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Born François-Marie Arouet in 1694, Voltaire, who changed his name when he was 23, was the son of a successful lawyer. He claimed, however, that he was the product of an affair between his mother, who died young, and a nobleman poet. He was educated along with the sons of the French aristocracy at the College Louis-le-Grand and then went on to study law. But he soon abandoned his studies, defying his father who insisted that he find “a decent profession.” Voltaire responded, “I don’t want any other [profession] than that of man of letters.”
His skills as a poet and wit opened doors for him amongst the country’s elite. But those same skills soon landed him in trouble when a series of satirical verses he had written criticizing the French Regent were made public. He was sent into exile in the provinces, and then a year later was thrown into the Bastille prison for further offenses against the Regent. In the midst of this conflict, Voltaire was quickly establishing himself as an important poet and playwright.
It was around this time that Voltaire took on his new name, a move that led to his next skirmish with the French establishment. One night in February 1726, Voltaire crossed paths with the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, an aristocrat who reportedly asked the young poet whether his name was Arouet or Voltaire in order to expose the presumptuousness of the young man’s claim to a place among nobles. The young writer asserted that a new cultural and intellectual elite (one that presumably included Voltaire himself) was poised to seize control from a nobility whose power was derived only from its bloodline. The Chevalier, not surprisingly, took offense. Voltaire was beaten for his trouble and landed once again in the Bastille. This episode is often seen as a turning point for Voltaire—he was forced to see the illusory nature of his early social ascendancy. When he was released from prison, he fled France for England.
Voltaire spent two and a half years in England, where he encountered the writings of several key Enlightenment figures, including poet/philosopher Alexander Pope and satirist Jonathan Swift. Though written more than 30 years later, Voltaire’s most famous book, Candide, is immersed in a conversation with the philosophy and stylistic approach of these important writers and thinkers. Beginning in the idyllic land of Westphalia in the castle of the Baron von Thunder-ten-tronckh, the book tells the story of a young innocent named Candide—the illegitimate son of the Baron’s sister—who grows up alongside the Baron’s daughter, the beautiful Cunegonde. Both are under the tutelage of Pangloss, who teaches them that they live “in this best of all possible worlds.” Candide believes his tutor wholeheartedly, even when he is thrust from the castle and must travel the world from one horrible misadventure to the next, braving a seemingly endless series of man-made and natural disasters.
Subtitled “Optimism,” Candide grew out of an ongoing—and heated—debate about the existence of evil in a divinely created universe. The primary sources for much of the philosophical debate underpinning Candide are German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and English writer Alexander Pope. It is from Leibniz that Voltaire borrows the phrase “the best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz argued that it was not in God’s power to create a perfect world, but among possible worlds, he created the best. He thought it inevitable that there would be things in the universe that would be painful or evil, but he claimed that pain and evil would only exist in order to make possible a greater good. Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man, published in 1733, presents the argument this way:
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction,
which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride,
in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
Like Leibniz, Pope believed that evil existed as part of a larger plan that man could not fathom, but nevertheless was good insofar as it must exist for some purpose. And while Voltaire took exception to some of the assertions made by both philosophers, he expressed an essentially optimistic view of mankind and the universe in much of his early writing. However, a key turning point in Voltaire’s thinking came in November 1755, when much of Lisbon and the surrounding country of Portugal were destroyed by an earthquake. Killing between 10,000 and 100,000 people, it was one of the deadliest earthquakes on record. In the face of such destruction, Voltaire felt that it was ridiculous to argue that “all was well.”
Rather than taking a grim tone in his attack on optimism, Voltaire borrowed a page from another English writer and thinker, satirist Jonathan Swift. Swift’s works—such as Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal—combined darkly comic social and political satire with a playful approach to form, poking fun at the popular styles and genres of the day. In Candide, we see this approach at work: in addition to mocking swipes at Leibniz and Pope through the character of Pangloss, the philosopher who insists that all is well in the face of one terrible tragedy after the next, Voltaire constructs a tale that parodies novels themselves, in particular the heroic novels and romances characteristic of the 17th century.
But while some of the immediacy of the book’s historical context and references may have receded into history, the story’s power, appeal and comic energy have not abated. A best-seller from the moment it was published in 1759, it continues to attract readers. It has inspired many adaptations, including Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 comic operetta. The book’s energy and humor have certainly contributed to its longevity, but so has the ongoing relevance of the book’s political and ideological debate. Voltaire’s targets—stupidity, war, fanaticism, dogmatism—never go out of style. By composing a tale that gleefully creates a world that is both full of hope and full of disaster, Voltaire crafted a story for the ages, one steeped in the ideas and events of his time that continues to speak to our lives today.