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Candide | Context

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Government and Religion in France

Voltaire spent much of his time visiting and living in other countries, but he considered France, particularly Paris, to be his home. France in the 18th century was ruled by Christian monarchs (Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI) who treated the people of France as subjects who should do their bidding. Because of their power, the kings sometimes ruled harshly. There was very little separation of church and state, allowing the king leeway to change the policies of the Roman Catholic Church, the ruling religion in France prior to 1789, as he saw fit. He appointed bishops and even limited the power the pope had over French Catholics.

Voltaire supported the centralization of power in the monarchy, but he hated how much influence the church and the nobility had on French society. Decreasing the importance of those two groups, he thought, would afford regular citizens more freedoms. He wrote extensively on this subject, drawing admiration from other thinkers and ire from the church and nobility.

Historical Background

Voltaire was a history buff, so it is not surprising that some of Candide takes place during the Seven Years' War (1756–63), which pitted most of Europe against itself. France, Russia, Austria, Sweden, and Saxony were on one side; Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain were on the other. Candide meets two Bulgar officers wearing blue and looking for tall recruits; they represent Prussia. The Abars with whom they war at the end of the chapter are the French.

The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions were in full swing during Voltaire's lifetime. Originating in 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was a government institution charged with weeding out heretics (those who didn't believe or who wouldn't profess to believe) in Catholicism. Protestants, Jews, and even those who merely questioned the basic tenets of Catholicism were tortured, exiled, or killed. The Portuguese Inquisition began in the 1530s.

The Enlightenment

Voltaire's writing made him one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, a Western intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Leading Enlightenment thinkers, including Francis Bacon (English philosopher and politician), René Descartes (French philosopher and scientist), John Locke (English philosopher and physician), Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and others, thought societies ideally should be democracies based on natural rights. (Voltaire did not approve of democracies but agreed with these thinkers on other issues.) Their concept of an ideal society was revolutionary, as it didn't match the reality of life in Europe and around the world. Voltaire, in particular, believed that reason and logic were the keys to cultural progress.

Enlightenment thinkers were united in their interest in knowledge, freedom, and happiness, but they understood these concepts in different ways. Some believed the world was a blank slate for God, who had only good intentions for humanity. The idea of a benevolent God was most strongly adopted by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German philosopher who championed the idea of philosophical optimism. He believed that everything that happens is God's will, so the world is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire didn't share these beliefs, maintaining that ceding free will to God was an act of complacency.

The Enlightenment was also a period of great scientific discovery, which often directly threatened theories of divine power. Leaps were made in human understanding of the solar system (namely that there were natural scientific laws governing it), and the discovery of certain fossils seemed to contradict the creation story of the Bible's Old Testament. Divine theory became less important to many scientists as the disparity between science and religion grew more apparent.

Setting the Stage for Revolution

Europe grew exponentially during Voltaire's lifetime, its population doubling between 1715 and 1800. This sudden growth was the result of a higher standard of living and a decrease in mortality rates. People were living longer, which took a huge toll on resources like food and goods.

This increased demand hit France, the most populous country, the hardest. The French economy thrived between 1730 and 1769 and then plummeted around 1770. Revolts were frequent. People turned to the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers to institute social reforms. This redirection, combined with unrest caused by the sudden taxation of nobles and clergy to pay for earlier wars, set the stage for the French and American Revolutions. Though Voltaire had been dead for several years when the French Revolution began in 1789, the longevity of his ideas often earns him credit as one of its instigators.

Satire

Satire is a genre of literature in which an author uses varying literary techniques to criticize a contemporary person, event, or issue. Such literary techniques include the following: parody, or imitation of another well-known source; hyperbole, or exaggeration; euphemism, or mild language used to describe a harsh reality; understatement, or the presentation of information as less important than it actually is; and sarcasm, irony, or mockery.

For example, Voltaire satirizes the philosophy of optimism, or the belief that all things happen for the best, through hyperbole or exaggeration to draw the reader's attention to the absurdity of the belief system. The judgment regarding "the most magnificent ... of all possible castles" is based ridiculously on the presence of a door and two windows. Voltaire also satirizes religion, politics, and social classes in Candide.

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