of reality, and then working to make that reality better in whatever small ways present themselves as possible. For him, philosophical optimism is not truly aligned with the scientific/rationalist basis of the Englightenment, because it keeps one foot planted firmly in the religious worldview of the Middle Ages, even if it endows that worldview with a new form of optimism and respect for the capabilities of human beings. For Voltaire, philosophical optimism would lead humanity to become complacent, sitting back and waiting for the world to get better, rather than putting in the hard work and sacrifice that were necessary to make it so.

Candide’s Exile and the Seven Years’ War (Chapters 2&3)

Candide’s seemingly idyllic childhood is quickly interrupted when he develops an infatuation with Cunégonde, the Baron’s daughter. He is thus expelled from the castle because the Baron feels that Candide is an inappropriate match for her. He is then quickly conscripted by force into the army of the Bulgarians, where he undergoes harsh discipline and extreme punishments as part of his training. Attempting to escape, he is sentenced to even harsher punishment, though he is ultimately pardoned by the King of the Bulgarians and sent back into battle against the army of the King of Abares. Thousands die in the subsequent horrific battle, and Candide again resolves to escape, passing through great carnage on the way:

“He passed over heaps of dead and dying, and first reached a neighbouring village; it was in cinders, it was an Abare village which the Bulgarians had burnt according to the laws of war. Here, old men covered with wounds, beheld their wives, hugging their children to their bloody breasts, massacred before their faces; there, their daughters, disembowelled and breathing their last after having satisfied the natural wants of Bulgarian heroes; while others, half burnt in the flames, begged to be despatched. The earth was strewed with brains, arms, and legs.”

The material in this section of the text seems extreme, and one is at first tempted to assume that it cannot be realistic. After all, the Abares were an ancient tribe of Tartars who settled on the banks of the Danube, while the “Bulgarians” would appear to be the Bulgars, a semi-nomadic warrior tribe that thrived in the Volga region of Russia in the seventh century. Neither of these groups played a role in European politics during the time of Candide (or Voltaire). However, scholars have agreed that the Bulgars clearly stand in for the Prussian Army of Frederic the Great, while the Abares stand in for the French, two of the principal combatants in the Seven Year’ War of 1756–1763. This war was largely driven by the rivalry between Great Britain and France, each of which sought to be the dominant world power. As such, it was a widespread conflict, involving both most of Europe and large parts of North America. In North America, British and French forces battled in the so-called French and Indian War, a designation that tends to obscure the fact that this conflict, in which the British (with some Native American support) were largely victorious against a coalition of French settlers and their Native American allies, was part of the larger conflict of the Seven Years’ War[2]. That larger conflict drew much of Europe into the fray, with Spain siding with France and Prussia siding with Britain. The ultimate British victory gave Prussia a new prominence in European politics and established Britain as the world’s leading power, a position that would be challenged again by France in the early nineteenth century with the rise of Napoleon, whose armies conquered most of Europe before they were finally definitively defeated by the British in 1815, leaving the British as the world’s leading power until World War II.

 The Seven Years’ War thus had extensive ramifications for European politics. On continental Europe, one of the most important outcomes was the rise of Prussia as a genuine power, rivaling the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy in influence within the region now occupied by Germany. Indeed, some of the most horrific fighting of this war, which was one of the bloodiest in history, took place on German soil, and it is this fighting that would appear to be the source of the material in this section of Candide. In fact, the extreme nature of this conflict has been reflected in a number of important literary works. One of the early important American novels, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), revolves around the French and Indian War. In British literature, for example, William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon—adapted very successfully to film by Stanley Kubrick in 1975 as Barry Lyndon—employs the war as a backdrop. Still, the horrors of the Seven Years’ War are perhaps best reflected in the early chapters of Candide, which was published in 1759, in the midst of the war. As a work of satire, Candide often employs techniques of exaggeration to make its points. One of the ironies of that work, however, is that Voltaire’s description of the atrocities committed during this war is actually apparently quite accurate. Thus, Jean Starobinski argues that Voltaire’s description of the war in Candide is essentially a “catalogue of atrocities about which any interested European could read in the gazettes” (85). Moreover, as Starobinski further notes, by focusing on a single day of battlefield details and omitting any details of the political struggle behind the battle, Voltaire is able to highlight the absurdity and brutality of human warfare in general (95).

Barry Lyndon | Stills From Beautiful Films
Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” is set against the Seven Years’ War.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake (Chapters 4–6)

Having finally escaped from the army of the Bulgarians, Candide encounters a horrid beggar who turns out to be Pangloss, now decaying from syphilis contracted from Paquette, a maid in the castle (who later becomes a prostitute). Meanwhile, Candide learns that Cunégonde has apparently been raped and disemboweled by Bulgar soldiers, presumably resulting in her death. Nevertheless, Pangloss remains optimistic, in spite of it all, clearly suggesting the nonsensical nature of his philosophy. Candide and Pangloss set sail together for Lisbon, but are shipwrecked. They manage to get ashore alive and to make their way on foot to the city, only to encounter a massive and highly destructive earthquake. Then, simply because Pangloss has the audacity to speak his mind without permission of Church authorities and Candide has the temerity to listen to him, they fall afoul of an auto-de-fé, a public ritual in which supposed heretics and apostates were tortured and executed as part of the Catholic Inquisition.Candide is brutally flogged and Pangloss is executed by hanging.

These developments are so horrific (and clearly unjust), on top of everything that has already happened, that even the innocent Candide begins to suspect that the world in which we live is perhaps not the best one possible:

“If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others? Well, if I had been only whipped I could put up with it, for I experienced that among the Bulgarians; but oh, my dear Pangloss! thou greatest of philosophers, that I should have seen you hanged, without knowing for what! Oh, my dear Anabaptist, thou best of men, that thou should’st have been drowned in the very harbour! Oh, Miss Cunégonde, thou pearl of girls! that thou should’st have had thy belly ripped open!”

Once again, extreme material in Candide turns out to be closer to reality than one might think. This auto-de-fé is based on a real one that occurred on June 20, 1756, so that the event in Candide directly comments on the kind of atrocities that were regularly committed by Church authorities at this time, spurring Voltaire’s hostility. Moreover, the matter-of-fact way in which Voltaire describes the casual cruelty of the Church authorities during this episode serves a reminder of just how routine such outbursts of Church violence had become, in an era when the Catholic Church, once so thoroughly and confidently the dominant institution in Europe, was now feeling its power threatened.

The entire Lisbon earthquake episode is also based on reality. On November 1, 1755, an earthquake now estimated to have magnitude of 8.4 on the Richter scale occurred with an epicenter in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal. This earthquake impacted the Portuguese capital of Lisbon with devastating effect, resulting in a death toll between 30,000 and 50,000 people. This made the earthquake one of the greatest natural disasters of the eighteenth century, providing a stark reminder that the growing Enlightenment confidence in the ability of human beings to control their own fate was still a long way from being fully realized. Indeed, there is evidence that this earthquake provided much of the direct inspiration for Voltaire to write Candide. Also, if this event thus served as a reminder of the limitations of the new science, it also contributed to the growth of science due to the fact that scientific studies of it led to the development of modern seismology. Meanwhile, the fact that it occurred on a religious holiday (All Saints Day, a Catholic feast day celebrated annually in honor of all saints), also served for some (such as Voltaire) as a reminder that the Christian faith in a loving God who views human beings as his children was also inconsistent with observed reality. Indeed, the Great Lisbon Earthquake spurred major growth in the philosophical field of “theodicy,” or speculations on how and why a good God could allow evil to be so prominent in the world. That this field was essentially founded by Leibniz made the Great Lisbon Earthquake a particularly appropriate event to be included within Candide, though Voltaire, for plot purposes, does place the quake (which occurred shortly before the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War) during or after that war. This event is still widely remembered in Portugal as a crucial moment in the nation’s history, partly because it occurred at a time when Portugal was on the rise as a colonial power but was so damaging that it largely derailed those ambitions.

Reunion with Cunégonde

In Chapters 7&8, an old woman rescues Candide and takes him to Cunégonde, now amazingly recovered from her rape and (apparent) murder. This stunning development can be taken as a parody of the way in which highly unlikely events were often introduced in the “realist” novels of the time in order to make their plots more interesting and unpredictable. Indeed, one of the things that makes Candide such an important work is the way in which it not only engages in satirical critiques of philosophical, political, and religious authorities but also parodies certain tendencies in the literature of the time, which Voltaire felt was often more oriented toward entertainment (and commercial success) than toward conveying lessons about the best way of living in the world.

Most of Candide is narrated by a third-person narrator who largely stands apart from and above the action, relating that action with an ironic distance that provides continual suggestions that what is being related as ordinary and commonplace is actually gruesome and horrifying. Most of Chapter 8, however, consists of Cunégonde telling her story and thus becoming an embedded narrator. Her narration explains her surprisingly survival and reveals that she is now the mistress of both the Jew Don Issachar and the Grand Inquisitor, a key official of the Catholic Inquisition. Her narration lacks the irony of the main narrator and suggests her acceptance that the terrible things that have befallen her are simply the way of the world. Candide presents an ongoing critique of the sexual objectification of women, who are routinely raped and abused in the text. Unfortunately, none of the female characters presented in Candide really provide a very effective rebuttal of this view of women as sexual objects. Cunégonde, for example, is rather questionable in both virtue and intelligence, despite the fact that Candide naively views her as a paragon of both beauty and chastity. Then again, none of the male characters in Candide come off particularly well, either. Candide is a work of satire, and satire is typically focused on the revelation of human weaknesses, not the depiction of human strengths.

The History of the Old Woman

After Candide slays both Don Issachar and the Grand Inquisitor, he flees with the old woman and Cunégonde to South America. On the way, the old woman tells her story, largely as a means of demonstrating that her life has been even more difficult than Cunégonde’s. And she is largely successful. In another embedded narration, the old woman reveals that she is the illegitimate daughter of Pope Urban X and the Princess of Palestrina, but has fallen into a series of spectacularly awful misfortunes. Though Urban X is a fictional pope, he clearly serves as a commentary on the well-known immorality of many real popes. Meanwhile, the old woman’s tale of kidnapping, rape, and enslavement, capped off by the cannibalistic consumption of one of her buttocks by besieged Turkish soldiers (Janissaries) is, in fact, arguably worse than anything experienced by Cunégonde. That she is mostly brutalized by Africans and Turks certainly seems to have an Orientalist flair, though it is also possible to read Voltaire’s text here as a parody of the kinds of outrageous Orientalist narratives that were becoming popular at the time (especially in France), inspired largely by the popularity of the newly translated Thousand and One Nights. These so-called Oriental tales entertained audiences with their exotic content, but they also served the purpose of attempting to make Europe seem more civilized by depicting the rest of the world as uncivilized[3].

El Dorado and Utopianism

The Enlightenment faith in science and the power of human reason led to a widespread belief in the ability of human beings both to overcome obstacles posed by the natural environment and to build improved human-made social structures. This belief was, of course, a natural outgrowth of the dramatic transformation that had already taken place (and was still taking place) in European society at this time, as the feudal order of the Middle Ages was being swept away by the newer, younger, and more dynamic system of capitalism. Moreover, just as capitalism had itself been boosted by the colonization of the Americas, it was also the case that this colonization was part of a new age of exploration and discovery that contributed to the growth of the utopian imagination through the notion that the new worlds being explored might themselves contain not only material riches but utopian societies. It is no accident, for example, that Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the text that initiated the modern genre of the utopian narrative, envisions a utopia located on an island in the Americas.

The discovery of many real marvels in the Americas led to the development of a number of rumors about the potential for discovery of even more amazing settings. One of the central legends informing the colonization of the Americas was the rumor that a golden city, known as El Dorado, existed somewhere in the interior of South America, protected by dense jungles and rugged mountains. This legend was vivid enough that some explorers literally attempted to find El Dorado, including the noted English courtier, explorer, and poet Walter Raleigh, who mounted unsuccessful attempts to find El Dorado in both 1595 and 1617. In the second expedition, Raleigh’s men ransacked a Spanish outpost, eventually leading to his execution by the British government in order to appease the Spanish, with whom the British had a peace treaty at the time.

The Road to El Dorado (2000)
The 2000 DreamWorks film “The Road to El Dorado” builds on this legend of a golden city.

Voltaire shared the optimism of the Enlightenment in the ability of human beings to build better lives and better societies through scientific and rational thinking. However, he felt that these improvements could be achieved only through hard work in the application of such thinking. Therefore, the notion of simply discovering a utopian society already built was something of which Voltaire was highly skeptical. Moreover, Voltaire anticipated later Marxist utopian thinkers (such as Ernst Bloch and Fredric Jameson) in that he did not think of utopia as a fully realized, perfect society. Such a society, for him, would lead to complacency and stagnation and would therefore deteriorate rather quickly. El Dorado thus functions as a mock utopia that appears, on the surface, to be the best of all possible worlds, thus standing in stark contrast to the real world of Europe. But it also mocks the very notion that there might be a perfect world. For Voltaire, the ideal society was one in which each individual was continually working to make things better on an ongoing basis.

The legend of El Dorado was thus a perfect target for Voltaire’s satire. And, given his technique of satirical exaggeration, it should come as no surprise that the El Dorado visited by Candide and his valet Cacambo in Chapters 17 and 18 of Candide is almost ridiculously opulent, dripping with gold and jewels. Of course, the irony here is that gold and jewels are valuable only because they are rare, a fact that the citizens of El Dorado seem to understand, in that they are not particularly impressed by the gold and jewels that are so plentiful in their remote realm. But El Dorado is also an earthly paradise in terms of its social and political structures: everyone is happy and all their needs are met. And, needless to say, there is no organized religion.

In one telling moment after reaching El Dorado, Candide and Cacambo meet an old man of the city and begin to question him about such things as the city’s religious practices. In what manner, for example, do they pray to God?

“We do not pray to Him,” said the worthy sage; “we have nothing to ask of Him; He has given us all we need, and we return Him thanks without ceasing.”

Candide having a curiosity to see the priests asked where they were. The good old man smiled.

“My friend,” said he, “we are all priests. The King and all the heads of families sing solemn canticles of thanksgiving every morning, accompanied by five or six thousand musicians.”

“What! have you no monks who teach, who dispute, who govern, who cabal, and who burn people that are not of their opinion?”

“We must be mad, indeed, if that were the case,” said the old man; “here we are all of one opinion, and we know not what you mean by monks.”

Candide quickly grows restless and unhappy in the seemingly ideal world of El Dorado, ostensibly because he misses Cunégonde, but also because, in such a perfect world, there is nothing to strive for. There is also no variety and no room for individuality. Everyone lives in the same way and thinks in the same way, suggesting that this sort of utopia is actually inconsistent with the individualist inclinations of the Enlightenment. Therefore, Candide soon decides to leave the city, taking with him a store of riches that will be far more valuable in the outside world than they were in El Dorado. Indeed, though Candide will be cheated out of most of this treasure, it is still sufficient to support him to the end of the narrative.

The Slave and the Sugar Trade

Soon after leaving El Dorado, Candide and Cacambo come open the shocking sight of a scantily clad black slave who has had both a hand and a leg amputated as a result of his work on a sugar plantation in the Dutch colony of Suriname, on the northeastern coast of South America. He explains his condition thusly:

“Yes, sir,” said the negro, “it is the custom. They give us a pair of linen drawers for our whole garment twice a year. When we work at the sugar-canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe. Yet when my mother sold me for ten patagons on the coast of Guinea, she said to me: ‘My dear child, bless our fetiches, adore them forever; they will make thee live happily; thou hast the honour of being the slave of our lords, the whites, which is making the fortune of thy father and mother.’ Alas! I know not whether I have made their fortunes; this I know, that they have not made mine. Dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less wretched than I. The Dutch fetiches, who have converted me, declare every Sunday that we are all of us children of Adam—blacks as well as whites. I am not a genealogist, but if these preachers tell truth, we are all second cousins. Now, you must agree, that it is impossible to treat one’s relations in a more barbarous manner.”

The slave’s story is so horrifying that even Candide briefly begins to doubt the philosophy of optimism, though he will quickly return to his initial view, as learned from Pangloss. Meanwhile, this brief narrative (as with Cunégonde and the old woman, the most horrifically abused characters tend to be granted the ability to tell their own stories in Candide) allows Voltaire to touch on some of the key issues that informed the Enlightenment period. For one thing, he takes one of his many shots at religious hypocrisy by noting the support of the Church for the institution of slavery. The Dutch “fetiches”[4] were no doubt Protestants, but it is clear that Voltaire intended this anti-religious satire to apply at least as much to the Catholic Church that was dominant in France, just as this entire anti-slavery episode is meant also to apply to the French slaveholders who ran sugar plantations in the French colonies of the Americas.

Slavery had become important to the colonial economies of the Americas in the early sixteenth century, when the colonial powers of Europe had not fully emerged from the mindset of the Middle Ages. By the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment emphasis on individual liberty and on the equal value of all individuals was making slavery more and more controversial. At the same time, slavery remained absolutely essential to the sugar-based wealth that was flowing back to Europe from the American colonies. Much of the area in and around the Caribbean is ideal for growing sugar, but sugar plantations are nevertheless very labor intensive and involve a form of grueling labor that was unlikely to attract workers from Europe without paying them very high wages. The owners of sugar plantations thus remained committed to the use of slave labor, even as intellectual debates about slavery grew more and more intense, providing one of the clearest ways in which the intellectual trends of the eighteenth century were at odds with actual practice within eighteenth-century societies.

What About First People, Indo-Caribbeans and Afro-South Americans?
Slaves harvesting Caribbean sugar.

Ironically, these very sugar growers profited greatly from the Enlightenment, employing scientific methods of agriculture to grow, harvest, and process their crops more efficiently. Ultimately, it became clear that the idea of owning human beings as property that was used to generate profits for their owners was simply incompatible with the ideals of Enlightenment. Supporters of slavery thus responded with the notion that black Africans were not really human beings in the same way that Europeans were but in fact constituted a separate species that was not necessarily included in the Enlightenment notions of individual liberty and equality. Given the growing Enlightenment trust in science, several attempts were then made to demonstrate scientifically that black Africans were, in fact, not human. Predictably, all of these attempts failed, though one argument that did find some purchase was the notion that human beings were unique among animal species in their ability to read and write. Most of the sub-Saharan cultures from which slaves were being taken to the Americas were, at the time, completely oral in nature and had no concept of writing. Thus, so went the argument, black Africans were not human because they could not read or write.

Of course, the fact that black Africans were not generally literate did not really prove that they were inherently unable to read or write. As a result, several experimental projects were undertaken in which African children were brought to Europe (and sometimes to North America) in order to determine whether they could learn to read and write. This experience must have been traumatizing for these children, but the results of the projects were nevertheless clear: given the same educational opportunities, black African children could learn to read and write just as well as European children could. Indeed, some of the children who were subjects in these experiments went on to become important writers.

For example, Phillis Wheatley, brought to America as a slave at the age of seven or eight, was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who undertook to give her the same education they would give their own children. She learned quickly and proved to be a talented poet whose first book of poetry was published by the time she was twenty years old (in 1773) and whose poetry is still read today and taught in courses in early American literature. Similarly, former slave Olaudah Equiano (aka Gustavus Vassa) published his autobiography in 1789. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is also still read and studied today as well.

In short, the last-ditch effort to define humanity via literacy had an effect that was opposite the intended one: it proved conclusively that black Africans were human and that slavery was an abomination. Slavery would soon be outlawed in both the British and the French Empires, though it would remain in practice in the American South until the 1860s. In the French case, of course, slavery became particularly untenable after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, an event that helped to trigger a 1791 uprising among the slaves of Haiti, the most important of the French sugar-producing colonies in the Americas. This slave revolt, spearheaded by Toussaint Louverture, ultimately led to the establishment, in 1804, of the independent Republic of Haiti, but only after the rebel armies of former slaves had defeated the French forces sent (in an obvious betrayal of the egalitarian principles of the French Revolution) by Napoleon Bonaparte to quell the rebellion[5].

Settling in Turkey

After further misadventures, Candide finally settles in Turkey, joined by Pangloss (resurrected in another of Candide’s jabs at the unlikely plots of so many early novels) and a now-hideous Cunégonde (whom Candide has nevertheless married, largely to spite her brother, who follows his father in disapproving of the match). Also in their party are Cacambo, Paquette, the old woman, Martin (a Manichean philosopher who serves as a sort of opposite of Leibniz), and Friar Giroflée, a monk who had become disillusioned with his religious order, his description of which (in Chapter 24) constitutes more of Voltaire’s anti-clerical satire. The friar notes that

“I have been tempted a hundred times to set fire to the convent, and go and become a Turk. My parents forced me at the age of fifteen to put on this detestable habit, to increase the fortune of a cursed elder brother, whom God confound. Jealousy, discord, and fury, dwell in the convent. It is true I have preached a few bad sermons that have brought me in a little money, of which the prior stole half, while the rest serves to maintain my girls; but when I return at night to the monastery, I am ready to dash my head against the walls of the dormitory; and all my fellows are in the same case.”

In this same chapter, Paquette relates her own experiences as a victim of sexual exploitation, leading to her time as a prostitute (which includes Friar Giroflée as a client). That her story is in many ways so similar to those of the old woman and Cunégonde suggests the extent to which women were treated as sexual objects in the eighteenth century, in another example of the ways in which social attitudes in the eighteenth century had not quite caught up with the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment. The stories of Paquette and Friar Giroflee are again satirical exaggerations, of course, but (as is so often the case in Candide) not as much as one might expect.

All of these survivors have suffered terrible things, including Pangloss, that erstwhile proponent of the philosophy of optimism. His hanging, as it turns out, had been incompetently carried out by an executioner who was more accustomed to burning his victims at the stake, but who had resorted to hanging in this case because heavy rains made burning impossible. He was therefore still alive when he was being dissected afterward, springing to consciousness and escaping, only to fall victim to still more misfortunes, including enslavement (from which Candide rescues him) and numerous beatings. Learning of all of these misfortunes, Candide understandably wonders whether Pangloss has changed his philosophy. Pangloss replies with one of the most telling indictments of contemporary philosophers in all of Candide: “I am still of my first opinion,” answered Pangloss, “for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract, especially as Leibnitz could never be wrong; and besides, the pre-established harmony is the finest thing in the world, and so is his plenum and materia subtilis.”[6] In short, in a violation of the basic precepts of science, his belief is that, as a philosopher, once he has stated a position, his job is to continue to argue in favor of that position, no matter how much evidence to the contrary might be encountered.

Pangloss will continue to argue in favor of his original position on optimism to the very end of the text, even though there are signs that he does not fully believe his own argument. Candide, though, influenced by the lesson of a practical old Turkish farmer, does finally come to doubt Pangloss’s vision. Instead, he inspires the others to join him on a modest farm (bought with the las of his jewels from El Dorado), working hard to build a good life for themselves, rather than simply dreaming of potential perfection. Pangloss occasionally still attempts to argue that they have reached this happy state because the perfection of the world makes happiness inevitable. In response, in the novel’s famous ending, Candide reminds him that they now have a good life because they have worked diligently to build that life, rather than waiting for it to be handed to them through the inevitability of divine design. “‘All that is very well,’ answered Candide, ‘but let us cultivate our garden.’” After all, this farm is not the Garden of Eden; it has been made productive by the hard work of human hands, not by God’s plan.

Candide employs a great deal of irony, which leaves a great deal of its content, including this ending, open to interpretation. In general, most scholars have regarded this ending as suggesting either that hard, productive can provide some consolation amid the hardships of life in general or that practical work is more valuable than philosophical speculation—or perhaps both. This closing statement certainly represents a rejection of philosophical optimism, even if it does not make entirely clear just what Candide’s own view now is. Nor is it entirely clear that Voltaire wishes for us to regard the final outcome of his characters’ adventures to be an ideal one. Nevertheless, viewed within the context of Voltaire’s entire career, it is clear that Candide serves as a powerful indictment of the philosophy of optimism, as a vicious satire of organized religion (and especially of the Catholic Church), and as a bitter critique of the corruption and incompetence of the secular political authorities of the day. Voltaire often ran afoul of the French and Catholic authorities early in his career, and he had to take extraordinary steps to ensure that Candide could not be successfully suppressed. However, by this time, he was quite famous and very well respected as an intellectual authority, visited by many of the other great intellectuals of the day, including Edward Gibbon. Voltaire would die in 1778, eleven years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, which was inspired by many of his ideas. This status helped to ensure that Candide would survive any attempts at suppression. Indeed, one could see this revolution as a large-scale application of one way of reading the ending of Candide: that if one wants to live in a better world, one has to take matters into one’s own hands, doing what is necessary to make that better world come into existence.


James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 1963. 2ndEd., Vintage-Random House, 1989.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage-Random House, 1979.

Starobinski, Jean. Blessings in Disguise, or, The Morality of Evil. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press, 1993.


[1] As such, there is a vast body of commentary about Candide. I particularly recommend the succinct discussion of the text by Julian Barnes in The Guardian, which can be found on-line at

[2] This aspect of the Seven Years’ War is briefly (and derisively) referred to by the philosopher Martin when he notes that the French and the English “are at war for a few acres of snow in Canada, and that they spend over this beautiful war much more than Canada is worth.”

[3] These days, when scholars employ the term “Orientalism,” they are almost always referring to the discourse identified by Edward Said in his 1978 book of that title, in which he identified the consistent way in which European scholars and artists have depicted the “East” (his focus is especially on the Middle East) as inferior to the “West” (mostly Europe until the twentieth century, and then also North America).

[4] In traditional West African cultures, a “fetiche,” or “fetish priest” is a religious figure who serves as mediator between the world of the dead and the world of the living. The Christian missionaries who came to Africa were sometimes assumed by the Africans to be playing a similar role.

[5] For a rousing historical account of the Haitian Revolution, see The Black Jacobins, by the important black leftist scholar C.L.R. James.

[6] Plenum” is a term sometimes used in philosophy to indicate the whole of the universe; materia subtilis,” or “subtle matter,” indicates the spiritual dimension of physical reality. The terms are used here to indicate Pangloss’s pretentiousness and his tendency to employ fancy terminology without much awareness of what it actually means.