1. Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron’s castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. —It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.
This explanation of Pangloss’s optimistic philosophy is quoted from Chapter 1. His philosophy is both the most important point for debate among the novel’s characters and one of the main targets of Voltaire’s satirical jabs. Pangloss’s—and his student Candide’s—indomitable belief that human beings live in “the best of all possible worlds” comes under brutal attack by the horrific events that they live through. Their belief broadly resembles the conclusions of a number of the most influential philosophers of Voltaire’s time. In particular, the philosopher Leibniz famously maintains that, since the world was created by God, and since the mind of God is the most benevolent and capable mind imaginable, the world must be the best world imaginable. Under such a system, humans perceive evil only because they do not understand the force governing the world and thus do not know that every ill exists only for a greater good. Candide is widely thought to be Voltaire’s sarcastic retort to Leibniz. In this quotation, Voltaire attacks not only philosophical optimism but also the foibles and errors of Enlightenment philosophy. Enlightenment philosophers such as Leibniz focused a great deal of attention on the interplay of cause and effect. Pangloss’s argument about spectacles and breeches demonstrates a ridiculous inability to properly distinguish between cause and effect. Spectacles fit noses not because God created noses to fit spectacles, as Pangloss claims, but the other way around. The obviousness of this point is meant to echo the obviousness of the flaws Voltaire observes in the Enlightenment philosophical process.
—A hundred times I wanted to kill myself, but always I loved life more. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our worst instincts; is anything more stupid than choosing to carry a burden that really one wants to cast on the ground? to hold existence in horror, and yet to cling to it? to fondle the serpent which devours us till it has eaten out our heart? —In the countries through which I have been forced to wander, in the taverns where I have had to work, I have seen a vast number of people who hated their existence; but I never saw more than a dozen who deliberately put an end to their own misery.
The old woman, after telling of the rape, slavery, and cannibalism she has experienced, launches into this speculation about suicide in Chapter 12. The question of why more unfortunate people do not kill themselves seems rational in the context of the calamitous, merciless world of the novel. In Voltaire’s time, the first and easiest answer should have been that God and Christian doctrine forbid suicide and that those who kill themselves are consigned to spend eternity in hell. However, the old woman’s very existence, as an illegitimate child of a Pope, makes a statement against the church, and she does not even consider this approach to the question of suicide. Perhaps the implication is that hell cannot possibly be worse than life, or perhaps the old woman, after her experiences, does not believe in God or an afterlife. The pessimism of this passage is obvious and fairly thorough. The one glimmer of hope that shines through the old woman’s words comes from her assertion that people cling to life because they “love” it, not because they are resigned or because they fear eternal punishment. The serpent that is life is not just tolerated but “fondle[d].” Human beings, then, naturally embrace life—a “stupid” move, perhaps, but one that demonstrates passion, strong will, and an almost heroic endurance.
The enormous riches which this rascal had stolen were sunk beside him in the sea, and nothing was saved but a single sheep. —You see, said Candide to Martin, crime is punished sometimes; this scoundrel of a Dutch merchant has met the fate he deserved. —Yes, said Martin; but did the passengers aboard his ship have to perish too? God punished the scoundrel, the devil drowned the others.
In Chapter 20, Candide and Martin engage in this debate over the sinking of Vanderdendur’s ship. Candide, who tries throughout the novel to find support for Pangloss’s optimistic faith in the workings of the world, sees Vanderdendur’s fate as a sign that justice is sometimes served by disasters such as shipwrecks, and thus that these disasters serve a higher purpose. Martin, the consummate pessimist, points out quite reasonably that there is no just reason why the other people on Vanderdendur’s ship had to die along with him. Martin interprets the event as the product of both God’s justice and the devil’s cruel mischief. Implied in this statement is the pessimistic idea that the devil’s hand is just as evident in the world as God’s, and the subversive idea that God and the devil inadvertently cooperate in determining the course of human affairs.
. . . [W]hen they were not arguing, the boredom was so fierce that one day the old woman ventured to say: —I should like to know which is worse, being raped a hundred times by negro pirates, having a buttock cut off, running the gauntlet in the Bulgar army, being flogged and hanged in an auto-da-fé, being dissected and rowing in the galleys—experiencing, in a word, all the miseries through which we have passed—or else just sitting here and doing nothing? —It’s a hard question, said Candide. These words gave rise to new reflections, and Martin in particular concluded that man was bound to live either in convulsions of misery or in the lethargy of boredom.
By Chapter 30, Candide and his friends have money, peace, and security, and Candide has finally married Cunégonde. But, as the old woman points out, these rare blessings have not brought them happiness. This passage implies that human beings do not suffer only as a result of political oppression, violent crime, war, or natural disaster. They suffer also from their own intrinsic flaws of chronic bad-temperedness and restlessness. Up to this point, all of the characters have been marvelously adept at getting themselves out of difficult or miserable situations. Faced with boredom in the absence of suffering, however, they cannot seem to find any way out on their own, and turn to “a very famous dervish” for advice. The one site of unmixed goodness and joy presented in the novel is the paradise of Eldorado, which Candide and Cacambo choose to leave. At the time, their decision to venture back into the world seems unwise. By this point in the novel, however, the reader wonders in retrospect whether the plague of boredom would not eventually have afflicted them in Eldorado as severely as it does in Constantinople. The boredom, as Martin’s words emphasize, seems to result not from an absence of happiness but an absence of suffering.
—You are perfectly right, said Pangloss; for when man was put into the garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, so that he should work it; this proves that man was not born to take his ease. —Let’s work without speculating, said Martin; it’s the only way of rendering life bearable. The whole little group entered into this laudable scheme; each one began to exercise his talents. The little plot yielded fine crops . . . and Pangloss sometimes used to say to Candide: —All events are linked together in the best of possible worlds; for, after all, if you had not been driven from a fine castle by being kicked in the backside for love of Miss Cunégonde, if you hadn’t been sent before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t traveled across America on foot, if you hadn’t given a good sword thrust to the baron, if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be sitting here eating candied citron and pistachios.
—That is very well put, said Candide, but we must go and work our garden.
This is the final passage of the novel. The cure for the crushing boredom described in the previous quotation has been found in the hard work of gardening. As Pangloss points out, this cure recalls the state of mankind in the garden of Eden, where man was master of all things. On their small plot of land in Turkey, these characters seem to have a control over their destinies that they could not achieve in their lives up until this point. Instead of living at the mercy of circumstances, they are—literally—reaping what they sow. It is, of course, surprising that this fictional argument against optimism should be presented as a happy ending. Given this ending, the reader might for the first time be inclined to wonder whether Pangloss is right in claiming to live in “the best of possible worlds.” But that claim and all arguments against it are proscribed by the lifestyle the characters have discovered. As Candide implies in his final line, gardening leaves no time for philosophical speculation, and everyone is happier and more productive as a result.