Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz has the distinction of holding prominent places in both mathematics and philosophy. A contemporary of Isaac Newton, a rival, and Baruch Spinoza, an acquaintance, Leibniz will forever be associated with Enlightenment Rationalism. But thanks to French philosopher and writer Voltaire, he will also be associated with a strain of thought generally taken much less seriously: the philosophy of Optimism.
In the Theodicy, the only philosophical book he published in his lifetime, Leibniz attempts to reconcile divine providence, human freedom, and the nature of evil. He concludes, more or less, that the world is a perfect balance between the three. As “an absolutely perfect being,” God must have made the best possible world, he reasoned, and many conservative theologians then and now have agreed. But not Voltaire.
Drawing on a diverse body of genres—travel narrative, Bildungsroman, picaresque novel—the French writer’s rollicking satirical novella Candide, or the Optimist presents us with a comically grotesque and hyperbolic world that is nonetheless much more like the violent, chaotic one we actually experience than like Leibniz’s idealization. The novel’s hero, a gullible naïf, traipses through Europe and the Americas with his mentor, Professor Pangloss, “the greatest philosopher of the Holy Roman Empire.” A broad caricature of Leibniz, Pangloss insists—as the two run into devastating earthquakes, war, torture, cannibalism, venereal disease, and yet more earthquakes—that they live in “the best of all possible worlds.”
The assertion comes to seem increasingly, outrageously absurd and willfully obtuse. In the end, the various characters come around to the idea that their grand metaphysical questions have no real purchase on human existence, and that they would do best to practice a kind of quietism, settling down to small farms to, as Candide says, “cultivate our garden.” The response does not enjoin us to passivity, but rather to the use of our abilities for purposeful work rather than contentious speculation or in the service of blind faith. From his start as a writer, Voltaire fiercely attacked “fanaticism, idolatry, superstition,” as Alain de Botton says in the School of Life introduction to Voltaire above, as the basis of people killing each other “to defend some bit of religious doctrine which they scarcely understand.”
Voltaire found the phenomenon of religious war “repellant,” and his age had seen its share of war. In the historical background of Candide’s composition were the Seven Years’ War, the global imperial conflict that claimed the lives of eight million, and the Thirty Years’ War: the 17th century religious conflict that spread violent death, famine, and disease all over the European continent. In addition to these appalling events, Voltaire and his contemporaries were left reeling from the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which historians estimate may have killed upwards of 100,000 people. This natural evil was wholly unrelated to any kind of human misbehavior—as Voltaire bitterly argued in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster”—and so made Optimistic philosophy and theology seem cruel and ridiculous.
The bawdy, bloody, and hilarious Candide has remained the most incisive literary representation of disillusionment in “best of all possible worlds” theodicy. It is by far Voltaire’s most popular work—a bestseller from the day that it appeared in 1759—and is still given to students to help them understand the philosophical Enlightenment, or what is often called, as de Botton says, “The Age of Voltaire.” With more clarity than even Jonathan Swift’s satires, Voltaire helps us grasp and remember the major historical, religious, and philosophical conflicts of the time. A “master at popularizing difficult material,” Voltaire also used literary techniques to explain the ideas of contemporary thinkers like Locke and Newton.
The anecdote of the apple falling on Newton’s head, for example, “is due entirely to Voltaire,” who heard it from Newton’s niece and included it in his Letters Concerning the English Nation. This work, composed during his two-year stay in England, implicitly critiques the intolerance of French society—causing the book to be banned—and makes the case for some of the philosopher’s most cherished values: pluralism, religious toleration, mutual respect, and free inquiry. We find these ideals all throughout the works of Enlightenment philosophers from all over the continent, but nowhere do we find them articulated with such forceful wit and vivid style as in the work of Voltaire.