Candide by Voltaire: In the Context of the Enlightenment


Examining Candide in the context of the greater scope of Western thought and movements, there is no doubt that the work is highly critical of many of the social institutions of the time. Still, while criticizing many of the societal aspects (religion, the class system and the detested monarchy in France) Candide is not free from the biases and “unenlightened” thoughts that the revolutionary movement in France was based upon. In a scholarly essay on Candide, one modern critic of Candide  argues that while, “the philosophes wanted to work through established forms, including the monarchy and even the Church” by doing so, there were not quite as revolutionary in their beliefs since they did not attempt to go outside of the system of oppression to draw their insights.

Although throughout Candide there are several scathing attacks, mostly through satire, irony and absurd characters, on the Church and his contemporary philosophy, there is nothing inherently revolutionary about it. It certainly makes for a provoking type of comedy, but there are few solutions offered other than living an austere life on a farm. The lack of truly “enlightened” ideas in practice in the novel is especially noticeable in his portrayal of women. For example, Stromberg goes on to note, “Voltaire, as well as Rousseau, thought it most unwise to educate the poor” and one can clearly see that Voltaire’s imagining of women in Candide is hardly enlightened. Even though Voltaire was known have verbally advocated the equal rights of women, this sentiment is not apparent in his fiction, especially considering the fact that the main female characters are prostitutes, women that marry for money, disease-spreaders, and most importantly victims. Overall, while Voltaire’s work was certainly inflammatory and critical of society, any potential revolutionary “value” lies only within the sense that it exposed weaknesses in the dominant societal structure.

In terms of religion, Candide explores the hypocrisy that was rampant in the Church. Consider for example, the inhumanity of the clergy, most notably the Inquisitor, in hanging and executing his fellow citizens over philosophical differences. Moreover, he orders the flogging of Candide for merely, “listening with an air of approval” thus proving himself somehow implicit in blasphemy. Church officials in Candide are depicted as being among the most sinful of all citizens; having mistresses, engaging in homosexual affairs, and operating as jewel thieves. Perhaps the most absurd example of hypocrisy in the Church hierarchy is the fact that the Pope has a daughter despite his vows of celibacy. While Voltaire is poking fun at the Church and its behavior and presents several of these satirical and ironic situations in Candide, there is an element of high comedy about such actions and one gets the sense that Stromberg, in stating that philosophes such as Voltaire were merely working through the system that they appeared to abhor as opposed to working against it in a more proactive way. The theme of revolutionary action or words versus idle philosophical speculation is another theme that is rampant throughout the text and is seen not only in Candide’s humorous accounts of Church hypocrisy, but of philosophy as well.

In many senses, it seems as though in Candide , Voltaire seeks a proactive solution to the problems in society. In the end, the group manages to alleviate their troubles by numbing their minds with hard labor, thus proving that perhaps Voltaire truly believes there is a way to work through the problems posed by society versus philosophy. Although the ending of Candide surely illustrates this idea, the novel has several interesting characters that demonstrate the uselessness of idle philosophy and in fact, may even suggest that there is some inherent damage done by his contemporary philosophy. For example, Pangloss, an adherent to his own brand of philosophy called “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology” which advocates the belief that, as expressed in one of the important quotes from “Candide” by Voltaire, “This world is the best of all possible worlds” actually causes damage to others.

While the good Jacques is drowning (as a result of his own philosophical beliefs in altruistic behavior, no less) Pangloss attributes the event in typical nonsensical fashion to the fact that “the bay of Lisbon had been formed expressly for the Anabaptist to drown in” and acts with similar reluctance and self-absorption after the earthquake when Candide asks for assistance. In sum, far from being a treatise on the beneficial nature of philosophy in bringing about positive change, Voltaire is suggesting that philosophy is, in itself, useless and even damaging. While her presents a number of ways of looking at the world philosophically, none of them are ever proven right. Martin’s extreme cynicism is not the way, Pangloss’ blinding optimism isn’t either, therefore it seems that the only way for a true revolution to come about is if one turns off from philosophy completely. This seems like a strange message coming from an author who was one of the most recognized philosophes of his time, and thus it seems rather ironic that the ultimate message about philosophy and its use is so grim. Again, it would seem that most of Voltaire’s uses of philosophy are not aimed at gearing up the masses for a revolution, rather, they are just ironic statements on a society that is recognizable for those contemporary readers. It is also apparent in his discussion on philosophy that he is not creating something new or revolutionary, but is rather working on an old base—the same institutions of philosophy and religion that already exist.

While it is apparent that Voltaire is not visibly working toward any revolutionary sentiments in Candide and is merely pointing out flaws in society, it is interesting to note how ingrained the popular cultural notions of the Enlightenment are not even expressed in the text. The most noticeable case concerns his treatment of women in Candide. While there were many views espoused during the period of the French Revolution about the rights of women, it must be observed that even a progressive thinker like Voltaire did not always hold views aligned with such ideas. In fact, as Stromberg points out (see f.1) many of the philosophes were against the idea of revolution—they were so far set in the aristocratic cultural norms of the society to think outside of it—even if they were wont to criticize it. In thinking of Voltaire and many of those philosophes similar to him in thought, women were not always considered equals (aside from a few exceptions). It was suggested, “The state of their [women’s] natural weakness does not permit them to preeminence…”their very weakness generally gives them more lenity and moderation, qualifications fitter for good administration.” Such sentiments in essays such as this one seem to mask a deeper underside of the patriarchal attitudes of the day more than their polished way of setting apart a few exceptions of women leaders would readily demonstrate.

If Voltaire also held such views, why then do all the women in Candide show such weak and defenseless character traits? While on the one hand it seems as though it many be a progressive move to point out how women constantly run the risk of being subject to often violent male desire (as we see in the stories of rape, enslavement, and general submission on the part of women) it seems more the case that Voltaire considers them to be weak and ineffectual creatures—using sex to obtain their desires and serving as vessels of disease. Women are strangely represented in the novel since at once they seem like helpless victims yet also show remarkable strength. It seems however, that the “strength” that these women show might not be a statement on the internal powers of women, but rather that they have no choice than to adapt to a gruesome and misogynistic situation. The old woman, after telling her terrible life story, relates that she does not believe in self-pity—she was merely telling everyone to pass the time. Although there are many female victims in Candide, none of them seem at all aware of the travesties committed to them or their sex and moreover, they hold true to an abundance of stereotypes (gold-diggers, prostitutes, battered old women). In many respects, as far as feminism goes, this is a rather bleak novel especially because although it is heralded as a precursor to the revolutions, it lacks the true ideals of the Enlightenment’s assertions of equal rights for all.

While this essay has attempted to point out that perhaps Candide is not free from the biases inherent to those classes and groups Voltaire so harshly criticizes, this is not to say that there are not plenty of cases in which it would be possible to draw revolutionary ideas from. By taking an almost socialist stance at the end of the novel, there is the feeling that the only to progress is through direct action rather than idle philosophical speculation. Still however, there also remains the idea that Voltaire is perhaps not as progressive as he is said to be—especially since he was working from inside the system (one of Churches, aristocracy, and gender bias) to formulate his critiques. Despite this rather negative outlook on Candide as an inspiration for future revolutions, it is important to buffer such a statement with the admission that he created a new way of writing about society that was not to be matched for years to come. As one essay on Candide claims, “With the death of the old Bolsheviks, the Enlightenment passed into the hands of nonentities like Suard: it lost its fire and became a mere tranquil diffusion of light. A comfortable ascent toward progress.”


Stromberg, Roland. “The Philosophes and the French Revolution: Reflections on Some Recent Research,”Eighteenth-Century Studies 21: 321-339

Clinton, Katherine. “Femme et Philosophe: Enlightenment Origins of Feminism” Eighteenth-Century Studies. 8: 283-299

Darnton, Robert. “The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature.” Past and Present 51:81-115

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