Analysis Pages

Themes in Candide

Optimism vs. Reality: Voltaire’s Candide has many themes, but its most central is the inadequacy of optimistic thinking. Certain philosophers from Voltaire’s time actively preached that the world was in its best possible state, created in perfect balance and order. Voltaire was unable to reconcile this idea with his own life in which he saw immeasurable and senseless suffering. In Candide, Voltaire demonstrates how Pangloss’s optimism fails to account for random, chaotic events and the needless suffering of others.

Thinking vs. Action: Voltaire’s biting critique of optimism goes hand in hand with another central theme; the failings of philosophical thinking. Pangloss once again serves as the central character for Voltaire’s critique. Pangloss’s philosophical musings seem farcical in the face of reality. For example, in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, Pangloss chooses to contemplate the earthquake’s causes rather than doing anything to help, leaving Candide crushed under the rubble. Candide demonstrates how speculating on life can cause one to sit idly by rather than helping others. As such, philosophical or speculative thinking is portrayed as both useless and potentially destructive.

Social Criticism: Voltaire uses Candide to expose the failings of his society. Candide serves as a sharp critique of political and religious oppression, sexual violence against women, and the corruptive power of money.

Themes Examples in Candide:

Chapter I

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"thus we have spectacles..."   (Chapter I)

Notice how these lines form a tautology, here defined as an argument that fails to appropriately assign cause and effect. By Pangloss' logic, the nose was created with the intent of one day wearing spectacles, an argument that employs a kind of reverse-engineering that doesn't withstand serious philosophical inquiry.

"necessarily for the best end..."   (Chapter I)

Pangloss' philosophy mirrors that of many during the Enlightenment, especially Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, a German polymath and philosopher whose optimism was based on a strong faith in God and predestination. If God has a predestined plan for us all, then He must know what's best for us, and if He knows what's best, then He must have created the best possible world for us. Voltaire exaggerates this philosophy to reveal its faults.

"do you believe the Pope to be Anti-Christ..."   (Chapter III)

Notice the hypocrisy of this line. This orator, who has just delivered a lengthy speech on charity, ignores Candide's request for bread and instead asks him about his religious affiliation. The 18th century was a contentious time in religious history in which many innocent people were persecuted for their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Voltaire uses this hypocritical Christian to build his anti-religious message.

"and the Abarian heroes had treated it in the same way..."   (Chapter III)

By showing that the Abarian heroes have behaved as badly as their Bulgarian counterparts, Voltaire evens the playing field, so to speak, so that neither side can be seen as more or less evil than the other. Rather, it is war itself that is evil, which leads us to Voltaire's implicit question: “How can a benevolent God permit this terrible evil to happen?”

"causing Te Deum to be sung each in his own camp..."   (Chapter III)

Te Deum, a hymn praising God (Deus), typically sung following a war victory. Notice that both kings are singing it at once, implying that the losses they've each inflicted on the other side constitute a "victory," even though neither of them have truly won or lost the war. Voltaire uses this absurd situation to underscore that there are no winners in war.

"for private misfortunes make the general good..."   (Chapter IV)

Another way to put this would be that private misfortunes make life in general seem good by comparison, and that in particular the private misfortune of going bankrupt frees up land, assets, and servants to be redistributed. The fact that these lands aren't typically redistributed to the public gives this "general good" an inherently classist overtone.

"mankind have a little corrupted nature..."   (Chapter IV)

In Christian theology, all humans are born with Original Sin, which we inherit from Adam and Eve, who ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. This "corrupted nature" James refers to may be Original Sin, or it may be a flaw that has developed in humanity over time, producing the horrors that James describes.

"He wrote well, and knew arithmetic perfectly..."   (Chapter IV)

This line indicates that the syphilis has not affected Pangloss' brain. In its end stage, syphilis is well-known to cause dementia in people who suffer from it, and given Pangloss' advanced stage of decay this wouldn't be an unreasonable concern. Note, however, that it takes up to twenty years for dementia to develop in syphilis patients, and that Pangloss must've caught it much earlier in life to be this far gone.

"no letting of blood or taking a glister..."   (Chapter IV)

"Glister" is an archaic term for an enema, or an injection of fluid into the rectum, generally used for cleaning purposes. In the 18th Century, glisters and blood-letting were common ways of purifying the body. This blood-letting may also refer to the practice of using leeches to suck the blood out of a patient (the logic being that the leech would filter out the infection).

"p—x—d..."   (Chapter IV)

P—x—d, here means poxed, or diseased. Syphilis was frequently referred to as the Great Pox and may be the specific disease Pangloss and the soldiers have contracted. However, syphilis in general acts very slowly on the body, with many sufferers experiencing no noticeable symptoms for years. Pangloss' misunderstanding of venereal disease speaks to the general confusion surrounding STDs in the 18th century.

"know nothing of it..."   (Chapter IV)

Historical records prove this statement wrong. In fact, all of these societies fell victim to venereal diseases early in their development. It is true, however, that the incidence of STDs in these countries, and in particular in Japan, has been significantly lower than in Europe, which may be due in part to their differing attitudes toward sex.

"evidently opposed to the great end of nature..."   (Chapter IV)

This "great end of nature" should be understood as procreation, or the proliferation of life. Pangloss believes that his venereal diseases have contaminated his sperm, "the source of life," making it difficult to reproduce. He's both right and wrong in this: some STDs can reduce male fertility, but do not, in fact, damage the sperm itself or prevent procreation.

"you do not then believe in liberty..."   (Chapter V)

The Familiar asks Pangloss whether or not he believes in Free Will. In Christian theology, Free Will is opposed to determinism or fate. Pangloss doesn't get to finish his thought here, but he seems to believe that the illusion of Free Will is necessary even though every effect already has a pre-determined cause.

"This is the Last Day..."   (Chapter V)

The "Last Day" refers to the Last Judgement, or Judgement Day. In the Bible, Judgment Day is depicted as an apocalyptic event where the dead rise again and are reunited with their souls. It's believed that Christ will come with the angels and judge all the living and the dead. Candide's horror in this scene is a result of the devastation and not fear of Judgment (as an innocent young man, he's likely to go to Heaven).

"for rejecting the bacon which larded a chicken..."   (Chapter VI)

Jewish people are prohibited from eating pork. As believers in a faith other than Christianity, the Jewish people were subject to the torture of the Inquisition, where they either denounced their religion or faced execution. The Inquisition also targeted Muslims, protestants, homosexuals, and certain ethnic groups, such as gypsies. This is yet another example of religious extremism in the book.

"the grand Miserere to which they whipped you..."   (Chapter VIII)

Recall that Candide was whipped to the beat of a song, which is here revealed to be the Miserere, or Psalm 51 from the Bible. The Miserere is a song that begs God for forgiveness of sins and asks him to purify the sinner's body by any means necessary, including punishment like the one Candide receives.

"why I am still beloved..."   (Chapter VIII)

If Cunegonde had given in to the Grand Inquisitor and Don Issachar, this line implies, they wouldn't love her anymore—the logic being that a man is only interested in what he can't get, and that once a woman appears to no longer be virtuous he doesn't consider her beautiful or worthwhile.

"and that each has an equal right to them..."   (Chapter X)

Recall that in Chapter IV Pangloss expressed this same belief to the Anabaptist James when he said that private misfortunes increase the general good. It's this kind of thinking, of course, that got Pangloss in trouble with the Inquisition, so it's unwise for Candide to espouse it here.

"Mount Atlas..."   (Chapter XI)

Technically, the old woman isn't referring to Mount Atlas, a volcano in Antarctica, but to the Atlas Mountains, a range of mountains that runs through Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The inhabitants of this region, in her mind, stand in for all African peoples, and demonstrate her racism.

"the five prayers a day ordained by Mahomet..."   (Chapter XI)

Salah, one of the five pillars of Islam, dictates that every Muslim must pray to Allah five times per day at prescribed times, as mandated by the prophet Muhammad in the Quran, the holy book of Islam. Voltaire reminds us of the piety and discipline of this practice to contrast it with the horror and the bloodshed the Muslims inflict, thus building on the theme of religious hypocrisy central to the book.

"so common in Africa..."   (Chapter XI)

Africans were thought by racist, colonialist Europeans to be warlike and hyper-sexualized people. Often, Europeans used this belief that Africans would rape their women and slaughter their children to justify genocide and the subjugation of the African peoples. In this passage, we can clearly see the impact that these racist ideas have had on the international community.

"Pope Urban X..."   (Chapter XI)

Voltaire, being a satirist, wanted to poke fun at organized religion, but didn't want to risk a charge of heresy by claiming that any real Pope had a bastard child. Pope Urban X, then, is a fabrication, the last Pope named Urban being Urban VIII, who died in 1644. Urban X, as Pope, shouldn't have had any children, and it's this hypocrisy and corruption that Voltaire addresses in the old woman's story.

"a German professor named Robek..."   (Chapter XII)

Johan Robeck, a Swedish-German philosopher who wrote an essay that legitimized suicide from a theological perspective. His primary argument was that life was a gift from God, and that, as a gift, we are free to dispense with it as we please. He himself committed suicide in 1739 by drowning himself in a river near Bremen, Germany, the allusion to which builds on the themes of death and religion in the book.

"they resolved also to devour the women..."   (Chapter XII)

In Muslim communities, women are considered subservient to men, which reduces their status to a second sex that's bound to obey the laws of males, however unjust those laws may be. Thus, though they are all starving, the Janissaries choose to devour the women rather than sacrifice one of their own, both out of a sense of camaraderie and their enduring sexism.

"the happiest of mortals..."   (Chapter XIV)

Voltaire positions Paraguay as a kind of Utopia, suggesting that its theocratic or religious rule is superior to the monarchial rule of Spain and Portugal. Given the satirical nature of the book, however, we can be sure that Voltaire is using this hyperbole to undercut the idea of Utopia.

"and in Europe confess those kings..."   (Chapter XIV)

In Europe, listening to the kings' confessions helps one get to Heaven. In the colonial period, many religious orders, particularly those like the Jesuits, who were often persecuted for their faith, sailed to the new world to establish churches where they would be just as powerful or more so than the King and Queen. This desire for power underscores the essential hypocrisy of the Church, which Voltaire points out here.

"when they knew I was not a Jesuit..."   (Chapter XVI)

By this logic, "pure nature" is opposed to Jesuits and, by extension, to members of any and all religious orders. Furthermore, as enemies of nature, here figured as "good," organized religion can be seen as an evil force in the world that runs contrary to nature's true design. If not for it, Voltaire implies, the Oreillons would not be particularly murderous at all.

"to kill our neighbor..."   (Chapter XVI)

Voltaire deliberately inverts the Biblical commandment to "love thy neighbor." Instead, he posits that man's true nature is to feel concern only for one's own safety and to eliminate those who would stop him from prospering or injure him in any way. This recalls Thomas Hobbes' theory that life is "nasty, brutish, and short."

"they are a fourth part human, as I am a fourth part Spaniard..."   (Chapter XVI)

By this time, Darwin had yet to present his theory of evolution, and few scientists believed that there was any connection between humans and primates. Voltaire likely makes this reference to poke fun of the religious officials who disdained any comparisons between humans and animals.

"he went on eating..."   (Chapter XVI)

Note the parallel between Candide's inability to commit suicide or to give up on life with the old woman's theories about life in Chapter XII, where she states that, though many people would like to die and end their misery, they continue to cling to life out of a deranged sense of persistence. So Candide goes on eating here, though his optimism has entirely failed him.

"let us recommend ourselves to Providence..."   (Chapter XVII)

The phrase "let us recommend ourselves to Providence" means let us give ourselves over to divine providence, or to the wisdom and knowledge of God, who they believed to guide them in all things. Candide has given up hope of reasoning himself out of a situation with the logic Pangloss taught him and has resorted to putting his faith in a river.

"a Socinian..."   (Chapter XIX)

A "Socinian" is a member of an Italian religious sect that denied the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the existence of the Devil. This sect was born out of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation, which challenged the Catholic Church and demanded religious reform. The priests of South America were, almost without exception, Catholics, and did not take kindly to Socinians.

"but why should the passengers be doomed also to destruction..."   (Chapter XX)

Here is the central failing of Pangloss' optimistic philosophy. As when the Anabaptist James drowned, Candide reverse engineers the idea that the Dutch skipper has been drowned as punishment for stealing, ignoring the deaths of the ship's passengers in the same way that Pangloss ignored the deaths of those lost in the tsunami. He assumes that the effect (the sinking of the ship) has been caused by one person (the Dutch skipper), thereby reducing the passengers to an insignificant part of the equation.

"as well as in everybody else..."   (Chapter XX)

An inversion of traditional Christian theology, which states that God is everywhere and in everything, including humans beings. This idea is expressed in Luke 17:21, "Behold, the kingdom of God is within you." Here, Martin says that the Devil is in everyone and everything, which underscores his dualist philosophy that evil is as prevalent as good.

"Surely you must be possessed by the devil..."   (Chapter XX)

Though Manichaeism was a prominent religion from the 3rd to the 8th Centuries, it was widely persecuted and all but destroyed by the Middle Ages. In Voltaire's time, the word was used pejoratively to refer to anyone who believed in a dualistic philosophy where good and evil were always struggling for power (as opposed to Christian theologies where good won out in the end). This disdain is evident in Candide's response.

"Manichean..."   (Chapter XX)

Manichaeism is an Iranian religious philosophy that borrows aspects of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Gnostic philosophies and combines them into one. Manicheans maintained that there were two primary principles (one good and the other evil), each equally powerful in the governments of the world.

"that the earth was originally a sea..."   (Chapter XXI)

It's important to remember here that Galileo posed his theory that the Earth isn't the center of the universe a mere century before this book was written, and at that time not much was known about the planet's origins. Many people still believed that the ocean were endless, and some wrote "Here Be Dragons" on maps where there were unknown or uncharted waters. Here, you can see how confusion about science and natural history contributes to widespread ignorance.

"men..."   (Chapter XXII)

Candide uses the word men to refer to men of character and moral fiber, not to the "men" he's met on his journeys, the liars, beggars, false Friars, and philanderers who've cheated him. In this, we can hear a shadow of the phrase "real man," which is often used in a pejorative sense when someone isn't living up to the standard of being a "real" man.

"Jansenist against Molinist..."   (Chapter XXII)

A Jansenist adheres to the religious philosophy inspired by Cornelis Jansen (1585 – 1638). A Molonist is a follower of Luis Molina (1535 – 1600), a Spanish theologian and a member of the Society of Jesus. Molonists believe that free will coexists with predestination under the grace of God, whereas Jansenist believe that humans are completely incapable of being innately good and that there's no such thing as free will.

"yet the scene is in Arabia..."   (Chapter XXII)

The play set in Arabia is a reference to Voltaire's own play Mahomet about Muhammad the Prophet of Islam, who in Voltaire's drama murders all his critics. As evident from the title and content, this play is yet another study in religious fanaticism, which was one of Voltaire's favorite themes.

"with these piastres only render them the more unhappy..."   (Chapter XXIV)

This was the case in Chapter XIX, when Candide and Cacambo left El Dorado and lost nearly all of their gold, gems, and "sheep." Wealth, as we see it in the book, only gives one a false sense of security, which in turn leads one to make very bad decisions, as Candide did when he gave that Dutch skipper so much money.

"which appears so pleasant to you men..."   (Chapter XXIV)

Here we see the most fundamental difference between men and women in Candide: their approach to matters of sex. Men seem to think nothing of purchasing a woman's affections or taking them by force, and certainly don't understand that having sex with a slave constitutes rape, and yet, time and time again, we see that women despise men for such actions and understand the gender dynamics at play far better than their male counterparts.

"Seneca..."   (Chapter XXV)

Seneca the Younger was a Roman philosopher from the 1st Century CE. Seneca was a Stoic philosopher who believed that one's actions had to be in accordance with one's ideas of nature, and that virtue was a fine substitute for happiness. Seneca was also a great dramatist and humorist, and his ideas were well-respected in the early Church. He's often considered an early proponent of Humanism, which seems to be the determinant of what the Senator does and doesn't like.

"Ariosto..."   (Chapter XXV)

Ludovico Ariosto was a 16th Century Italian poet best known for his epic poem Orlando Furioso, which describes the adventures of Orlando, Emperor Charlemagne, and the Franks in their battle against a group of Arab peoples known as the Saracens. Ariosto also coined the term Humanism, a prominent school of through in the Italian Renaissance which focused on human potential rather than the influence of God.

"when I think I see nature itself..."   (Chapter XXV)

This line, though it would appear to be a somewhat simplistic critique of Renaissance paintings, actually builds on the theme of nature and, in particular, human nature that has been developing in the book. The collector's assertion that he wants to see nature in art begs the question, "What is natural?" The reader is left to ponder what human characteristics he'd like to see in the portraits, and if his idea of nature aligns more with Pangloss's or with Martin's.

"But Candide paid no regard to these newcomers..."   (Chapter XXVI)

Again, we can see the sharp gender divide in Candide's world, where the plight of women (even these Serene Highnesses) means less and is given less attention than the plight of their male counterparts. That Candide ignores the Serene Highnesses both emphasizes his desire to return to Cunegonde and his generalized misogyny, which is made apparent in his disregard for women in this scene.

"to whom he sold for fifty thousand sequins a diamond worth a hundred thousand..."   (Chapter XXVII)

This line, though intended to provide a comedic punch for readers, is emblematic of the extreme Anti-Semitism that was rampant in both Europe and the Middle East at that time. This Anti-Semitism knew no limits, so that even a man of letters like Voltaire could casually make a snide remark about Jewish people being stingy in spite of his seeming adherence to many humanist ideals. This isn't the first instance of prejudice in the narrative, and it continues to build on the theme of racism that runs throughout the book.

"whether the mice on board are at their ease or not..."   (Chapter XXX)

In this context, the "mice" may refer to actual mice or to the sailors on board, who are like mice to his highness because their social status is so low that they're insignificant to him. In either case, the Dervish is saying that "good" and "evil" are ambiguous terms, and that what might seem good to a king would feel evil to a mouse or a sailor.

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