Hope or Cynicism: Which is It

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The old woman from Voltaire’s Candide once stated: “A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself; but I still loved life” (Voltaire 30). For some people, this is the way life is. While there is suffering in the present, life’s beauty can provide hope for a better future. Other people however, believe that living is one of two extremes. Everything is either for the best or worse, with little to no in-betweens. Voltaire’s Candide uses his characters to demonstrate the flaws of viewing the world from one extreme.

Candide was written during the Age of Enlightenment, a time period in Europe that lasted from 1685 to 1815. Also known as “the long 18th century,” the Enlightenment era was a period of social reformation. Politics, philosophy, science, and communications were reinvented, introducing new pieces of literature, inventions, scientific discoveries, and laws. Though it was believed that radical changes would change human nature, writers such as Voltaire remained skeptical towards these beliefs. Voltaire in particular used his frustration with continued injustice in this era through the writing of Candide (History.com).

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One of the main objectives of the novel is to deconstruct the belief in optimism. First introduced by philosopher G.W. von Leibniz, optimism was the belief that God created a perfect world. Any so-called evils that occurred only did so for the ultimate good. Voltaire uses the character of Pangloss to exaggerate this philosophy to cartoonish levels. Introduced as the mentor of Candide, Pangloss teaches his student that “all is necessary for the best” (Voltaire 9). Though this erroneous policy is embraced by Candide, Voltaire continuously mocks the so called wiseman. Whether it’s through sarcasm (“this great man” (15)) or by having other characters call out his beliefs (“Your hanged man mocked the world” (57)), Voltaire emphasizes how dangerous optimism as a belief can be.

By this logic, nothing is too unfortunate for Pangloss. Even when bearing witness to natural and man-made disasters, all the misguided philosopher can do is attempt to justify the event. At first glance, this seems to be a practical method of retaining hope in the world. After all, constantly thinking about life’s misery is an easy way to drive anyone insane. However, what Pangloss fails to realize is that the world isn’t perfect. Life provides many setbacks, some that are preventable, and others that are not. But because Pangloss is so steadfast in his beliefs, he doesn’t allow himself or anyone else to prevent unnecessary tragedies from occurring. One prominent example is the death of James the Anabaptist. First introduced in chapter four, James takes in Candide and Pangloss, who are both on the streets without money. This happy life doesn’t last long, as James is drowned in a bay in the next chapter. Rather than allowing Candide to help his new-found friend, Pangloss states that “the Bay of Lisbon had been made on purpose for the Anabaptist to be drowned” (16-17). This incident, along with several others, underscores how insensitive this blinding sense of optimism can make people. Though James could have been saved, Pangloss’ beliefs blind him to this fact. This results in a pointless death, made all the more upsetting by Pangloss’ lack of concern.

Besides showing the social effects of blinding optimism, Voltaire also uses Pangloss’ experiences to exhibit the personal consequences of this flawed philosophy. Throughout Candide, Pangloss suffers from some of the same misfortunes that he brushed aside. He catches syphilis, is almost hanged for a minor crime, and serves as a slave for a long time. These situations should have killed him, but they never do. Instead, Pangloss continues living life unfazed by life’s horrors, even when they happen to him. The story even ends with him never truly learning his lesson. When Candide and his companions begin to cultivate their garden, Pangloss still reasons that if Candide hadn’t suffered so much, he wouldn’t be “eating preserved citrons and pistachio nuts” (81). The foolish philosopher’s constant resurrections and lack of character development seem to reflect how difficult it is to drop a concept like optimism. As long as there are people like Pangloss, who live in constant denial over reality, humanity will never move past blinding optimism. Overall, Pangloss as a character uncovers the reality of the Enlightenment era’s so called progressive optimism.

Generally referred to as a pessimist, Voltaire’s faith in humanity has been tested throughout most of his life. As a very vocal speaker against injustice, he attracted the unwanted attention of the upper class. Taking advantage of their wealth, the aristocrats unfairly persecuted Voltaire through arrest or exile. If anything though, these attempts to silence him only provided inspiration for his writing (Bibliography.com). When writing Candide, Voltaire created the character of Martin to speak for himself.

First introduced in chapter nineteen, Candide acquires Martin for a companion during his journey from Buenos Aires to France. The definition of pessimism, Martin is the complete opposite of Pangloss. Rather than being a philosopher born in the lap of luxury, Martin is a scholar who’d been “robbed by his wife, beaten by his son, and abandoned by his daughter” (Voltaire 49). Instead of viewing the world as perfect, Martin believes that nothing ever turns out for the best. Even when good things happen, he still finds something wrong with that particular event. One prominent example occurs in chapter twenty. As Candide and Martin get to know each other, Candide notices that the ship of a Dutch pirate who’d robbed him earlier had been drowned. Though the innocent protagonist celebrates that “crime is sometimes punished,” Martin laments that the guiltless passengers were also drowned during the incident. Though this viewpoint creates a gloomy persona, Martin’s philosophy is more believable than Pangloss’. Rather than making a general statement about life without any knowledge of the real world, Martin uses events that he’s experienced to draw his own conclusions about the world.

However, Martin is not without his own faults. Though he’s a more believable character than Pangloss, his absolute negativity is still farfetched. Like Pangloss, Martin’s philosophy renders him unable to see the world in another way. In his opinion, the world was only created “to plague us to death” (Voltaire 52), and there’s no use in trying to change that. Though he’s wiser than Pangloss, Martin’s pessimism ends being just as insensitive as blinding optimism. This is best illustrated in chapter twenty-four, where Candide desperately searches for his friend Cacambo. Earlier, Cacambo had been charged with finding Candide’s beloved Cunegonde and keeping his money safe. When Candide doesn’t find him, Martin thoughtlessly tells him that Cacambo probably stole the money and ran off with Cunegonde. This situation shows that, not only can Martin not console his heartbroken friend, he’s also a horrible judge of character. Cacambo ends up proving himself as a faithful friend, proving that absolute pessimism can be just as dangerous as absolute optimism.

A popular saying is that writing comes from the heart. While this can be debatable with certain books, this isn’t the case for Voltaire’s Candide. Exaggerated characters, such as Pangloss, reveal the amount of dissatisfaction Voltaire had for the “progressive” policies of the Enlightenment era. Meanwhile, pessimistic characters, like Martin, demonstrate how Voltaire’s faith in humanity has been broken throughout his life. Through these characters, Voltaire teaches his audience that philosophizing doesn’t accomplish anything. Rather, doing simple work such as cultivating a garden is the only way that humanity, and possibly life itself, will improve.

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Hope or Cynicism: Which is It. (2021, Nov 08). Retrieved from


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