Candide by Voltaire Essay
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Through Candide’s perplexing adventures and enlightening encounters, Voltaire illuminates the numerous diverse cultures of which Europeans consider themselves superior. Yet rather than supporting the foreign practices of cannibalism, bestiality, and the abolishment of priests, Voltaire is ridiculing the Europeans’ own methods of torture in an abusive social hierarchy. Therefore, while freedom of expression and a consensus of the majority constitute faucets of good behavior, the European practice of elitist rule and inequitable punishments is revealed as unjust. This criticism suggests the need for reform by deriving authority from somewhere other than the traditional roles of the royalty, clergy, and nobility, a rather radical move at the time.
Voltaire at first reveals the fault of Europeans through his description of the savage land of Oreillon. Upon their dissent from Paraguay, Candide and Cacambo come across two women, completely nude, who cry out and “spryly” run away from two monkeys who snap “at their buttocks” (73). Instantly sympathetic, Candide shoots his musket and kills the monkeys, thinking that he has redeemed himself from earlier sins by saving these distressed women.
However, to his surprise he discovers that he has just killed the ladies’ lovers. Without questioning the practices of this foreign society, Candide reacts based on his own perceptions of right and wrong. His actions reflect the naivety of Europeans concerning what is thought to be normal based on their own “superior” culture.
As punishment for Candide’s rash actions, the Oreillons attempt to roast the travelers over a spit to eat, justifying this through the proclamations that Candide and Cacambo are Jesuits and thus deserve to die. This behavior is explained by Cacambo as being “appropriate” because “if we Europeans do not exercise our right to eat others, it is because we have other ingredients for a good meal” (pg. 74). He recognizes that each society contains its own equally valid practices which cannot be altered or condemned by those who think they are predominant. In addition, Voltaire is not justifying that bestiality and cannibalism constitute a righteous society, but rather satirically commenting on the Europeans own practices, for it would be hypocritical to condemn these practices without evaluating whether the European’s own forms of punishment are just.
As the innocent Candide ventures to Eldorado, he is once again introduced to a land unlike that found in contemporary Europe. Upon their arrival, the travelers bewilderingly walk upon pavement made up of rubies, emeralds, and gold and rapture in the delights of a free feast at a common inn. The generous, humble citizens then guide them to an old man and, later, even the approachable king, in order to answer their many questions. Through these communicators they come to realize that the most striking aspects of the village do not constitute its physical features, but rather its ideology. They are told that all men are free, and thus there is no need for the establishment of courts, trials, or prisons.
While Candide is quite baffled by these assertions which completely contrast the structured social organization of Europe, he is even more confused by the lack of priests or an enforced religion, upon which he exclaims, “What! You have no monks who lecture, debate, govern, conspire, and burn people who don’t agree with them?” (79). These seemingly sarcastic remark is a reflection of the binary thinking in which the Europeans have taught their citizens to believe. Candide had always considered the church as an institution which interjects in every aspect of life and constantly ridicules and punishes others while denying the fact that there are other practices and religions besides the order of the church and Catholicism. Voltaire is not suggesting the elimination of priests, which would be a radical idea at the time, but is rather demonstrating a deeper criticism of Europeans who assume that they are superior and must punish all those who defy this idea.
Although Oreillon and El Dorado are societies completely unlike that of the Europeans in law and culture, they are seen as portraying decent human behavior because they allow their citizens to express free will and they derive authority from the consent of the masses. For instance, in Oreillon, women are allowed to mate with whomever they please without judgement or persecution from others. This freedom of expression illustrates that the culture seeks to facilitate the happiness of its people. Additionally, when the two monkeys are murdered by Candide, the leaders instantly capture and attempt to punish the travelers, reflecting the society’s dedication to protect its citizens from harm and condemn those who impinge on basic freedoms.
While this culture may seem bizarre compared to more civilized nations, the fact that it derives its authority from the people illustrates that bestiality and cannibalism are enforced as appropriate human behaviors so long as there is a general consensus. Similarly, good behavior does not necessarily need to be derived from praise towards the king or daily sacrifices to a church, as portrayed in Eldorado. Unlike in Europe, the king is humble, approachable and genuinely concerned with the welfare of his citizens. For example, the feast the travelers consume at the inn is free because the state is said to assist business, thus revealing that the government is willing to contribute to the success of its people despite their class or wealth. Therefore, despite their practices, these societies emulate good behavior.
However, Voltaire forms a critic of the Europeans due to the unjust practices in which they derive and maintain authority. In Candide’s hometown of Westphalia, for example, the naive Candide is exiled from the castle of the Thunder-ten-tronckh because he kissed the Baron’s daughter, Cunegonde. He was unfairly punished because he stepped out of the social hierarchy to which he was born, while Cunegonde was not disciplined for her actions due to her rank. Similarly, in places like Paris, the elites haughtily criticize their fellow man’s creations and do not hesitate to manipulate and greedily conspire against others.
When Candide is led into a ploy by the despicable Abbe and arrested even though he had not committed any crimes, he is able to buy his freedom with three diamonds. The officer then exclaims, “Ah sire, even if you committed every crime imaginable, you’re still the best man in the world” (97). One’s fate depends on the inconsiderate word of the elite, one’s wealth, and the act of bribery. Since Candide had money, he was able to secure his freedom while the majority of peasants who are near penniless would have to suffer. These scenarios represent the unjust rule of the elites over the consensus of the majority.
While Voltaire formulates the components of good behavior based on the legitimacy the authority derives from its citizens, he also constitutes bad behavior as punishment without just cause. For instance, when Candide and Martin arrive in Portsmouth, they view the execution of a British Admiral. The Admiral’s crime was explained in that he had stayed too far from the French enemy and that his death would encourage others to fight more fervently during war. This nonsensical behavior represents the paradox of European punishments which reduce war heros to criminals. Another such scene is presented when Candide and Pangloss reach the city of Lisbon in which a haphazard earthquake kills thirty thousand people. Faculty of a university decide that, in order to prevent another earthquake, they must “roast several persons over a slow fire…
They had therefore seized a man from the Basque province who had been convicted of marrying the godmother of his godchild, and two Portuguese men, who when eating a chicken, had removed the bacon seasoning” (52-53). As a manner of electing their sacrifices, they choose those who had committed even questionable offenses, though even those forms of misconduct can be viewed as unsubstantial enough to deserve punishment, much less death. While it is firstly completely unreasonable to attribute a natural phenomenon to personal actions, Voltaire goes so far as to satirically illustrate that this is a commonsense European belief, for both offenses appear inconsequential to the victims’ punishment.
Meanwhile, most Europeans would be disgusted with the culture of the Oreillons who engage in cannibalism after enacting a punishment. However, Candide’s death penalty after murdering two of its citizens is a much more equitable offense in terms of its punishment than removing bacon seasoning from chicken, such as in Europe. Furthermore, once a body has been burnt, it seems inconsequential whether it is eaten or not. Voltaire is thus able to portray the irony as well as the unjust nature of European punishments as a bad behavior of society.
The figures of the time who would be most notably perturbed by Voltaire’s suggestions constitute the royalty, the nobility, and the clergy. Firstly, for centuries the royalty had uncontestedly derived authority through lineage and from claims to divine right. Candide’s embrace with the King of Eldorado would probably be perceived as strange because the royalty was considered far above the common people in class, stature, and rights, and thus did not need the consent of its citizens to govern. Thus, the monarchy would be opposed to Voltaire’s ideas because they undermine his authority. This is reflected in eighteenth century Europe when the National Assembly made a radical move by sending Louis XVI to the guillotine as a symbol of the growing dissatisfaction of the peasants and workers.
Secondly, the nobility consisted of a small number of elites who mainly derived their elevated status from patronage. Voltaire’s view of this social class, at least in Paris, is illustrated in the abode of Marquise de Parolignac, in which these morose intellectuals portray that their sole interests are to spread slander, hypocritically belittle art, and greedily take advantage of Candide’s treasures. Similarly to the monarchy, Voltaire’s proposal that society’s values and laws should be supported by the consensus of the masses was a scandalous assertion because it would undermine the power of the elites and force them to surrender their privilege.
Finally, the clergy’s word penetrated all aspects of life in eighteenth century Europe while Religious Orthodoxy formed local allegiances and bound communities together by preaching sacred traditions. However, it can also be said that the institutions of the church hypocritically valued their own self-preservation over educating the masses. Therefore, these religious authorities would not consent in being forced to adhere to stricter laws by having to give proper, legitimate reasons as a means to punish nonbelievers or delinquents of the church. Despite these opponents, Voltaire suggests a need for reform by deriving authority from somewhere other than the norm.
Although European society appears far more advanced than that of the savages and more structured than Eldorado, that does not necessarily determine that its laws and people are superior. In fact, Voltaire constitutes good behavior in a society as something that has been consented upon by its people, while bad behavior derives from unjust punishment and the dangerous rule of elites. Voltaire thus forms a critic of Europeans through comparisons to these foreign lands and furthermore questions whether a reformation of authority is a necessary means to benefit society.
Voltaire. Candide. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.