Essay about The idiocy of optimism and the vanity of philosophical conjecture

Submitted By Claudia-Hidrogo
Words: 1015
Pages: 5

Voltaire’s Candide is one of the most widely read novels in the west and as such has been established as one of the listed works that form the Western Canon. Written in the age of enlightenment it expresses the suspicion and skepticism of concepts grounded in faith or tradition, and exchanges faith and religion for individualism and scientific reasoning. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the
Seven years’ War had a profound effect on Voltaire’s writing, his assessment of societal norms and western philosophy. Strongly disillusioned by these horrible events he came to question in particular the theory of a well-known philosopher by the name of Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz. Voltaire uses Candide as an exposure of the sheer lunacy in the classic dogmas of optimism and a pronouncement of the superiority of objectivity in scientific observation and reasoning.

Leibniz’s principal of optimism bared the brunt of Voltaire’s scrutiny. Optimism, as described by Leibniz, is the concept that the world in which we live is the most optimal among all possible worlds, meaning that because an all powerful, all knowing God created the Earth it would be unthinkable that he would or could not create an imperfect world. Optimism was an attractive response to the painful reality of the human condition in that it provided reasoning for the atrocities experienced in life and an answer to the ever-enduring question of, “Why do bad things happen to us?” Leibniz provides further explanation with the purpose of legitimizing his argument. The reason humans can not comprehend the role of evil and its contribution to the best of all worlds is that human beings do not have the capacity to understand the structure of the universe. Human perception is limited at best to what we observe.

Voltaire immediately recognizes the folly in Leibniz’s theory and rejected these claims outright. In Candide, he sarcastically retorts back with his characters, Pangloss the philosopher and Candide, Pangloss’s naïve, gullible, yet loveable pupil. Pangloss represents Leibniz’s theory of optimism, preaching with unwavering, zealous ferocity, “It is clear that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches… Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.” (Voltaire, Ch1) As numerous tragedies befall him and his companions he continues to obstinately preach the goodness of the world and the infallibility of God’s creation. His ridiculous mulishness and sheer idiocy of these conclusions is evident in his assessment of spectacles. He argues that noses were made to support spectacles, yet we know that it was in reality the opposite; Spectacles were designed to fit noses. Correspondingly, breeches were designed and adapted to fit the human body. Optimists fail to understand the extent to which they carry their doctrine making illogical rationalizations for the state of the world due to their inability to properly distinguish between cause and effect.

After a multitude of disasters, the Earthquake in Lisbon, Pangloss’ contraction of syphilis, the Spanish Inquisition, rape, flogging, being sold into slavery, (and more!), and Candide’s consistent efforts to prove Pangloss’ theory correct, he realizes that he can not prove it to be undoubtedly true. In the end he decides to abandon his faith in optimism in exchange for farming and living a simple life in the country,

“and Pangloss sometimes used to say to Candide – All events are linked together in the best of possible worlds, for after all, if you had not been driven from a fine castle by being kicked in the backside for love of Miss Cunégonde,… if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good…