Candide

by: Voltaire

Pangloss

Pangloss, the tutor, was the oracle of the family, and little Candide listened to his instructions with all the simplicity natural to his age and disposition.

The narrator introduces Pangloss and establishes him as one of the main recurring and seemingly indestructible characters in the novel. Pangloss espouses the philosophy that the world as he knew it is the best of all possible worlds, an unprovable theory. The novel upends the notion again and again as the protagonist Candide endures horrible sufferings and Pangloss himself survives several near-death experiences. No matter what the circumstances, however, Pangloss holds fast to his belief.

[H]e met a beggar all covered with scabs, his eyes were sunk in his head, the end of his nose eaten off, his mouth drawn on one side, his teeth as black as a cloak, snuffling and coughing most violently, and every time he attempted to spit, out dropped a tooth.

The narrator describes a beggar Candide happens upon, a beggar who turns out to be his old teacher, Pangloss. The vivid and gross description serves to both shock and entertain readers, but also to instruct and provoke thought. That Pangloss, Candide’s wise teacher, could sink so low in such a short time belies Pangloss’s own optimistic philosophy that everything happens for the best. The philosophy didn’t prevent negative events in Pangloss’s life, but it may help him cope with his reality.

[F]or if Columbus had not caught in an island in America this disease which is evidently opposite to the great end of nature, we should have had neither chocolate nor cochineal.

Pangloss explains to Candide that the deformities caused by his syphilis represent an ingredient in the best of worlds because he traces the disease back to Christopher Columbus. Syphilis passed from Columbus to priests and pages and soldiers until the disease reached Pangloss’s lover, Pacquette. The words reveal the extreme lengths Pangloss will go to to explain how the world functions as an orderly and benign place.

[A]ll of this is for the very best end, for if there is a volcano at Lisbon, it could be in no other spot; for it is impossible but things should be as they are, for everything is for the best.

Candide and Pangloss survive a shipwreck and enter Lisbon just as a massive earthquake and flood hit the city. Here, Pangloss, ever the optimist, tries to comfort them with his consistent philosophy that everything is for the best. Pangloss’s optimism relies on the logical fallacy of circular reasoning: The same proposition occurs as both a premise— the volcano in Lisbon could be in no other place but Lisbon—and a conclusion—Lisbon is the best possible spot for the volcano. Pangloss uses circular reasoning to substantiate that matters are out of his control, which relieves him of the responsibility to act.

“Your excellency will be so good as to excuse me,” said Pangloss; “free-will is consistent with absolute necessity; for it was necessary we should be free, for in that the will—”

After surviving a shipwreck and an earthquake, Pangloss debates free will and original sin with a member of the Inquisition, his philosophy of optimism reconciling the mutually exclusive concepts. The official responds to this circular argument by helping himself to a glass of port, his fatalism the logical conclusion of Pangloss’s case. The theme that philosophy is counterproductive circulates throughout the novel, and Pangloss acts as its most passionate practitioner.

“Do I dream?” said Candide, “or am I awake? Am I actually on board this galley? Is this my Lord Baron whom I killed? And that my Master Pangloss, whom I saw hanged?”

After Candide finds himself facing several characters he believed to be dead, he questions his own reality. Readers learn that Pangloss didn’t die while hanging, and he woke up when a surgeon tried to dissect what he believed to be a corpse. The baron recovered from the wounds that Candide assumed were lethal. The unlikeliness of such turns of events further ridicules Pangloss’s theory that everything happens for the best and challenges readers to examine their desire for happy endings.

“Well, my dear Pangloss,” Candide said to them, “when you were hanged, dissected, whipped, and tugging at the oar, did you continue to think that everything in this world happens for the best?” “I have always abided by my first opinion,” answered Pangloss; “for after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments.”

When Candide challenges Pangloss with the evidence that life hasn’t happened for the best, Pangloss explains why he sticks to his preposterous optimism despite enduring the most heinous experiences. This conversation signals a conclusion to the story that could be viewed as realistic. Pangloss’s moment of honesty conveys a view of philosophers in general as refusing to change their theories despite an abundance of empirical evidence that refutes them.

Pangloss was in despair at being unable to make a name for himself in any of the German universities.

In what might be the novel’s ultimate irony, Pangloss, the eternal optimist, ends up in despair, a situation made particularly comical because of its lack of drama. Despite such a disappointment, Pangloss ends his days in harmony with the other characters, cultivating their collective garden and agreeing with Candide that his current situation is the best way to live out one’s life.

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was put into the Garden of Eden, he was put there with the idea that he should work the land; and this proves that man was not born to be idle.”

Pangloss responds to Candide’s direction to get to work. After all of the novel’s criticism of religions of all kinds, readers may note the irony in Pangloss’s biblical allusion. By definition, the Garden of Eden conveys a paradise free from toil. After all the myriad events, Pangloss finds salvation in working the land and keeping busy in productive labor. Pangloss’s words match with deeds to express the true meaning of life at the end of the novel.

Pangloss would sometimes say to Candide: “All events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds, for, after all, if you had not been kicked out of a fine castle for your love of Miss Cunégonde . . . then you wouldn’t be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

Pangloss sums up the trajectory of Candide’s life to prove his point that the worst that happened to Candide resulted in the best. Once again, Pangloss’s opinion satirizes ineffectual philosophizing. He draws the lesson that the dramatic events set in motion in the castle in Germany culminated in the reward of snacks as exemplifying the best of all possible worlds.