Voltaire’s was a philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment whose most famous work is the novella Candide explores many of the popular schools of thoughts of the Enlightenment period. 1759, the year that Candide was first published was a time of great change of thought happening in Europe and the novel presents ideas found in three of the dominant school’s of thought, Rationalisms, Skepticism, and romanticism. By exploring these philosophies and showing how Candide treats them, we come to the conclusions that it was not Voltaire’s intent to support any of this particular schools of thought but to instead show the absurdity of the logical conclusions of all of them.
Voltaire has a particular satirical language that he employs, as a master of the understatement. A ready example includes Candide’s teacher in the Baron’s household, Master Pangloss. The subject of what he teaches, is a satirical combination of actual thought schools at the time that Voltaire combines to absurdly. He writes “Master Paagloss taught the metaphysico–theologo–cosmolonigology.He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses” (Voltaire, 2). This is a satirical variation of the ontological argument in philosophy, which was a view championed by Descartes.
Descartes was a philosopher who broke from the established philosophical tradition of building upon the existing philosophies in order to form his philosophical worldview. He believed that the place to look for knowledge lay within the mind and that the source of human knowledge was reason. He believed that our senses only provide “very obscure information” (Descartes, 6th meditation). Descartes started with an argument for verifying his own existence and then set out to build his system from that axiom. Descartes writes that “ideas that represent substances amount to something more” than what they represent (Descartes, 3rd meditation). His famous “cogito ergo sum” leads him to believe that this true and sure method of discerning truth can be applied to other areas and uses it to establish a certainty in a belief in God and also that God is benevolent and not evil. Descartes’s overriding Ontological argument that God can be known through pure reason has been shown to reduce to nothing more than tautology where the premise is the same as the conclusion.
Descartes’ thinking belonged the school or rational philosophy. He was a philosopher who broke from the established philosophical tradition of building upon the existing philosophies in order to form his philosophical worldview. He believed that the place to look for knowledge lay within the mind and that the source of human knowledge was reason. He believed that our senses only provide “very obscure information” (Descartes, 6th meditation). Descartes started with an argument for verifying his own existence and then set out to build his system from that axiom.
He begins his first meditation in doubt, saying that “I was struck by how many false things I had believed,” and realized that he would need to start at the beginning, most basic truth he knew undoubtedly to be true and advance his thinking form there (Descartes, 1st meditation).
In this sense, it is the non-physical world, which is more constant than the physical. Descartes writes that “ideas that represent substances amount to something more” than what they represent (Descartes, 3rd meditation). His famous “cogito ergo sum” leads him to believe that this true and sure method of discerning truth can be applied to other areas and uses it to establish a certainty in a belief in God and also that God is benevolent and not evil. Descartes’s overriding Ontological argument that God can be known through pure reason. The nature of I then for him is the mind, which he believed separate from the body.
Voltaire pokes holes in the very process of Descartes thinking. He is parodying Descartes to show that just because his thought is well ordered and appeals to a logic, it does not necessarily mean that a clean logical system is actually grounded in reality. When Voltaire writes that “Candide listened attentively and believed implicitly” (Voltaire, 3). Believing something implicitly is belief void of a rational way to come to a truth. But Candide believes because this serves his purpose of the object of his desire, Miss Cunegund, who he finds “excessively handsome.” Under the system of Master Paagloss, conclusions are self-serving.
The King of the Bulgarians later characterizes Candide as a metaphysician, saying that he is “entirely ignorant of the world.” The point here is that a person can create an philosophical system of an ideal world such as Plato’s realm of forms, but this does not assist a person with the day to day living within the real world.
Voltaire believed that knowledge of the world was gained through experience. Belonging to a school of skepticism, he uses Candide to show the absurdity of mindlessly believing in things simply because someone says that they are so. Voltaire uses the six dethroned kings in the novella to show how ridiculous it is to believe that a birthright makes a king a ruler. This is an example of people, an entire nation, believing in something not because it is rational, but only because it is so.
Sextus Empiricus is often considered the father of the Skepticism that was prominent during the enlightenment period.
Sextus Empiricus and his skepticism did not deny human knowledge or even the possibility of knowledge. In fact, it seems his philosophy appears to be a starting point that attempts to actively seek knowledge acquisition. It was just that he never believed one could get beyond the starting point. Or rather, he withheld his assent as to whether one could move beyond skepticism. He cautioned that one must be very careful before affirming as knowledge anything that went beyond affirming appearances. This appearances, or sense data though have been criticized as subjective and therefore, insufficient in leading one to truth.
In this way, a life can be lived not in doubt of everything outside oneself but instead believing everything to be appearances, even true appearances. Empiricus thought it was best not to allow these appearances to culminate into firm beliefs based upon them.
Romanticism can be considered one of the “softer” philosophies of the englightment period. This movement was had dealings in artistic, literary, and intellectual movements. It was a rebuttal to rationalism which wanted to establish everything in the world into a dichotomy, things either being or not being.
Master Pangloss says to Candide that “it is demonstrable . . . that things cannot be otherwise as they are’ for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end.” This line of thinking is a parody, which yanks the carpet from under the rationalists at the time, and could be counted as a nod to romanticism which wanted to deconstruct the inflexible thought systems being championed by the rationalist school of thought. Voltaire writes “Fools have a habit of believing that everything written by a famous author is admirable. For my part, I read only to please myself and like only what suits my taste” (Voltaire, 47). Doing this, Candide will not get closer to truths, but he is not under the assumption that his reading will lead him to it. Instead he does what he enjoys, and will certainly be happier than the person who only reads to arrive at truths that may not even be possible to know.
Candice can be thought of as a romantic, while thinking that he is a rationalist. He goes through the world as a blank slate, absorbing information, but not really learning much of anything. Voltaire’ overarching point was perhaps not to get caught up in particular systems of philosophical thought, since all of them tend to lead to contradictions. Truth then, is not to be found within a particular system, but can be understood in different ways through them. The mistake would be to declare one system as axiomatically truer than others. While philosophers used rigorous, often times mathematical logic, in order to develop their viewpoints and philosophical systems, Voltaire used humor and satire to poke holes in them and show some of the logical errors that the systems were rife with.
Descartes, René. Meditations on first philosophy. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue, 1999. Print.
Malebranche, Nicolas. Dialogues on metaphysics and on religion. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.
Spinoza, B. . Spinoza: ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Voltaire . Candide. New York, NY: Spark Pub., 2002. Print.