“The Enlightenment” is the name for a movement that encompasses a wide variety of ideas and advances in the fields of philosophy, science, and medicine that began in the seventeenth century and peaked in the eighteenth century. Many historians mark the French Revolution as the crowning event of the Enlightenment era. The primary feature of Enlightenment philosophy is a profound faith in the power of reason and rational thought to lead human beings to a better social structure. The political ideology of Enlightenment philosophers is characterized by a spirit of social reform. The champions of the Enlightenment called for rebellion against superstition, fear, and prejudice. They attacked the aristocracy and the church. Candide reflects Voltaire’s lifelong aversion to Christian regimes of power and the arrogance of nobility, but it also criticizes certain aspects of the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment. It attacks the school of optimism that contends that rational thought can curtail the evils perpetrated by human beings.
Voltaire strongly opposed certain Enlightenment ideas about social class. Some Enlightenment thinkers promoted the idea of the enlightened monarch as an alternative to a radical reformation of society. Instead of denying the divine right of kings, the concept of the enlightened monarch relied on the idea that rulers could use their power to ensure the protection of their subjects’ rights. The reach of the monarch’s power could be extended so that he or she could ensure this protection. Thus, the name of the Enlightenment could be used to legitimize despotism. Moreover, witch-hunts and organized campaigns of religious persecution continued well into the eighteenth century, and Enlightenment philosophy’s propagation of reason as a social antidote did not bring a halt to the ravages of superstition and fear. Candide illustrates this fact in the figure of the Grand Inquisitor who orders an auto-da-fé to ward off earthquakes, among many other examples. Voltaire’s work may be difficult for the present-day student to understand because it alludes to some very specific concerns of his contemporaries. To better understand his wit as well as his relevant context, readers may benefit from consulting supplementary readings such as a history of the Enlightenment, a biography of Voltaire, or the writings of other Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau and Leibniz.