Voltaire, Candide / Zadig / L’Ingénu
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1956
Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, was not only one of the most important thinkers of the Enlightenment but also one of the 18th century’s great satirist. “Candide”, “Zadig,” and “L’Ingénu” are variously referred to as satirical novellas or “contes philosophiques,” i.e. philosophical tales.
In all three tales Voltaire sharply criticizes the French, and at times the European, society of the 18th century, which he sees as governed by intolerance, religious fanaticism, superstition, stupidity, and corruption. Foreign countries and cultures often serve as a means of defamiliarization and distancing from his own culture. Thus “Zadig” is set in ancient Babylon and its structure modeled on 1001 Arabian Nights. In “L’Ingénu” Voltaire reveals the shortcomings of French society to the eyes of his protagonist, a North American native from the tribe of the Huron who somehow ends up in Europe. And in “Candide,” probably the most well-known of the three works, he sends his hero once across the globe to find out about the state of good and evil in the world.
In order to understand the novella one needs to consider it in its historical context. The optimism that had been the predominant sentiment among European intellectuals in the 17th and 18th century is deeply shaken by the Earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 and the Seven Years’ War. Confronted with so much evil in the world, Voltaire thinks the claim held by German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” is impossible to maintain. He openly attacks this argument in his novella, which has also been published as “Candide or optimism” and as “Candide or all for the best”.
His reply is scathing. The blows of fate that Candide suffers are well into the realm of the absurd: war, imprisonment and enslavement, rape and mutilation, burning cities, inquisition, earthquakes, and shipwreck. That, so Voltaire cynically tells us, is “the best of all possible worlds.”
The implied attacks on state and Church seem so dangerous at the time that “Candide” is blacklisted in Geneva only weeks after its first publication, Paris and Rome follow soon after. But the work quickly spreads across Europe: it is sold 20 000 times and reprinted 13 times in the first year alone. Among the more than twenty novels that Voltaire writes during his lifetime, “Candide” is the one which made him famous and continues to be read until this day.