John Green teaches you about Voltaire’s hugely important Enlightenment novel, Candide. Candide tells a pretty wild story, but for the most part, it’s about the best of all possible worlds. Which, spoiler alert, doesn’t seem to be the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire’s novel is a pretty frank look at Enlightenment philosophy that finds a lot of the thinking of the time wanting. It’s also got lots of sex, death, and travel!
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Hello and welcome to Crash Course literature, the best of all possible Crash Courses, discussing
the best of all possible novels here on the best of all possible sets.
I am the best of all possible John Greens—which is saying something, because there are a lot
Today we’re discussing “Candide, or Optimism” a work of fiction by the Enlightenment philosopher
François-Marie Arouet, who went by the name Voltaire, because wouldn’t you if you could
pull off the one name thing?
I’m feeling incredibly optimistic about today’s video.
So, let’s get started!
[Intro] So, Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694.
His dad wanted him to be a lawyer.
Voltaire wanted to be a writer. and not for the last time, Voltaire won the argument.
And Voltaire wrote a lot.
Like, hundreds and hundreds of books and pamphlets a lot.
And okay, pamphlets are very short books, but still.
He wrote essays and poems and dramas.
Much of it pretty satirical.
He had a hilarious verse, for instance, accusing the King’s Regent of incest with his own
daughter, which landed Voltaire in the Bastille prison for nearly a year..
Voltaire was big on two beliefs: Empiricism and Religious Tolerance.
Empiricism is the argument that knowledge of the world is discovered through experience
and evidence as opposed to philosophical speculation.
And religious tolerance should be self-explanatory.
Although it was not self-explanatory in 18th Century France.
Voltaire himself subscribed to the religion of Deism: The belief that God is a clockmaker
who set the world in motion and then stood back to watch it tick.
So, before we get into the philosophical context and themes of “Candide,” which was written
1759 and published anonymously, because, you know, Voltaire didn’t want to go back to
the Bastille, let’s review the story in the Thoughtbubble.
When the book begins, Candide, a naïve young man, is living an easy life on his uncle’s
estate with his cousin Cunegonde, whose name is sort of a dirty joke that we really can’t
get into, and his tutor Dr. Pangloss, who insists that Candide is enjoying the best
of all possible worlds.
When Cunegonde catches her chambermaid scoodilypooping with Pangloss, she decides to kiss Candide,
and that gets Candide kicked off of the estate, forced into military service, beaten and nearly
Best of all possible worlds?
(1) Then Candide escapes the army and is helped by a nice heretic named James.
On the street, he sees a poor victim of syphilis with half his nose missing, and turns out,
Pangloss tells him that the army overran the uncle’s estate and killed everyone.
(2) Then he and Candide and James go to Lisbon where James drowns, and then an earthquake
During the ensuing devastation, Candide and Pangloss are arrested as heretics and Pangloss
But Candide escapes and meets up with Cunegonde, who’s alive and the mistress to both a rich
Jewish merchant and a Catholic inquisitor.
Candide kills both the men and he and Cunegonde escape.
But then they separate, and Candide makes his way to Buenos Aires and eventually to
El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, and then eventually, he makes his way to Constantinople,
where he meets Cunegonde again, who unfortunately is now ugly.
In Voltaire’s world, there is seemingly nothing worse.
And everyone is pretty unhappy by this point in the best of all possible worlds, until
Candide and Cunegonde realize that maybe the best thing to do is just farm the land they
Candide says, “We must go and work in the garden.”
And then the weeding begins.
It’s a lot of plot.
Voltaire–never short on the plot.
Lots of sex and travel and murder and not murder.
There are some reasons for all of this.
So, Candide is an episodic novel, just like it sounds, a form based on one episode after
It’s also in some ways a picaresque novel, which is a collection of adventures undertaken
by a wily hero or heroine, although at the same time, it’s kind of an anti-picaresque
novel, because as you may have noticed, Candide is not terribly wily, and also it ends not
with an ongoing adventure but with gardening.
Candide is also a version of a bildungsroman, a term we’ve mentioned before, which is
a novel of a young person’s education.
Although we could debate how much Candide actually learns.
A big part of Voltaire’s satire involves adopting these forms that he’s trying to
mock, then turning them inside out.
to that point, “Candide” is also an Enlightenment novel that’s deeply critical of a lot of
It’s a parody of the classic romance—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl
back, but now she’s been disemboweled. also, they probably don’t live happily ever
So how seriously should we take this book?
Is it just a series of potty-humor parodies, or is it a real intellectual inquiry?
Well, I would argue it’s both, just like the Captain Underpants movie.
I mean, the book is definitely funny and extremely rude.
When it was first published, it was banned in a bunch of countries because of the ways
it mocked politics and religion.
Even people who didn’t want it banned thought that its humor was too dark.
and that’s certainly one justifiable way to read the book.
But I think there’s more going on here than just jokes about disembowelment.
Oh, it’s time for the open letter?
An open letter to disembowelment.
Oh, but first let’s see what’s in the secret compartment today.
Look at that.
It’s a guillotine!
Dear Disembowelment, I’ve done a fair amount of reading on 18th
century methods of French execution, and wow, does it seem very close to the worst
of all possible worlds when it comes to criminal justice.
Torture, was the rule, not the exception.
Execution was a common punishment for all kinds of different crimes, and you were lucky
if you got hanged or beheaded.
Because you could get burned alive, or disemboweled, or both.
By comparison, the guillotine seemed humane.
In fact, it was designed to be humane.
In short, disembowelment, when it comes to you, I’m with Voltaire.
I just don’t think you have any role to play in the best of all possible worlds.
Worst wishes, John Green.
OK, so at the heart of all that rudeness, is a big question.
How do we understand evil in the world, and What are we gonna do about it?
Difficult questions, and also among the oldest and most important for religion and for literature.
And even though Voltaire was very smart and deeply opinionated, he doesn’t pretend to
have an answer, but he does want to negate what he sees as bad answers.
“Candide” is a direct response to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s “philosophical optimism,”
a strand of philosophy arguing that since god is good everything must be for the best
in this “the best of all possible words.”
And this was a very common philosophical understanding at the time, even though, you know, it seems
a little bit ludicrous to us.
I mean, the great thing about philosophical optimism is that it solved the problem of
what scholars of religious traditions call theodicy–the problem of evil in a world that
is ostensibly overseen by an all-powerful and all-knowing god.
Pangloss’s teachings are straight-up Leibniz.
Pangloss’s name, by the way, literally means “all talk.”
This optimistic determinism was a big problem for Voltaire so he makes it a problem for
Quick pause for a bit of history: In 1755 there was an enormous earthquake in Lisbon,
Portugal, followed by a tsunami, followed by a fire.
The disasters killed an estimated 60,000 people, nearly a third of the city.
Voltaire of course used this in “Candide.”
He also wrote about it in a poem called “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” because Voltaire
wasn’t the best at titles.
He subtitled the poem, “An Inquiry into the Axiom ‘All Is Well.’”
And it’s clear that for Voltaire the earthquake was really good evidence that Leibniz’s
theory was deeply flawed.
The poem reads: “All is well,” you say, “and all is
Do you think this universe would be worse Without the pit that swallowed Lisbon?
And in the novel, Candide experiences similar disillusionment, part of it in Lisbon.
But good old Pangloss, half-dead from syphilis, is still arguing that his syphilis is part
of the best of all possible worlds.
Christopher Columbus after all brought syphilis a New World disease back to Europe.
And Pangloss argues that if Columbus hadn’t gone to the new world, and caught this disease,
“which poisons the source of generations,” we wouldn’t have chocolate, a New World
Now I like chocolate.
I also like lot’s of other New World foods, like tomatoes, and corn and peppers and so
But I don’t think any of that justifies the horrible parts of the Columbian Exchange,
and syphilis is just one of many.
Voltaire proves this point, that we don’t seem to be living in the best of all possible
worlds, over and over in the novel, arguably too often.
He probably makes it most explicit when, one of the novel’s few really good characters,
James, drowns saving a terrible person.
And yet I don’t think that Voltaire is arguing for mere pessimism.
Like, the old woman, a companion of Cunegonde’s tells a really harrowing life story, which
climaxes with one of her buttocks being cut off.
Because of course it does.
But she ends it: “I have wanted to kill myself 100 times, but somehow I am still in
love with life.”
Now, she goes on to call this desire to live a “ridiculous weakness” and compares loving
life to “fondling a snake that devours us,” but still, the novel acknowledges and embraces
that humans love life.
And it also acknowledges that there’s plenty to love about life, like candied fruit.
And pistachio nuts.
Just don’t get carried away thinking that you’re in a full-on benevolent universe
Tangentially related, Voltaire did not believe, like the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau
did, that the real source of the problems is modern society.
We know this because when Candide escapes to the new world, things are still quite non-ideal,
what with all the cannibalism and syphilis.
And it’s worth mentioning that Voltaire is anything but enlightened when it comes
to his imagining of the new world.
Voltaire’s racism and misogyny might reflect his times, but his pseudoscientific justifications
for them are worth noting in our times.
So the final jab at the “best of all possible worlds” thing comes late in the novel, when
Voltaire takes us to El Dorado, the famed city of gold, where the streets are lined
No one is hungry, no one is poor, no one is oppressed.
The king is nice to everyone and the enlightened citizens just love philosophy and science.
And guess what?
It’s extremely boring.
Candide can’t wait to leave.
This novel is so dystopian even the utopia sucks.
At the end of the book, Candide is miraculously reunited with all of his friends and together
they buy a little farm.
But again, they are very bored.
They go visit a famous wise man in the hopes that he can explain the meaning of life to
them, but he slams the door in their faces.
And then, on the way back, they meet a farmer who seems happy enough and his daughters make
everyone sherbet drinks.
And then drinking their sherbet, Candide realizes that he should go back to his farm and try
to make it prosper and maybe not worry about philosophy so much.
And then comes the famous last line “We should go and work in our garden,” or possibly,
depending on your translation, “Let us go and cultivate our garden.”
It’s the “our garden” that’s the important part.
Like we should stop worrying about everyone else’s garden.
And I guess that seems sensible enough.
A lot of people would probably feel better if instead of worrying themselves sick about
the problem of evil in their lives, and in other people’s lives, they just grew some
tomatoes and worked on their embroidery.
But as a conclusion to this particular novel, it does seem weirdly conservative?
I mean, the ending is a return to a garden.
What’s more Biblical than that?
And there’s also this selfishness to that choice.
I mean there is a huge earthquake in the novel, but most of the suffering is inflicted not
by a higher power but by humans upon one another.
These humans rape and kill and disembowel each other, and growing tomatoes may be a
way of personally opting out of those social problems, but I’m not convinced it does
much to fix them.
I guess Voltaire thinks those problems are unfixable, and that people will be evil no
matter what, but should we succumb to that pessimism or should we try to work to change
and improve this not-yet-best-of-all-possible-worlds?
Is it enough to tend your own garden, or do we have a responsibility to help our neighbors
tend their gardens as well?
I don’t know.
But, I do think we should at least share our vegetables.
Thanks for watching.
We’ll see you next time.
This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video