Candide represents an extended criticism of the ideas of the seventeenth-century philosopher Leibniz. Voltaire casts Pangloss as a satirical representation of Leibniz. Leibniz conceptualized the world in terms of a pre-determined harmony, claiming that evil exists only to highlight good and that this world is the best possible world because God created it. Leibniz’s concept of the world is part of a larger school of thought called theodicy, which attempts to explain the existence of evil in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God. Voltaire criticizes this school for its undiluted optimism. If this is the best possible world, his story suggests, then why should anyone try to alleviate suffering? Pangloss is also a parody of an excessively abstract philosopher. Voltaire scorned philosophers who did not base their arguments on knowledge gathered from a study of the world. Pangloss talks about the structure of the world, but knows little about it since he has lived an idle life inside a castle. Candide believes Pangloss’s philosophy without question because he has never had any direct experiences with the outside world.
Candide’s adventures begin with his expulsion from the castle. The series of misfortunes that befall him serve as a re-education via direct experience with the world. His experiences in the real world directly contradict Pangloss’s optimism. In reality, the world is a terrible place full of evil, cruelty and suffering. Thus, Candide and the reader are forced to reject optimism. Still, the novel does not conclude in favor of absolute pessimism either. Candide eventually finds happiness in hard work and rejects all questions of good and evil or optimism and pessimism. It is only when Candide gives up adventures in travel, love, and philosophy that he discovers happiness in tending his garden.
Is Voltaire’s portrait of Eldorado optimistic or pessimistic? Why?
Eldorado is a utopia—an imaginary perfect world. Candide decides that it is the “best of all possible worlds” that Pangloss has taught him to believe in. Eldorado does not suffer from religious persecution, petty squabbles, or social inequality. Thus, Voltaire is optimistically proposing that human beings are capable of creating a just, peaceful society. At the same time, the kingdom is almost inaccessible to outsiders, and its king explains that that is the only way it can remain perfect. Thus, a good society is attainable only if it excludes the vast majority of humanity. In addition, the jewels and gold that litter the streets of Eldorado activate common greed in Candide, who has displayed little lust for money prior to entering the kingdom. Rather than remain in Eldorado, where the jewels are of no value, Candide elects to return to the flawed outside world where they will make him rich. For him, the prospect of being wealthy in an imperfect society is preferable to the prospect of being an average man in a perfect society. Voltaire’s portrait of Eldorado is not pessimistic; rather, he uses Eldorado to convey a pessimistic portrait of human nature.
What is the significance of Candide’s retreat to his garden at the end of the novel? Does he find a credible solution to the problems and evils he has experienced?
In his garden, Candide manages to find a tolerable existence through self-directed improvement and work. Practical action seems to be the only way to eliminate human suffering. Each member of Candide’s household finds a skill to hone and then uses it to contribute to the support of the household. Without any leisure from their toil in the garden, the characters have no time or energy to trade empty words about good and evil.
Candide’s garden does seem to alleviate his and his friends’ suffering, but the sincerity of Voltaire’s endorsement of this solution is questionable. The characters have finally attained happiness, but their previous experiences remind the reader that misery still reigns in the world outside their garden. Candide and his friends are wealthy and secure—in a perfect position to try to change the world for the better. Yet, rather than engaging the world in an attempt to improve it, they withdraw from it in an attempt to escape their own petty unhappiness. Voltaire, who was himself quite active in political and social causes, might view withdrawal into a garden as a wise and viable solution for the problems arising from human weakness, but it is unlikely that he saw it as the best of all possible solutions to the misery in the world.