Every year, I visit the AAUW book sale and look for “oldies” and “goodies” missed earlier. This year, I spotted a copy of Voltaire’s “Candide,” which readers find liberally quoted in history and literature books.
His saucy wit is always provocative and many find his biting sarcasm objectionable.
The subtitle, “Optimism,” should be a warning to read carefully. Voltaire is an accomplished poet, playwright, historian and philosopher who is appalled at the naïveté of those who are admirers of an old idea then promoted by a German philosopher, Gottfried Leibnitz. He argued that this is the best of all possible worlds because everything is made to serve an end because everything necessarily serves the best end or purpose. This doctrine, if true, makes it possible to see the world through rose-colored glasses. Voltaire is not convinced the world is so ordered.
To test this idea in the real world, Voltaire pits Candide and his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, against plain observation of what they see and record as they travel widely through the real world. Candide, from which we derive “candid,” connotes “unspotted,” “pure of soul” and “trusting,” and is an avid believer in what Pangloss (which translates as “all tongue”) tells him about the best of all possible worlds. What they record in their travels was identical to what Voltaire expected, but they interpreted all events through the eyes of an optimist while Voltaire interpreted those events from the perspective of a Philosophe — a French philosopher of the Enlightenment.