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Candide | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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How is philosophical optimism depicted in Candide?

Championed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosophical optimism was widely accepted during the Enlightenment period. Leibniz believed that everything happens for a reason, which he neatly summarized with the phrase sufficient reason. The character of Pangloss in Candide, an ardent supporter of Leibniz's theory, teaches Candide that there are no effects without causes, and though some effects may not seem wonderful at the time, they all lead to happy endings. Every time and place is the "best of all possible worlds" because God controls everything, and God will do only what is right. Candide questions the premise of philosophical optimism throughout the book because Voltaire thought it was a bunch of nonsense; there are surely events that have no greater purpose, like earthquakes. Pangloss's and Candide's flawed logic regarding causes and effects (such as the notion that noses are sloped to support glasses, so therefore people wear glasses) shows just how ridiculous optimistic thinking is.

How does Candide's service in the Bulgar army reflect Voltaire's views about the military?

Voltaire's thoughts on the military are evident in his depiction of the two Bulgar recruiters who trick Candide into joining the army. They are opportunists, preying on a naive young man who has neither a home nor a penny to his name. They recruit for numbers alone, not skills, as evidenced by the fact that their biggest worry is Candide's height. Once he enlists, Candide is treated like a criminal, irons clapped to his legs as he is marched to an open-air prison. Voltaire was not a fan of the methodology used by 18th-century European armies to recruit and train soldiers. Candide is beaten, bullied, and completely bewildered by his time in the training camp. Nobody tells him where he is or what he's doing. Voltaire shows how the military restricts a person's freedom as well as punishes him, but all in the name and exercise of free will.

What is the significance of the disease Pangloss contracts in Candide?

The syphilis suffered by some of the characters in Candide is symbolic of the dangers of empire building. Pangloss's particular strain was given to him by Paquette, the Baroness's maid, and is thought to have originated with Christopher Columbus's journey to the New World in 1492. It was a commonly held belief that syphilis came from the unexplored Americas; logic follows that if Spain hadn't been trying to expand its territory and influence, the disease would never have made its way to Western Europe. Syphilis is also symbolic of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Both spread through sexual intercourse, literally eating away at a person's physical and spiritual form.

What is the significance of the Anabaptist Jacques's death in Candide?

The Anabaptist Jacques is killed during a freak storm near Lisbon on the coast of Portugal. A deranged sailor hits him, which in turn sends the sailor almost overboard. Jacques hauls the sailor back onto the ship, but when Jacques falls into the water himself, the sailor doesn't give him a second glance. This episode shows that good doesn't always win; sometimes evil prevails. The scene illustrates the inanity of Pangloss's belief that everything that happens is right and good. Jacques is a good man who helps others, but his reward is to drown. Pangloss's reasoning that "Lisbon harbor was built expressly so that this Anabaptist should one day drown in it" neither makes sense nor shows any evidence of a benevolent God. Jacques's death disproves Pangloss's philosophical optimism.

What does Candide's initial questioning of philosophical optimism show about his character?

Candide manages to hold on to his optimism until the auto-da-fé held by the Inquisition. Up to this point, he has survived conscription into the Bulgar army, homelessness in Holland, the loss of his beloved, the death of the man who saved him, and a devastating earthquake, all while believing that everything happens for the best. It is Pangloss's hanging, however, that makes him question if his tutor actually knows what he is talking about. Candide naturally cares more about other people than himself. He can find good in the awful things that happen to him, but it is hard for him to understand why bad things happen to those he loves. He says he didn't mind being flogged by the Inquisition since he had already endured such treatment at the hands of the Bulgars. "But oh, my dear Pangloss! ... Did I have to see you hanged, and for no reason I can understand?" he cries. If seeing loved ones harmed is the best of all possible worlds, "what must the others be like?"

What is the importance of the clothing worn by Pangloss and Candide at the auto-da-fé?

Candide and Pangloss wear san-benitos for their punishment at the auto-da-fé, a public execution run by the Inquisition. Auto-da-fés were important occasions, and crowds of people clamored to see the accused's (or other recipient's) last minutes of life. Some auto-da-fés were purely for punishment, while others were held under the guise of appeasing God after a terrible disaster, such as the earthquake depicted in Candide. San-benitos are worn by those sentenced to an auto-da-fé, symbolizing the severity of the accused's crime. They are short, sacklike dresses painted with pictures of devils, portraits of the accused, and flames. Pangloss's flames are pointing upward because he was the one who said the heretical words; Candide's flames are pointing down because he merely listened with rapt attention, a lesser offense. The person with the upward flames was thought to be impenitent, not sorry for what he or she had done, while the inverted flames are for someone who is remorseful.

Why does Voltaire choose hanging as a means of death for Pangloss in Candide?

Pangloss is hanged for being a heretic, an opponent of, or disbeliever in, the dominant religion. In Spain and Portugal, that religion was Catholicism. The Spanish Inquisition was a government body formed in the 1400s to rid Spain of people who did not follow Catholicism; the Portuguese Inquisition followed in the 1530s. Pangloss is suspected of heresy during his dinner with the agent of the Inquisition. He tells everyone that the earthquake in Lisbon was predetermined by God and everything was for the best. The agent of the Inquisition is suspicious about this line of thinking and asks whether Pangloss believes in Original Sin, the disobedience of Adam and Eve to God. Pangloss says he does believe in it, but there "are of necessity events within the best of all possible worlds." He's essentially saying that Original Sin and the Fall of Man had to happen; humans didn't do anything to make them happen. The agent realizes that Pangloss doesn't believe in free will, in common with many Enlightenment philosophers. Orthodox Catholicism, however, is based on the idea that humans have free will. Pangloss's difference of opinion is what gets him labeled as a heretic, and he is hanged for this. Hanging wasn't the usual mode of execution for the Inquisition—burning at the stake was more popular—but Voltaire needed a way to resurrect Pangloss later in the story. It's easier to fake, or recover from, a hanging than a burning.

What is the importance of Don Issacar's religion in Candide?

Don Issacar is a Jewish man living in Portugal, and his fate reflects Voltaire's views on the religious intolerance common in 18th-century Europe. As a Jew Don Issacar generally wouldn't be welcome in Portugal, but his status as a banker and a trader make him valuable to the government. He constantly lives under threat of the auto-da-fé (which is how the Grand Inquisitor convinces him to share Cunégonde) and, despite his wealth, is viewed as a second-class citizen. Even Cunégonde, whom he purchased for her sexual services, looks down on him. There is nothing he can do to become a well-respected member of Christian society. His inhumane burial in a trash heap illustrates the ugliness with which people of other religions are treated. Alongside others of many different faiths, Don Issacar is less than human in the eyes of the church. Voltaire hated this disparity.

How does philosophical optimism color Candide's and Cunégonde's reactions to the deaths of Don Issacar and the Grand Inquisitor?

Candide feels no remorse for the deaths of Don Issacar and the Grand Inquisitor. He has been taught that everything happens for the best and that humans have no free will. Though he has questioned Pangloss's teachings, he couldn't possibly feel bad for killing these two men because, as he believes, his actions are predetermined by God. Who is he to question divine rule? Cunégonde has the opposite reaction to the deaths of the two men who held her hostage. While part of her may be glad to be free, she is greatly troubled by the consequences that may lie ahead for her and Candide. She rejected Pangloss's optimism long ago, and her naive idealism has been replaced by life-hardened realism. Candide sees the situation with optimism—the men holding his beloved are no longer a problem—but Cunégonde can look at it only with pessimism.

What lesson does the old woman teach Candide and Cunégonde?

The old woman tells Candide and Cunégonde her life story during their trip to Buenos Aires in an effort to show them that no one's suffering is worse than anyone else's. Like Cunégonde she began life pampered and beautiful, but in a flash everything she had was stripped away. After hearing the stories of the other passengers on the ship, Cunégonde concedes the old woman is correct. Everyone, it seems, has had a terrible life. Yet misfortune and suffering don't mean that a life is worthless. The most important lesson the old woman imparts is that you keep on going even when things are bad: "A hundred times I have wanted to kill myself, but I was still in love with life," she tells her young charges. Out of the "prodigious number of individuals who held their lives in contempt" that she has seen, only 12 actually killed themselves. She wants Candide and Cunégonde to understand that a hard life is still a life, and far better than being dead.

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