Voltaire as a Critic

English: a bust of Voltaire, on the façade of ...

English: a bust of Voltaire, on the façade of Lycée Voltaire in Paris Français : Buste de Voltaire, sur la façade du Lycée Voltaire à Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Voltaire as a critic (of philosophy, religion and social customs): what do you see as his specific targets?

In terms of philosophy, Voltaire targets Leibniz and his philosophy of systematic optimism. Leibniz argued that if God were perfect then He must have created a perfect world; thus, he considered the world’s suffering as a factor of a “harmonious universe” that people are too limited in perspective to fully understand (xii). Voltaire saw this position as a “divine justification for suffering and injustice” and used Candide to take Leibniz’, and Dr. Pangloss’, position to its extreme in order to mock this philosophy (xii).

In terms of religion, Voltaire criticizes the notion that one religion is superior to another. For example, Candide, “who always had a taste for metaphysics,” asks Cacambo to ask an old man in Eldorado “whether there was a religion in the country” (Voltaire 56). The man is shocked and questions whether there can be two religions: “ ‘Can there be two religions?’ he said. ‘We have, I think, the religion of everyone; we worship God from morning till evening” (56). Furthermore, Voltaire also mocks the European notion of prayer. The man explains that they did not pray to him because “we have nothing to ask him for; he has given us all we need, we thank him without ceasing” (56). This scene criticizes the European’s relationship with God. In particular, it mocks the way that Europeans tend to ask God for favors rather than thank him for what he has already given them.

In terms of social customs, Voltaire criticizes the state. In contrast to the European monarchs, the King that Candide meets in Eldorado is gracious and welcoming. In contrast to France where exile for the wealthy and the semi-wealthy was common, in this country “a reasonably well-off person” stays where he is (Voltaire 58). Furthermore, the King states, “I certainly have no right to detain foreigners; that is a tyranny that does not exist either in our customs or in our laws; all men are free; leave when you will” (Voltaire 58). Voltaire uses Eldorado’s as an alternative to the way that society is conducted in France; thus, instead of criticizing France and Europe directly, he shows the reader another country that treats its citizens in a completely different way and implies that it is possible to create a society which functions a lot like this one.

Voltaire. “Candide.”Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories. New York: Signet Classics, 2001. Print.

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