Voltaire's hostility to Optimism

1) Voltaire was angered by those who asserted that this was the best of all possible worlds. There were strong reasons for this personal hostility:
            (a) This viewpoint did not match the experience of his own life, during which he had suffered many trials and tribulations. (See the previous biography).  He had been twice imprisoned in the Bastille and was later exiled to England.  His prestigious entry into the Royal courts of France and Prussia both ended in humiliation. He constantly had to seek protection and refuge to avoid persecution for his writings, as the French state and church struggled to suppress the ideas of Voltaire and his fellow philosophes.

(b) He was a historian and he did not believe the events of history allowed an optimistic viewpoint.  In 1755 the tragedy of the Lisbon earthquake, particularly made Optimism seem a cruel misrepresentation.  In “Candide, he catalogues the physical and moral evil of the eighteenth century that made nonsense of the Optimistic hypothesis. (See the following section: Voltaire’s evidence against the theory of Optimism)


2) His distaste for the lengthy abstract metaphysical philosophy of Leibniz 
a) Voltaire was exasperated that men should waste their time in futile metaphysical speculation when there were so many immediate practical problems to be solved.  (Examples from the book are given below)

b)  Voltaire rejected the arguments and the approach of the Optimist school.  He mocked the impenetrable, abstract principles on which they based their thesis.  He rejected the lengthy, complicated and involved ideas, by which they contrived to prove that “All is good', and saw these ideas to be pure sophistry, which sought to bamboozle people.  His own preference was for the lucidity of the opposite case that Bayle put forward. (Examples from the book are given below)

c) Voltaire believed that the ideas of the optimists were invalid because they were a priori arguments.  The Optimists started with a conclusion about the nature of existence which they accepted as an incontrovertible truth and then set about theorizing to prove it right. (Examples from the book are given below)

3) Voltaire thought that Leibniz’s theories were an obstacle to social progress and political reform.  Their conviction that all things that happened had to be made people fatalistic and unable to believe that they could help themselves out of their unhappy plight. (Examples from the book are given below)

Illustrations of points 2) and 3) above in “Candide”


The futility of tortuous metaphysical speculation (2a & 2b above)
The book shows the absurdity of fixing ones eyes on the clouds when there are so many real problems on the face of the earth,
After the earthquake in Lisbon the injured Candide is crying for help, but Pangloss only offers abstract speculation.
Chapter 5 – 
«Hélas! procure-moi un peu de vin et d'huile; je meurs. 
« Ce tremblement de terre n'est pas une chose nouvelle, répondit Pangloss; la ville de Lima éprouva les mêmes secousses en Amérique l'année passée;' mêmes causes, mêmes effets: il y a
certainement une traînée de soufre sous terre depuis Lima jusqu'à Lisbonne. 
« Rien n'est plus probable, dit Candide; mais, pour Dieu, un peu d'huile et de vin.

The derviche emphatically shows his impatience about the futility of metaphysical discussion, and slams the door when Pangloss comes out with all the jargon of Optimism:
Chapter 30 – page 148
« Mais, mon révérend père, dit Candide, il y a horriblement de mal sur la terre. 
« Qu'importe, dit le derviche, qu'il y ait du mal ou du bien? …..
« Que faut-il donc faire? dit Pangloss. 
« Te taire, dit le derviche 
« Je me flattais, dit Pangloss, de raisonner un peu avec vous des effets et des causes, du meilleur des mondes possibles, de l'origine du mal, de la nature de l'âme, et de l'harmonie préétablie.» 
Le derviche, à ces mots, leur ferma la porte au nez.

When Candide argues with Martin about metaphysics the same sense of futility is noticed, but in this case Voltaire notes that in debating calmly with a reasonable friend, they each found a certain solace:
Chapter 20 Page 112
Candide continua ses conversations avec Martin. Ils disputèrent  quinze jours de suite, et au bout de quinze jours ils étaient aussi avancés que le premier.  Mais enfin ils parlaient, ils se communiquaient des idées, ils se consolaient.

The à priori nature of the Optimistic arguments. (2c above)

Voltaire mocks them for using their final conclusion as the basis on which they build their arguments„ This is satirized in Pangloss’s teaching
Chapter 1 
Remarquez bien que les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes; aussi avons-nous des lunettes. Les jambes sont visiblement instituées pour être chaussées, et nous avons des chausses. Les pierres ont été formées pour être taillées et pour en faire des châteaux; aussi monseigneur a un très beau château: le plus grand baron de la province doit être le mieux` logé;…


Criticism of the fatalistic outlook engendered by Optimistism. - see (3) above)

After his terrible experiences in the army, Candide nevertheless accepted that things could not have been otherwise:
Chapter 3  page 61
Il n'y a point d'effet sans cause, répondit modestement Candide (tout est  enchaîné nécessairement, et arrangé pour le mieux. Il a fallu que je fusse chassé, d'auprès de mademoiselle Cunégonde, que j'aie passé par les baguettes, et il faut que je demande mon pain, jusqu'à ce que je puisse en gagner; tout cela ne pouvait être autrement.

This philosophy leads us to resign ourselves also to the sufferings of others. When their friend the Anabaptist was swept overboard Candide wanted to try to save him but Pangloss stopped him.
Chapter 5 – Page 66
Il veut se jeter après lui dans la mer: le philosophe Pangloss l'en empêche, en lui  prouvant que la rade de Lisbonne  avait été formée exprès pour que cet anabaptiste s'y noyât. .

Surrounded by the suffering after the earthquake in Lisbon, Pangloss callously assured them that it had to be.
Chapter 5 – Page 67
…il est vrai que le repas  était triste; les convives arrosaient leur pain de leurs larmes; mais Pangloss les consola, en les assurant que les choses ne pouvaient être autrement: «Car, dit-il, tout ceci est ce qu'il y a de mieux; car s'il y a un volcan à Lisbonne, il ne pouvait être ailleurs; car il est impossible que les/ choses ne soient pas où elles sont; car tout est bien.

Philosophical Optimism continued. Go to Voltaire's evidence against Philosophical Optimism