In Candide, Voltaire is satirizing Europe of the Enlightenment age through a philosophical lens. He presents two radical philosophical ideas in the work, neither of which is particularly well thought out. Pangloss represents the eternal optimist and Martin represents the cold and calculating pessimist. Throughout the tale, readers see Candide bounce back and forth between the two extremes, struggling to come to terms with the tragedies that befall him during his travels. Like Candide at the end of the novel, Voltaire argues, one should decide to “cultivate [his] own garden” (87).
The novel’s main character, Candide, is faced with many trials over the course of his travels. Along the course of the story, he is presented with radical optimism by his boyhood philosophy teacher, Pangloss. The main idea of Pangloss’ way of thinking is that “things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessary for the best end” (Voltaire 1). Candide believes this for most of the novel despite it being completely false. While the idea that “all is for the best” is a comforting one, it is simply untrue (Voltaire 2). Bad things happen to people, and sometimes there is not a good reason for why the bad things happen. Telling victims of a natural disaster that there is nothing else that could have happened and that the disaster was actually for the best may be comforting, but it is not true. An exponential amount of other things could have happened that may have turned out to be more beneficial for the people of that town, but the disaster is what happened and there is nothing anyone can do about it. This form of philosophy leads to the idea that ignorance is bliss.
If no one thinks about why things happen to them, it is easy to assume that whatever is happening is what is supposed to happen. This denies people the right to agency and free will. It allows people to commit crimes without anything holding them back since whatever happens is for the best. In fact, it is under this delusional idea that Candide justifies killing people in order to have Cunegonde for himself (Voltaire 21). Eventually, Candide realizes how unreliable this philosophy is when he sees a negro servant in a terrible condition after being subjected to extreme physical punishment while being left outside to wait for his master (Voltaire, 49).
Once he decides that his old teacher’s methods will not work, Candide needs a new philosopher to latch onto. At this point, he elects to lean on the teachings of Martin. Martin claims to be a “Manichean,” or one who believes that only good and evil are at work in the world, and that each force is equally as powerful (Voltaire 53, note 20). This philosophy is also limited in scope. It only allows for a black and white view of the world, which is not conducive to explaining the trials and tribulations Candide goes through over the course of the novel.
While discussing the purpose of the creation of the world, Martin argues that men cannot change their character, much like a hawk cannot not eat a pigeon (Voltaire 55). While one may be able to defend this argument using a priori knowledge, it falls apart when viewed using a posteriori knowledge. This is the first time Candide seems to be thinking for himself. He figures out that Martin’s argument is flawed when he brings up the idea that men have the ability to behave in different ways due to free will while animals cannot.
When Pangloss is reintroduced to the story after being revealed to be alive, Candide spends a good amount of time pitting the two philosophies against each other only to come up with another idea altogether. At the end of his quest for happiness, Candide decides that the best option is to just “cultivate [his] own garden” (Voltaire 87). He comes up with this idea after seeing an old man farming his own land. This man claims that the work keeps him safe from the evils of “weariness, vice, and want” (Voltaire 86). When Pangloss tries once again to assert his philosophy over Candide’s, Candide gently brushes him aside saying, “All is very well, but let us cultivate own garden” (Voltaire 87). He does not try to convince Pangloss of his ideas; he merely tells him that they are best keeping to their own. This may very well be the entire point of the novel. As long as one can come to his or her own conclusions through the use of reason they are capable of avoiding the evils of “weariness, vice, and want” and finding true happiness.