Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Voltaire published his most famous philosophical tale, a global satire on human corruption that gave birth to the term “pessimism.” Its impassioned advocacy of humanitarian principles, religious tolerance, social justice, and realistic confrontation with life’s grimness retains its power and relevance two and a half centuries later.

Summary of Event

The French philosopher, playwright, and author Voltaire published Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759; also as Candide: Or, The Optimist, 1762; also as Candide: Or, Optimism, 1947), his indisputable masterpiece, at the age of sixty-five. Behind the aging, ailing writer lay a series of recent disappointments that might well have contributed to the Juvenalian “harsh indignation” expressed in his longest, best-known philosophical tale. He had lost favor at King Louis XV’s court in 1747; his collaborator and mistress, the marquise du Châtelet, had died in 1749; his residency at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia had ended in 1753, leaving him disillusioned over the rupture; and in 1755 his former relationship with the Prussian monarch rendered it impossible for Voltaire to return to his homeland. Unquestionably, however, the strongest catalyst for his panoramic exposé of his world’s ills was the Great Lisbon earthquake Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755. [kw]Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Candide (Jan., 1759) [kw]Candide, Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in (Jan., 1759) [kw]Optimism in Candide, Voltaire Satirizes (Jan., 1759) [kw]Satirizes Optimism in Candide, Voltaire (Jan., 1759) Candide (Voltaire) [g]France;Jan., 1759: Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Candide[1570] [c]Literature;Jan., 1759: Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Candide[1570] [c]Philosophy;Jan., 1759: Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Candide[1570] Voltaire Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm Frederick the Great Pope, Alexander Wolff, Christian Bayle, Pierre Châtelet, marquise du

Shocked at first by this natural disaster that killed possibly 100,000 people throughout Portugal and Spain and practically leveled Lisbon to the ground, Voltaire was equally shocked by religious Christianity;and Lisbon earthquake[Lisbon earthquake] sermons that justified the destruction as God’s wrath against the wicked and endorsed the piety of burning heretics alive. He promptly wrote Poème sur la désastre de Lisbonne (1756; Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake (Voltaire) 1764). In 180 lines resonating with deep compassion for all the catastrophe’s victims (except members of the Inquisition), Voltaire challenged the thinking that interpreted such a horror as the working of a divine Providence.

In its rejection of the notion that the disaster could have a divine purpose, the Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake took its place in a key theological debate initiated in 1607 by Pierre Bayle. Bayle had argued in his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697, 1702; An Historical and Critical Dictionary, 1710) that the presence of evil in the world conflicted with belief in God’s benignity, power, or wisdom, that evil predominated over good, and that Manichaeism was the soundest religious position. The most influential counterargument to Bayle had come in 1710 from the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whose Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme, et l’origine du mal (1710; Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil, Theodicy (Leibniz) 1951) reinstated a benevolent, omnipotent God as the designer of a harmonious world in which evil happened on the way to a greater good, or—in the words of Leibniz’s disciple, Christian Wolff—for a “sufficient reason.”

By the 1730’s, Leibniz’s ideas, systematized and popularized by Wolff, had become influential in European intellectual circles. Although a Deist and therefore a believer in a God removed from Creation, Voltaire in this decade was quite sympathetic to these optimistic ideas, which he discussed both in his correspondence with Frederick the Great of Prussia and in his daily encounters with the marquise du Châtelet, a devoted Leibnizian, at her estate in Cirey. He likewise seemed to approve a similar belief in divine Providence expressed by his English acquaintance Alexander Pope, whose An Essay on Man Essay on Man, An (Pope) (1733-1734) proclaimed, “Whatever is, is right.” Indeed, despite his early concern that optimism and providentialism denied the existence of free will, of chance, or—worst of all—of a need to improve the world, as late as 1747, Voltaire represented evil Evil in literature as leading to ultimate good in his first philosophical tale, Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; originally as Memnon: Histoire orientale, 1747; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749).

In his poem on the earthquake, however, Voltaire explicitly attacked optimism’s Optimism Pessimism folly and callousness, using the subtitle An Inquiry into the Maxim, “Whatever Is, Is Right” to impugn Pope and naming Leibniz as someone incapable of explaining humanity’s endless sufferings. Bayle’s name, on the other hand, he coupled with praise for a great understanding of the human condition. Three years later, adding wit, irony, and black humor, Voltaire continued his open attack on Leibniz in Candide, which he subtitled Optimism and presented as a supposed “translation from the German by Dr. Ralph.”

Voltaire included a fictionalization of the earthquake itself in Candide’s fifth chapter, using its devastation as one of many satirical thrusts against the “best of all possible worlds” philosophy of Pangloss, his caricature of Leibniz. Later, in the tale’s only other explicit reference to optimism, he had the title character define it as “the mania for insisting that all is well when one is suffering” (chapter 19). Throughout the tale, Voltaire’s Manichaean philosopher Martin enunciates Baylean skepticism in opposition to Pangloss’s absurdly blind optimism.

Voltaire is pictured at work in this lithograph modeled after a painting by Louis Carrogis.

(Library of Congress)

Candide’s anti-German satire extended beyond Leibniz to another eminent Prussian—Frederick the Great, with whom Voltaire corresponded long after leaving his court at Potsdam. Although personally disappointed in Frederick’s treatment of him, Voltaire turned to scathing public criticism only after what he considered the king’s crime against humanity, undertaking the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War] . Raging while Voltaire composed his tale, this war—in which England allied with Prussia and Hanover against France, Russia, Austria, Sweden, and Saxony—inflicted widespread suffering and death on civilians and soldiers on both sides, in the Old World and the American colonies alike.

Voltaire opened Candide with a false paradise in Westphalia, the west German province where the disastrous Battle of Minden (August, 1759) was to take place. He peopled the early chapters with arrogant, brutal Prussian aristocrats and parodied Frederick’s Prussian regiments in his portrayal of the sadistic Bulgar (connoting “buggers”) army. As Germany’s ally in the Seven Years’ War, England stood equally condemned in Voltaire’s eyes for brutality and injustice. He expressed this condemnation particularly in one antimilitaristic episode: In chapter 23, Voltaire had an incredulous Candide watch Admiral John Byng’s execution by the English for retreating from a battle with the French—an execution that was actually carried out on March 14, 1757, despite Voltaire’s petitions for clemency.

Besides delusive optimism and war—with its horrifyingly routine massacres, rapes, and disembowelments—Voltaire indicted such institutional evils as aristocratic privileges and abuses, religious (especially Catholic) persecution, monarchical tyranny, and slavery. His grief over the earthquake and other natural afflictions (plague, sexually transmitted diseases) notwithstanding, as a meliorist Voltaire focused on human-made miseries that moral progress—especially as encouraged by satire—could eradicate or ease.

For his own country, Voltaire reserved Candide’s longest chapter, chapter 22, but also some of his mildest criticism. His motive was not patriotic. Rather, to ensure that the French authorities would merely ban his work and not suppress it entirely, he contented himself with sniping merely at dull and malicious Paris conversations, dishonesty at cards, bad plays, and quackery—and inserting a few barbs against personal enemies who had criticized his work. Surely, however, it is no accident that Candide and Martin’s ship is approaching the coast of France when Voltaire’s protagonist pessimistically sums up humankind’s identity as “liars, cheaters, traitors, ingrates, brigands, weaklings, deserters, cowards, enviers, gluttons, drunks, misers, profiteers, predators, slanderers, perverts, fanatics, hypocrites, and morons.” Whereas the tale ends in the condensed insight that work prevents “three great evils: boredom, vice, and indigence,” Candide’s comprehensive list best captures the scope and bitterness of Voltaire’s condemnation of the human corruption prevailing in France, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East—everywhere, in fact, except in his mythical utopia, Eldorado.


Candide’s criticism of Old Regime values and institutions placed it among the Enlightenment works that paved the way for the French Revolution French Revolution (1789-1796);Voltaire of 1789. Already revered near the end of his life as a defender of human rights, Voltaire later became one of the leading influences in the revolutionaries’ fight for justice, Liberty;and justice[justice] liberty, and the eradication of religious superstition Religious superstition —three paramount concerns in Candide.

Beyond the effects of Voltaire’s words once they were in circulation, moreover, the very publication of the tale in 1759 represented a victory for freedom of thought and of the press. Freedom of the press;France Aware that his attacks on the status quo invited censorship, Voltaire not only published anonymously but also had his Swiss publishers begin covert sales in Geneva only after smuggling some of their two thousand copies and a separate manuscript copy out of the country.

Within a month, the book had set eighteenth century records as a bestseller. In February, the Paris police interrupted the printing of a sixth edition, and by March 10, 6,000 copies had been sold in Paris, as well as 200,000 copies outside France. The year of its initial publication also saw the publication of English and Italian translations, as well as sixteen more editions in French. After failing to stop circulation, officials in both Protestant Geneva and Catholic France publicly condemned the tale as indecent and scandalous. In 1762, it appeared on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. Index of Forbidden Books Such official resistance doubtless only increased the book’s sales and popularity: All together, more than fifty editions came out in France before Voltaire’s death in 1778.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Daniel. “Introduction.” In Candide, by Voltaire. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 1999. Excellent assessment of the way Voltaire’s paradoxical relationship to the Old Regime, his temperament, and his sexual humor shaped Candide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mason, Haydn. Voltaire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975. Examines the striking echoes between Candide and the preoccupations, ambivalences, and ironies evident in Voltaire’s correspondence during the 1750’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wade, Ira O. Voltaire and “Candide”: A Study in the Fusion of History, Art, and Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959. Authoritative study of Candide’s intellectual background, genesis, composition, publication, and meaning. Includes the La Vallière manuscript (original prepublication version) of the tale.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weightman, J. G. “The Quality of Candide.” In Candide, by Voltaire, translated and edited by Robert M. Adams. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Defends Voltaire against charges of shallowness, finding Candide effectively serious, artistic, and paradoxical.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wootton, David.“Candide” and Related Texts. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 2000. A twenty-four-page introduction that offers an exceptionally clear overview of the ideological currents and crosscurrents in eighteenth century Europe that influenced Voltaire’s composition of Candide.

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