Voltaire’s Little Man: Candide

“What is this optimism?” said Cacambo.

“Alas!” said Candide, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.”


“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity,” Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno assert in their remarkable work, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) – which claims that Enlightenment is totalitarian, absorbing socialism along with freedom. For Horkheimer and Adorno, Enlightenment wanted to emancipate mankind from myths and fantasy through the developments of politics, philosophy, science and communications; and yet it disenchanted the world and created the pure immanence of positivism, as its ultimate product, which makes, “humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown.”

Philosopher and writer François-Marie Arouet (November 21, 1694 – May 30, 1778), better known as Voltaire, makes an eminent contribution to this discussion by his signature work Candide ou l’Optimisme (Candide: Optimism) – a critical and satirical response to Leibnitzian optimism, arrogance of nobility, hypocrisy behind religious leaders and, more broadly, certain aspects of Enlightenment philosophy.

Published in 1759, Candide is composed of contemporary references to actual events of its time, such as the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, auto-da-fé which took place a few months after the earthquake of Lisbon, Seven Years’ War in the German states in 1756, and the execution of English Admiral John Byng in 1757.

The novel begins in a castle of Westphalian Germany, belonging to the Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, where the young Candide lives. His tutor and oracle of the family Pangloss – the professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology – teaches Candide the notion of Leibnizian optimism. He believes that there is no effect without a cause and so everything happens for the best:

“It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles- thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings- and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles- therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten- therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said all is for the best.”

Pangloss, for Candide, was the greatest philosopher of the whole world and the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of the castles. One day, however, the Baron catches Candide kissing his daughter Cunégonde and he throws him out of the castle; consequently, Candide starts traveling from one country to another; that is to say, from one disaster to another.

Throughout the novel, Voltaire makes Candide go through the miseries that will eventually weaken his faith for the teachings of Pangloss. For instance, the Grand Inquisitor orders a beautiful auto-da-fé –the ritual of public penance – after the earthquake of Lisbon that happens on the same day Candide arrives in the city; the University of Coimbra then decides to burn a few people alive in a great ceremony to prevent any further earthquakes. In consequence, Candide is seized and publicly whipped; he said to himself, “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?” Though Voltaire sees the Enlightenment as a great symbol of transformation, he emphasizes that its some aspects were ultimately antithetical to its purposes. Voltaire precisely refers to this auto-da-fé – which actually took place, some months after the great earthquake of Lisbon happened on the first of November, 1775 – as an example of enlightened despotism, in which monarchs, as an alternative to the nobility and the clergy, retain absolute power to institute legal, social, and administrative reforms inspired by the Enlightenment philosophy of reason.

Later on in the novel, Candide also meets with characters who have different ideas on moral and natural evil; for instance, Martin – a Manichean who believes that both the good and the evil are equally powerful in the world. Moreover, he discovers the unparalleled and utopian country named El Dorado which represents Voltaire’s image of an ideal society. Spending a month in El Dorado, with its generous people, Candide decides to leave and on his way he meets a poor man who had lost his left leg and his right hand, waiting for his master. When he asks for what has happened, the man replies:

“When we work at the sugar-canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe… The Dutch fetiches, who have converted me, declare every Sunday that we are all of us children of Adam- blacks as well as whites. I am not a genealogist, but if these preachers tell truth, we are all second cousins. Now, you must agree, that it is impossible to treat one’s relations in a more barbarous manner.”

Today inequalities, exploitation of labor and disregard for the life are still as relevant as in the past. Voltaire illustrates the plight of the poor and emphasizes the need of change and a better world like in El Dorado. Voltaire also demonstrates that the smallness and narrowness of mankind and his fatalistic belief that “everything is for the best.” This applies to the characters in the novel. For instance, Dr. Pangloss had been whipped, hanged, dissected, and was tugging at the oar, and he is still believing that all these are necessarily concatenated and arranged for the best. He manifests the same thoughts to the end, though he no longer believes in them:

“I am still of my first opinion for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract, especially as Leibnitz could never be wrong; and besides, the pre-established harmony is the finest thing in the world, and so is his plenuma and materia subtilis.”

Wilhelm Reich (March 24, 1897 – November 3, 1957) took a similar approach to the very nature of mankind with his most dazzling work titled Listen, Little Man – which gives a sampling about pettiness and narrowness of the little man and explains the ways of liberation, and eventually being a great man. He writes:

“You differ from a great man in only one respect: the great man was once a very little man, but he developed one important quality: he recognized the smallness and narrowness of his thoughts and actions. Under the pressure of some task which meant a great deal to him, he learned to see how his smallness, his pettiness, endangered his happiness. In other words, a great man knows when and in what way he is a little man. A little man does not know he is little and is afraid to know. He hides his pettiness and narrowness behind illusions of strength and greatness, someone else’s strength and greatness.”

At the end of the novel, Candide says, “We must cultivate our garden.” This ultimately expresses a form of pseudo-realism which creates an acceptance of the existing order as natural and unquestionable. In choosing to cultivate the garden, Candide perpetuates his belief in life as an escape from the cruelty and oppression. Thus, Voltaire’s garden imagery demonstrates the pettiness and narrowness of the little man who just goes on doing what he is already doing. This is what makes Candide strikingly relevant for the ages and even today.