Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Pangloss and his student Candide maintain that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” This idea is a reductively simplified version of the philosophies of a number of Enlightenment thinkers, most notably Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. To these thinkers, the existence of any evil in the world would have to be a sign that God is either not entirely good or not all-powerful, and the idea of an imperfect God is nonsensical. These philosophers took for granted that God exists, and concluded that since God must be perfect, the world he created must be perfect also. According to these philosophers, people perceive imperfections in the world only because they do not understand God’s grand plan. Because Voltaire does not accept that a perfect God (or any God) has to exist, he can afford to mock the idea that the world must be completely good, and he heaps merciless satire on this idea throughout the novel. The optimists, Pangloss and Candide, suffer and witness a wide variety of horrors—floggings, rapes, robberies, unjust executions, disease, an earthquake, betrayals, and crushing ennui. These horrors do not serve any apparent greater good, but point only to the cruelty and folly of humanity and the indifference of the natural world. Pangloss struggles to find justification for the terrible things in the world, but his arguments are simply absurd, as, for example, when he claims that syphilis needed to be transmitted from the Americas to Europe so that Europeans could enjoy New World delicacies such as chocolate. More intelligent and experienced characters, such as the old woman, Martin, and Cacambo, have all reached pessimistic conclusions about humanity and the world. By the novel’s end, even Pangloss is forced to admit that he doesn’t “believe a word of” his own previous optimistic conclusions.
One of the most glaring flaws of Pangloss’s optimism is that it is based on abstract philosophical argument rather than real-world evidence. In the chaotic world of the novel, philosophical speculation repeatedly proves to be useless and even destructive. Time and time again, it prevents characters from making realistic assessments of the world around them and from taking positive action to change adverse situations. Pangloss is the character most susceptible to this sort of folly. While Jacques drowns, Pangloss stops Candide from saving him “by proving that the bay of Lisbon had been formed expressly for this Anabaptist to drown in.” While Candide lies under rubble after the Lisbon earthquake, Pangloss ignores his requests for oil and wine and instead struggles to prove the causes of the earthquake. At the novel’s conclusion, Candide rejects Pangloss’s philosophies for an ethic of hard, practical work. With no time or leisure for idle speculation, he and the other characters find the happiness that has so long eluded them. This judgment against philosophy that pervades Candide is all the more surprising and dramatic given Voltaire’s status as a respected philosopher of the Enlightenment.
Voltaire satirizes organized religion by means of a series of corrupt, hypocritical religious leaders who appear throughout the novel. The reader encounters the daughter of a Pope, a man who as a Catholic priest should have been celibate; a hard-line Catholic Inquisitor who hypocritically keeps a mistress; and a Franciscan friar who operates as a jewel thief, despite the vow of poverty taken by members of the Franciscan order. Finally, Voltaire introduces a Jesuit colonel with marked homosexual tendencies. Religious leaders in the novel also carry out inhumane campaigns of religious oppression against those who disagree with them on even the smallest of theological matters. For example, the Inquisition persecutes Pangloss for expressing his ideas, and Candide for merely listening to them. Though Voltaire provides these numerous examples of hypocrisy and immorality in religious leaders, he does not condemn the everyday religious believer. For example, Jacques, a member of a radical Protestant sect called the Anabaptists, is arguably the most generous and humane character in the novel.
When Candide acquires a fortune in Eldorado, it looks as if the worst of his problems might be over. Arrest and bodily injury are no longer threats, since he can bribe his way out of most situations. Yet, if anything, Candide is more unhappy as a wealthy man. The experience of watching his money trickle away into the hands of unscrupulous merchants and officials tests his optimism in a way that no amount of flogging could. In fact, Candide’s optimism seems to hit an all-time low after Vanderdendur cheats him; it is at this point that he chooses to make the pessimist Martin his traveling companion. Candide’s money constantly attracts false friends. Count Pococurante’s money drives him to such world-weary boredom that he cannot appreciate great art. The cash gift that Candide gives Brother Giroflée and Paquette drives them quickly to “the last stages of misery.” As terrible as the oppression and poverty that plague the poor and powerless may be, it is clear that money—and the power that goes with it—creates at least as many problems as it solves.