Voltaire: Candide – Analysis of the Enlightenment

“Let’s work without speculating; it’s the only way of making life bearable.” This sentence is found at the end of Voltaire’s novel, Candide. Written during the Enlightenment, the book is a scathing criticism of the most cherished ideal of the period – that the power of reason will lead humanity to happiness. In this video, we will discuss Voltaire’s attack on philosophical speculation, and his support for a life based on practical concerns.

Although historians describe the Enlightenment as a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries, the move towards rational thought and philosophical speculation began in ancient Greece. Perhaps the most famous philosopher of this movement is Socrates, who declared that the “unexamined life is not worth living.”

While modern academicians generally revere Socrates, some of his contemporaries considered his teachings foolish and impractical. Aristophanes, an ancient Greek comic playwright, lampooned Socrates in a play titled, The Clouds. He characterized Socrates as an absurd buffoon, who spends his days lost in the contemplation of the distance a flea can jump. In the play, Aristophanes argues that philosophical speculation is useless and that it ultimately has a corrupting influence on society.

Following in the footsteps of Aristophanes, Voltaire ridicules one of his own contemporaries – the 17th century philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. Specifically, Voltaire rejects Leibniz’s assertion that our world is the best of all possible worlds. In the novel, Candide and his tutor Pangloss, who espouses Leibniz’s philosophical mantra that “all is for the best,” encounter one disaster after another. Considering the suffering that Candide and Pangloss witness and experience, Leibniz’s position appears comical.

There is a very important distinction that must be made between the philosophical speculation that Voltaire criticizes and the philosophical speculation that leads to tangible progress. Voltaire was a noted proponent of Isaac Newton’s work in physics. Voltaire does not find fault with this type of speculation because it has practical applications. The speculation that Voltaire finds reprehensible is the type that is concerned with unanswerable or impractical questions – such as metaphysical questions about the existence of God, questions about objective morality, the distance a flea can jump, etc.

Unlike his Enlightenment contemporaries, Voltaire does not identify Reason as the supreme guide to happiness, but rather a simple life spent in practical pursuits. At the end of the novel, Candide and the other characters find happiness and relief from the troubles of the world by working on a small farm. The last line delivered by Candide reads, “We must go and cultivate our garden.” This is a biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden. Candide, and humanity in general, will find their paradise in practical labor, not in philosophical speculation. Just as Adam and Eve suffered when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, so too does humanity suffer when it investigates into impractical matters.

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9 thoughts on “Voltaire: Candide – Analysis of the Enlightenment

  1. Prepare for a thoughtsplosion!
    So, I half agree half disagree with the ideas you describe (disclaimer; I have not read Candide so I’m just going off Voltaire’s ideas as you have presented them). On the one hand, I do feel that philosophical contemplation has brought me happiness. I love thinking. I love science and learning and contemplating the universe and even the unanswerable questions. On the other hand, part of that is just my nature. Just because philosophy makes me happy, that doesn’t mean it would make everybody happy.
    But I think the complexities go even deeper than that. For one thing, I don’t think philosophy alone is the key to happiness. If I spend too much time immersed in thought and no time actually doing things, I start to feel listless and depressed. It is good to work, to create things, to take a break and focus on practical issues. So part of the issue is balance.
    Then, as you described, there’s the issue of all the world’s problems, and the inevitable depression that accompanies a full and honest look at how terrible things can be. Excessive contemplation can be exhausting and demoralizing. In my experience, doing one small thing to make the world better feels infinitely better than all the cognitive analysis of how horrible things are. There, however, lies a small defense of philosophy. Ignorance may be bliss, until the problems of the world force their way into your life and you find yourself utterly unprepared for them. Better to have some understanding of the problems, and be prepared to do what you can about them.
    Of course, that seems compatible with his dismissal of Leibnitz’s excessive optimism, so I may actually be agreeing with Voltaire there. But why did Leibnitz assert something so absurd and depressing as the assertion that we live in the best of all possible worlds? My understanding is that the motivation was at least partially religious. God is good and omnipotent, therefore if suffering exists it can only exist in the most minimal form possible. Prior assumptions forced his philosophical hand.
    This leads to my perspective on Voltaire’s idea that speculation on unanswerable questions is useless. I don’t agree that the problem is speculation, but rather conclusion. When we demand conclusions in absence of conclusive evidence, one of two things happens. Either we come to a conclusion that is insufficiently supported, and reason itself leads us down a path of lies, or we make ourselves a Sisyphus, constantly formulating and rejecting hypotheses and exhausting ourselves in a futile task. But to contemplate openly, that is an entirely different thing. To wonder, and leave ourselves open to possibilities, reveals the incredible intricacy of the universe in a way that finding answers never can.
    This I think was part of the appeal of Romanticism, and later Absurdism. It’s a way to embrace the untameable mystery of nature aesthetically, to escape some of the traps of philosophy without letting go of the joys of contemplation.
    Sorry for rambling on so long. Thanks for this great thought inducing post.

  2. Reblogged this on Travis Martin McCoy's Corner and commented:
    Knowledge is merely a meta-tool. Any great tool can be used for objective (conscious/moral-compass) Good, or Evil. Think about the Double-Edged Sword. So, once you gain a greater level of knowledge on a subject, it becomes your duty to share that knowledge in a Good way. Now, you have the problem of tuning your Moral-Compass. All I can say on this matter, is that is a very meta-physical problem, but one Good way I’ve found to do that is to live under the Assumption that there is a Higher Power (God) that granted you the ability to Gain that Knowledge in the first place. I shall leave it to someone else to try to think of an Evil way to tune your Moral-Compass, maybe try to be rid of it altogether? Or even worse, tune it South, towards complete and utter destruction.

  3. Good post on Candide too. I can see we think a bit different about the end, as I found that a all the characters at the end coming off as a bit unhappy. Bored. The only personage that may enjoy his labor because he came at peace with it. Though everyone found relief and happines, a lot of them came off as sore. But that’s just my interpretation. It’s like now that they ‘know’, it hurts. All this knowing hurts. Knowing that Pangloss was wrong even though his philosophy sounded so beautiful good. Knowing that this world maybe isn’t the best world of all worlds. They do find some some sort of relieve, but this knowing how reality could be, made them unhappy. Maybe Voltaire also tried to show us that maybe sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
    Anyway, great post! I find your quotes better and more accurate, I had to translate them first (I’m Dutch). You have a lot of interesting posts. I’m subscribing. Greetings from Belgium.

    • Your interpretation is certainly plausible, and I agree that Voltaire was likely conveying the sentiment that “ignorance is bliss.” I just couldn’t pass over the biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden. I see the ending as a “return to paradise.”

      Thanks for your insight. I enjoy reading your blog, too. I subscribed 🙂

      • The version I read explained this Garden of Eden allusion, at an endnote. Maybe Voltaire purposely made them come off as displeased, so they had to “return to paradise” by indeed working at their own Garden of Eden. I can see how both interpretations eventually meet each other. Thanks for your insight too and for subscribing 🙂

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