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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
In 1755 the city of Lisbon, Portugal, was leveled by a tremendous earthquake. More than 30,000 people were killed. The event, which shocked Europe, had an especially profound effect on Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire. Voltaire, then nearly 61, was the leading French man of letters and one of the most influential figures of his time. His first reaction to the tragedy was the moving and angry "Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon," written in the weeks after the earthquake. Four years later, in 1759, a second fruit of Voltaire's reflections on this tragedy was published. It was his comic masterpiece, Candide.
Voltaire had long opposed the extreme optimism of many people of his time that was expressed in the belief that this is the "best of all possible worlds" and that all that happens is for the best. How could the loss of more than 30,000 lives in an earthquake be for the best? What place did the slaughter of the Seven Years War that ravaged Europe from 1756 to 1763 have in the best of all possible worlds? Voltaire's discussion of these questions can be found in Candide, his satirical, witty attack on optimism.
In this fast-moving philosophical tale of the young, innocent Candide's education in life, horror succeeds horror and catastrophe follows catastrophe until he eventually gives up his early optimistic views. To show how ridiculous he thought it was to be ever cheerful in the face of disaster, Voltaire used the technique of satire. Through exaggeration- the great number and extreme nature of the misfortunes that befall the characters- satire makes optimism seem not only preposterous, but also smug and self-righteous.
However, the optimism that Voltaire attacked was not the optimism we usually think of. When you say that people are optimistic, you mean that they have a hopeful attitude toward life and the future. In Voltaire's time, optimism had been turned into a philosophical system that believed everything already was for the best, no matter how terrible it seemed. This was a fatalistic and complacent philosophy that denied any need for change. To a man like Voltaire who believed in working to achieve a more just and humane society, philosophical optimism was an enemy.
By the time Voltaire wrote Candide, he had already established his reputation as a writer and thinker. Most people today believe that Candide is Voltaire's greatest work. But to the readers of his own time, Candide was merely one in a long series of great achievements. Voltaire was celebrated as a poet and dramatist, as a philosopher, and as a commentator on the ills and hypocrisies of society. In whatever capacity he exercised his pen, he was famous throughout Europe for his wit and intelligence.
A controversial figure, Voltaire was both idolized and despised. His outspoken views on religion and politics were frequently in conflict with established opinions and caused him great difficulty with the censors. The publication of Candide followed a typical pattern for Voltaire's works. It was published under an assumed name, to avoid prosecution. It was eagerly read by the public and sold as quickly as it could be printed. And it was condemned by the censors.
In 18th-century France, censorship, and the royal permission required to publish anything, were powerful tools used by the state to inhibit criticism of the government or the Church. And punishment took not only the form of public book burning or fines. Writers were imprisoned or exiled for their views. Voltaire himself was sentenced to the notorious Paris prison, the Bastille, twice and spent much of his adult life in exile from the Paris where he had been born in 1694.
Although Voltaire's father wanted him to study law, the young man preferred literature and began writing at an early age. His first major successes were the drama Oedipe (1718) and the epic poem La Henriade (1723). These brought him international fame as a writer of great style and wit and a reputation as a critic of contemporary society. Already present in these early works were the controversial themes that were to dominate his writing- his criticisms of religion and society, his pleas for freedom and religious tolerance.
Voltaire's wit brought him trouble as well as fame. He was sent to the Bastille in 1717, accused of writing a poem satirizing the Duke of Orleans (he in fact didn't write the poem in question, although he had written others in a similar vein). His second term of imprisonment came in 1726, after a quarrel with a nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan. After his second stay in prison, Voltaire was exiled to England.
In England, he taught himself English well enough to write and converse. He met many of the leading British literary and political figures of the day- the poet and satirist Alexander Pope (1688-1744); the satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745); the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). He admired both Swift and Pope (later, however, he was to criticize Pope's optimistic philosophy in both the "Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon" and Candide). He read the works of the great mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), both of whom greatly influenced Voltaire's intellectual development. But what impressed Voltaire most during his stay in England was the relative freedom to speak and write as one pleased. Throughout his life, he spoke highly of English freedoms, which had no equivalent in his own country.
After his return to France, Voltaire continued his career as a dramatist and poet. His success brought him considerable influence outside literary circles. Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) was an admirer of his, as was Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796). Both monarchs, considering themselves "enlightened," looked to Voltaire for guidance in their studies, since they wished to be known as "philosopher-rulers" (the term used by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in the Republic, his description of the ideal state and ruler). As a leading intellectual, Voltaire was courted, if not always heeded.
In France, Voltaire's troubles with the authorities continued. Despite a brief time as historiographer of France (a court appointment), he was generally, because of his irrepressible outspokenness, "in exile," denied permission to live in Paris. Among his many exiles, one was to have a great importance in his intellectual and emotional life, his exile at Cirey, in the province of Champagne, the home of the Marquise du Chatelet.
Voltaire's love affair with Emilie du Chatelet lasted from 1733 until her death, in 1749. She was Voltaire's mistress and intellectual companion. With Emilie, a noted mathematician, he studied philosophy, in particular Locke and Newton, and science. She was a follower of the optimist philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, which Voltaire later criticized harshly in Candide. But while he lived with Emilie, he entertained a less critical attitude toward optimism.
After Emilie's death, Voltaire spent three uneasy years at the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam, near Berlin. In 1758, after brief stays in several other cities, he settled in Ferney, on French soil, near Geneva. Not too long afterwards, Candide was published. Voltaire remained at Ferney, writing, farming, and promoting local industries, until a few months before his death, in Paris, in 1778. Shortly before he died, he was publicly honored at a performance of his drama Irene. But even his death was accompanied by controversy. In order to prevent the Church from denying the writer Christian burial, his nephew smuggled Voltaire's body out of Paris.
Despite the author's desire for Christian burial, he had long been in conflict with the Church. The Roman Catholic Church was, after the monarchy, the second great power in France. Voltaire's quarrel with ecclesiastical authority was even stronger than his quarrel with the political authorities. He saw the Church as the defender of superstition, a conservative force standing in the way of rational solutions to problems. He believed that the Church promoted fanaticism and intolerance.
Voltaire's lifetime was an age of great kings. Not all, like Frederick and Catherine, aspired to the reputation of philosopher-ruler. But all aspired to absolute power. Voltaire was born in the reign of Louis XIV, the "Sun King" (1638-1715), who established France as the strongest power in Europe and marked the splendor of his reign by building the palace of Versailles, outside of Paris. During most of Voltaire's life, however, France was ruled by Louis XV (1710-1774), who sought unsuccessfully to increase France's dominance. Although Voltaire did not oppose the idea of monarchy, he frequently criticized the corruption and abuses of power of the court.
Voltaire's career was not aimed merely at destroying intolerance and injustice through satire. His work had a positive force- for the betterment of society, for the spread of knowledge as a way of fighting prejudice ("opinion without judgment") and intolerance, whether social, religious, or racial. And Voltaire was not alone in his work. The 18th century was not only a period of great absolute monarchs but also the age of the Enlightenment.
All across Europe, such writers and thinkers as Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean La Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783) in France, Cesare Beccaria (1735?-1794) in Italy, and Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) in Germany were speaking out about the need for rational solutions to problems and for freedom of thought and speech. While the Enlightenment meant different things in each country, certain general beliefs united these apostles of reason who called themselves philosophes. They believed in the need for scientific inquiry free from religious prejudices. The Enlightenment was a secular movement- that is, it opposed the efforts of religion to limit man's inquiries in science, in politics, and in the law. Today, science is rarely limited by the need to justify itself in religious terms. But in the 18th century, any thought that might call into doubt biblical authority or Church dogma was suspect. The French philosophes (philosophers) sought to free mankind from such confines.
The philosophes were defenders of freedom- freedom of thought, of speech, of religious choice, even of taste. They believed in the power of the human mind. As their general beliefs became more widely accepted, they also turned to specific reforms- legal and prison reform, economic improvement, political liberalization. Today, these goals may seem modest, but in the 18th century they represented a revolution in thought.
Voltaire was regarded by many as the leading philosophe. In Candide, he may be seen at his wittiest. Candide can be read with as great enjoyment today as it was in the author's own time. Some references may be obscure to contemporary readers, but the humor and the liveliness of Voltaire's style make this story a genuine treat. The abuses he exposes may take different forms today, but religious intolerance and denial of freedom are not problems exclusive to Voltaire's time. And everyone, like Candide, must make his own journey from youth to maturity, from naivete to wisdom. In Candide, Voltaire has given the reader a portrait of his own age and a timeless story, both entertaining and enlightening.
[Candide Contents] [The Study