Notes on Candide Themes

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Candide Topic Tracking: Optimism

Chapter 1

Optimism 1: Pangloss's brand of Optimism caricatures the philosophy of Leibniz. According to Leibniz, god can imagine an infinite number of possible worlds. Being benevolent and good by definition, god would choose the best of those possible worlds. Leibniz says that men, as finite beings with limited awareness, cannot comprehend god's overarching plan. Therefore, from god's perspective, private miseries are somehow tolerable or perhaps necessary.

As a Deist, Voltaire believed that god is an absentee creator. God set the universe in motion, but then he left it to run its own course. God is neither benevolent, nor does he intervene in the affairs of mankind. This may explain the chaotic and bizarre reversals of fortune in Candide; life really defies the neatly packaged explanations provided by metaphysical doctrines such as optimism.

Chapter 3

Optimism 2: The narrator uses a Leibniz phrase, "sufficient reason", to explain how the bayonet was responsible for thousands of deaths.

Despite his terrible experiences, Candide maintains that things happened as they did for a reason, and that all is for the best. He forgets the abuses he witnessed and suffered, and he sees Jacques' kindness as vindication of Pangloss's optimism.

Chapter 4

Optimism 3: According to Pangloss, private misfortunes are directly proportional to the general good; the more people suffer, the better things are.

Chapter 5

Optimism 4: When Pangloss broadcasts his philosophy of optimism to the earthquake survivors, he unwittingly places himself and Candide in danger. Pangloss's declaration lands him in a theological debate with a familiar of the Spanish Inquisition. In Pangloss's best of all possible worlds, the world cannot be any other way, and people cannot do otherwise. Eve had to eat the apple because she lived in a world which god chose as the best-one in which everything is predetermined. This view denies humans free will. But Adam and Eve were punished because they had free will. The familiar interprets Pangloss's views as heretical; without free will, original sin could not have existed.

Chapter 6

Optimism 5: Candide is slow to give up his faith in Pangloss's philosophy of optimism. But after losing his friends and receiving a dreadful beating at an auto-da-fé, Candide can't reconcile his misfortunes with Pangloss's philosophy. Now that Pangloss is not around to explain away every tragedy, Candide wonders how the whole system works in light of the terrible things that happened to him.

Chapter 12

Optimism 6: The old woman's story adds to the mountain of evidence against Pangloss's philosophy of optimism. She points out how ridiculous life is. Given all the aggregate misfortunes endured by the cast of Candide, Pangloss's theoretical system seems inapplicable to the real world.

Chapter 13

Optimism 7: Candide shows signs of doubting the plausibility of optimism. After reflecting on what the old woman tells him, he ventures to say that there might be holes in Pangloss's theory.

Chapter 16

Optimism 8: Candide wavers between affirming Pangloss's optimism and renouncing it, but this usually has no logical bearing on his circumstances. He is inconsolable to the point of sounding suicidal after he murders Cunégonde's brother. But when Candide is about to be eaten, he announces that all is well, which he qualifies with the wish that he did not have to succumb to cannibals.

Chapter 17

Optimism 9: Candide hopes God will have pity on himself and Cacambo and help them reach Cayenne. He also tells Cacambo to trust their destiny to Providence. Considering all prior disasters and misfortunes, Candide naively thinks god will intervene on their behalf. From all appearances, god has heretofore abandoned Candide, if not the world, entirely.

Candide thinks he has found the best of all possible worlds in Eldorado. The utopian society seems to fit that description, but Candide misses the absurdity of Dr. Pangloss' metaphysics entirely. Pangloss doggedly asserted that the miserable world of earthquakes, wars, and autos-da-fé was the best of all possible worlds. But Eldorado isn't meant to vindicate Pangloss's theory. As an example, Eldorado illustrates that things can be better. Therefore the best of all possible worlds is an absurd idea.

Chapter 19

Optimism 10: Candide seems momentarily struck with the faculty of reason when he sees optimism for what it really is: the mania of thinking things are good when they are really quite bad.

Chapter 20

Optimism 11: Martin amplifies the old woman's assertion that the world is quite a terrible place. Despite all of the hard evidence Martin provides, Candide is still optimistic because he hopes to see Cunégonde. But Candide's optimism yo-yo's according to factors like a full stomach. For Candide, optimism is more or less tenable according to his mood.

Chapter 21

Optimism 12: Candide explores Martin's pessimism as an alternative to Pangloss's optimism, and he solicits Martin for his wisdom on various topics, including the nature of man. Candide gives a comically long inventory of vices to describe men, and he asks Martin if men have always been so evil. The question is so absurdly overstated that one might think Candide was being sarcastic; but Candide is too naïve to achieve sarcasm. Martin declares that humans are innately evil.

Chapter 22

Optimism 13: According to the man of letters at the faro game, life is illogical, and full of confusion and quarrelling. He disagrees entirely with the theory that this is the best of all possible worlds. Like Martin and the old woman, he gives Candide a realistic view of the world and strengthens the argument against optimism.

Chapter 24

Optimism 14: The philosophy of optimism grows increasingly less tenable to Candide considering the miserable stories of Paquette and Friar Giroflée. Martin's pessimism only amplifies Candide's doubts, although at times, Candide, like Pangloss, remains dumbly optimistic in the face of dire circumstances.

Chapter 26

Optimism 15: The stories of the six dethroned kings are sobering. Even the most powerful and influential men are subject to absurd reversals of fortune. Despite Pangloss' attempts to explain away "private misfortunes" (Chapter 4, pg. 19), neither the metaphysics of optimism nor any theory can give an acceptable explanation for the cruelty of life.

Chapter 27

Optimism 16: Candide feels comparatively more fortunate than the six dethroned kings. His personal, if temporary, good fortune provides reason enough to forget all prior disasters and agree once again with Dr. Pangloss. But his optimism and self satisfaction end prematurely when he finds out that Cacambo has lost all of the money, that Cunégonde is ugly and that she washes dishes for another dethroned prince in Turkey. Meanwhile Martin remains skeptical of Pangloss's philosophy and comfortable in his pessimism.

Chapter 28

Optimism 17: Candide asks Pangloss if he still believes in optimism after all he had endured. If Candide was not so naïve and innocent, one might think his question to Pangloss was a sarcastic snipe.

Chapter 30

Optimism 18: Pangloss admits that he never believed in optimism because he was always miserable. Pangloss confirms the suspicion that optimism is a counter-intuitive doctrine. Optimism ignores the dilemma of human suffering by making evil and misery part of a perfect world.

Martin's pessimism overtly throws critical light on the philosophy of optimism, but it is itself a problematic doctrine, as the narrator calls Martin's principles "detestable" (145). Like optimism, pessimism is another form of fatalism, which leads to moral apathy.

The Dervish gives fitting advice when he tells Pangloss to hold his tongue. Pangloss has the maddening habit of offering unsolicited and neat explanations for a messy world.

Candide repeats his assertion that "we must cultivate our gardens" (149). What Voltaire intended by this cryptic statement is disputed. Within the context of Candide, it seems reasonable to conclude that cultivating one's garden is a pragmatic alternative to the theories and abstract notions of optimism, which have little bearing on life. The phrase can have both literal and metaphorical meanings.

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