Experience and Actuality: Voltaire’s Criticism of Armchair Philosophers (Part 2 of 3)

However, Pangloss’ theories are more than just the silly, faulty reasonings of a man who thinks he’s right; they’re dangerous. It is with this belief, that this is the best of all possible worlds and that all things are for the best, that Candide goes out into the world. Labouring under these delusions, Candide suffers, more often than not completely needlessly. Not only him, but the young lady Cunégonde, another pupil of Pangloss’, also suffers. She loses faith in him much faster than Candide however, remarking fairly early on in the work that “‘Pangloss deceived me cruelly, after all, when he told me that all is for the best in this world” (Voltaire 21). In this way, Voltaire is using the character of Pangloss to illustrate to his fellow philosophers how truly dangerous their precedent of just assuming, presuming, and fantasizing can be, showing in a hyperbolic manner the real-world consequences of such careless theorizing.


As if to offer further incentive to his fellow philosophers, Voltaire peppered Candide with a myriad of stereotypes and archetypes of foreign lands cultures. Mimicking the voice of the stories from the “vicarious travelers” mentioned earlier, Voltaire condenses and multiplies these assumptions and assertions about other people and places, showing clearly how ridiculous the world would be if these flawed, fake observations were true. Within this ninety-four page novella, Voltaire pokes fun at Eastern Europe, Salé, Morocco, the Moors, Algiers, the Turks, the Russians, Paraguay, the collective lands of Africa and South America, Spain and many, many others. Not even the so-called ‘Enlightened’ countries of Western Europe escape his satirical pen, Voltaire’s own homeland of France being lampooned more thoroughly than most. In fact, Voltaire uses the countries of England and France to make his wider point succinctly.

Candide and his decidedly pessimistic companion Martin, a character who might even be said to be the voice of Voltaire himself in this work, find themselves on yet another voyage across the seas when Candide queries, “‘You have been to England,’ said Candide. ‘Are they as mad there as in France?’ – ‘It’s a different type of madness,’ said Martin… ‘to say precisely if there are more people in one country who should be locked up than in another, is something beyond the limits of my feeble understanding’” (Voltaire, 69). In this way Voltaire illustrates the fallacy in merely excepting other people’s experiences and thoughts as fact, pushing his colleagues to have courage, to venture out into the world, not merely in the physical sense of travel but in the metaphorical sense of seeking out new information and opinions, rather than deducing and assuming from others. Voltaire seeks to return to his brother-in-arms a sense of agency rather than a sense of consumerism.


Going hand in hand with this call to action is a reminder to not simply look outside for comparisons, but inside. In Candide, Voltaire encourages those who would call themselves “Enlightened” to not only compare such ideals of a superior human intellect and progress against outside worlds, those which seems distant and alien, but to look closer to home for imperfections that need fixing. Voltaire treated the “civilized” countries and people in Candide with the exact same tone of sarcasm he used to describe the obviously ironic stereotypes of “barbaric” lands and cultures, the intent being to show how truly uncivilized the very “Enlightened” people of the world can behave. Voltaire examines the world he knows so well from a distance, showing what an outsider would take as customary in these lands. Cunégonde and Candide both, at different times, dismiss horrors and death when they suddenly realize that all is well because that is the ‘custom’. For Cunégonde, when she is being raped in her home, she “‘…screamed, I struggled, I bit, I scratched; I tried to tear out the eyes of that huge Bulgar, not realizing that what was taking place in my father’s castle was the custom on such occasions” (Voltaire, 19). Looking back on it, it seems that she realizes that her actions were inappropriate.

Similarly, when Candide finds himself in a war zone, Voltaire reminds us how common these scenes of terror are, telling how, “Climbing over the heaps of the dead and dying, he came first to a neighboring village; it was in ashes: it was an Abar village which the Bulgars had razed to the ground, in accordance with international law” (Voltaire 8). In addition to this avenue of criticism, Voltaire seeks to open the readers’ eyes to the double standard by comparing the savage natives of one land with the cultured people of another, showing how similar they are. Remarking on the discerning taste of a group of cannibals he encounters, Candide remarks that, “‘After all, it seems that the state of nature is a good thing, since these people, instead of eating me, showed me a thousand civilities just as soon as they knew I was not a Jesuit” (Voltaire, 42). Such satirical scenes as these would force any great thinker to reconsider just how civilized their society is, when they can show the same sort of discernment as a pack of cannibals in South America.

Works Cited 

Voltaire. Candide, or Optimism. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. Print.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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