Literature Question

Francois Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, (1694–1778) was a unique figure in during The Enlightenment. He was an author, poet, philosopher and activist. But, it is as an author and critic of philosophy, specifically the optimistic philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, that you will me this brilliant man. Leibniz believed that this world is the best one God could have created. Thus, as you complete this lesson’s reading assignment, Candide, you will see the refrain “All is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds” ring out over and over again in one form or another.

Find out more about Leibniz’ optimistic philosophy at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

In his book, Questions sur les Miracles, Voltaire says:

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

The sentence highlighted in bold print within the paragraph above is often used in a condensed version of Voltaire’s words: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Find out more about Voltaire at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:


Voltaire is best know today for his philosophical tale, Candide. As a talented writer, Voltaire brought together many elements into his work. As noted above, he satirizes Leibniz’ optimistic philosophy. In fact, just about every element presented in the story is rife with satire on contemporary life in Voltaire’s time: religion, the Seven Years War (1756–1763), theologians, and governments. He incorporateds contemporary events and his own real life experiences. One of the most notable event is the Great Lisbon Earthquake (and tsunami) of 1755 that devastated the city and killed thousands of people. As you can see from the video below, an animation developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, the Lisbon quake, 8.5 in magnitude, affected the whole of the northern Atlantic Ocean.Watch VideoTsunami Animation for the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755Duration: (1:26)
User: pacifictwc – Added: 10/31/13YouTube URL: video does not play, copy/paste URL in new window. 

Voltaire also useds literary elements in his tale, of course. It is a picaresque tale, a sub-genre of fiction that developed in 16th century Spain and was popular throughout Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. The picaresque novel is satirical, humorous, and adventurous all at the same time, with a roguish protagonist of low social class who lives by his wits in a society that is corrupt. Voltaire adapted this sub-genre’s hero for his own purposes when he created his character Candide. Also, the picaresque novel has no real plot, but is a collection of loosely related adventures, and Candide and his companions do move almost haphazardly from one adventure to another. In the Spanish original, the hero is practically an anti-hero, getting along by his or her wits, but stopping short of being a criminal. Voltaire’s hero, though, is too naïve for that. In fact, his name, Candide, comes from the Latin word candidus, meaning white. It implies fair-mindedness and lack of corruption, which represent the source of Candide’s innocence and naiveté.

The novel is also a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale. Candide is a dynamic character who starts as the blank slate his name implies, someone who cannot think for himself, but by the end of the tale he has developed into a thoughtful character who makes his own decisions about life. This change is in sharp contrast to the traditional picaresque hero who rarely experience any real change in character.

Reading Assignment

Read the definition of “satire” in the Glossary of Literary Terms

Also look at the definition of “irony.” Students often get them mixed up, but they are not the same. Voltaire and other writers in this period were writing satire. There might also be verbal or dramatic irony happening in the work, but irony is not a genre, while satire is a genre. Don’t get them mixed up!

Read Voltaire’s Candide

This is a novella made up of 30 very short chapters, 73 pages. Make sure you give yourself time to complete the reading before you start to write. You need to read the complete novella before going to the discussion. “The best of all possible words.” As you read, pay attention to what is happening when these words are spoken. Are all the events surrounding them positive? Is the world the characters live in really “the best”? How strongly do the characters believe this philosophy, and when and how often do they question its validity?

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