English 287:  Great Books

Study Guide to
Voltaire's Candide

There is also a much briefer study guide to this work.  It is designed to highlight certain central questions that moderately experienced reader would be inclined to frame and pursue in the course of reading the tale.  The guide you are reading now, though, is designed for readers who want to explore things a bit more deeply.

Here are some things to pay attention to as you review Candide.  (Incidentally, don't overlook the notes that are provided beginning on p. 91 of our text [Dover Thrift Edition].  These are often essential for clarifying points that readers today would have no way of knowing on their own.)

For an introduction to Voltaire, check out one of the following:

Another resource:  there's also the SparkNotes Study Guide to Candide.

It would be useful to have a look now at the opening item in that study guide, on the social and cultural context within which Candide was created.

The title page

The title page is unfortunately absent in our edition.  But you can take a look at what it looked like in the original edition of 1759 here.  It says:  "Candide or Optimism.  Translated from the German of Dr. Ralph."  Two facts bear noting:

(1) The title is an alternative doublet:  it is named after the story's main character and, equally, by what is its (supposedly) real subject, "optimism," which in that day referred to what came to be called more specifically "philosophical optimism."  This doctrine stems from the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who in 1710 published a treatise called Essais de Théodicée.  It found acceptance in certain circles all over Europe, for example in English, where it became the subject of Alexander Pope's famous poem Essay on Man (1732-44).

 Leibniz argued that the world we are in, despite all the suffering and criminality that attaches to it, is "the best of all possible worlds."  This proposition is the central thesis of a larger argument -- from certain premises (that Voltaire regarded as false) and giving rise to certain further implications that Voltaire found politically and morally objectionable.     Voltaire uses this phrase as a convenient shorthand for the entire argument and the outlook on natural and moral evil that it supports.

You might find it interesting, eventually, to check out an abstract of the central argument of the Theodicy (as Leibnitz' treatise has come to be referred to, in abbreviated form):  a shorter one or a somewhat more extensive one.

E Although philosophical optimism was also denounced by orthodox Christian thinkers -- who regarded it as a heresy, on the grounds that it implicitly denied Original Sin (see the end of Chapter 5) -- you should be thinking about how the particular lines along which Voltaire ridicules philosophical optimism in Candide led the clergy and the pious to recognize it as corrosive to traditional Christianity as well.

In fact, it makes sense regard the book's overt holding out of "[philosophical] optimism" as its target as a fairly transparent disguise for an attack on the Christian key axioms of original sin and divine providence & intervention as an explanation for natural events and human history.  Certainly it was regarded as such by the religious authorities.

(2) Hence it is easy to understand why Voltaire never in his life publicly acknowledged that this little story (destined to become his most famous work) was his.  Instead, the book came to the public as having been written by some learned German no one had ever heard of, and translated by who knows whom, but probably some hack hired by the French publisher (who also was nowhere specified).

Of course Voltaire's close friends were in the know, and it wasn't long before it was an open secret in intellectual circles in Europe that Candide was the child of the famous Voltaire.  But Voltaire himself always modestly disavowed the work in public.  In fact, behind the scenes he went to some lengths to further obscure its authorship.

[When you've finished reading the story, you might find it fun to return here and check out the letter he wrote (also under a pseudonym) to the editors of the Journal encyclopédique shortly after the first edition appeared.  (Note the date with which he endowed this letter from "Herr Demad.")]

To appreciate Voltaire's caution, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the methods and powers of the Inquisition.

Chapter I

The story begins in Germany, which Voltaire treats as a backwater of barbaric aristocrats with ridiculous pretensions to culture.  Though the 

How does Voltaire design the opening chapter to be recognized as a parody of the Biblical story of the Fall?  (In case we missed this on first reading, the opening lines of Chapter 2 remind us to rethink the opening chapter in these terms.)

What elements parallel the Biblical story of Paradise and the Fall of Adam of Eve from it?  

It would be a good idea to briefly review the details of Genesis 2:4-3:24.  

What, though, are the differences that make for humor here?

Why would Voltaire be doing this?

Chapters 2 & 3

What attitude towards princes and established religions does Voltaire invite in his treatment of the war between the Abares and the Bulgarians?

Amsterdam / Lisbon (Chapters 3 - 9)

What reaction does Candide get to his plea for alms from several serious-minded citizens of Amsterdam?

What do you figure Voltaire might be getting at here?

What are we to make of the behavior of the orator upon charity Candide encounters in Amsterdam?

James the Anabaptist

What are we supposed to notice about the Anabaptist James (who appears in Chapters 3-5)?  [If you are reading a different translation, you may find this character bearing the name "Jacques."  One is the English, the other the French version of Hebrew name Jacob.]

What are his key actions in the several episodes in which we see him?  

How does he contrast with the Batavian sailor?  with Pangloss?  (later:  with Martin?)  

What do you think is Voltaire's point in including him in the story?

When Candide meets up with his old tutor Pangloss, the latter is in a pitiable condition. (Footnote 4 is of help here in catching on to the humor.)

How does he explain the cause of his woes in the light of his principles of philosophical optimism?  (What does this have to do with what his name connotes?  [See Footnote 1.])

What are we to think of his explanation?

The Lisbon Earthquake.  On Sunday, the first of November, 1755, around 11 o'clock in the morning Lisbon (the capital of Portugal) was struck by a horrendous earthquake.  Buildings were leveled all over the city.  Death was massive, particularly because much of the population was at the moment attending church, and was buried in the rubble of their collapse.  News of the disaster spread rapidly all over Europe.

What trauma can you imagine this event posed for both orthodox Christian theology and philosophical optimism?  (What features are in common between the two outlooks, that you infer that Voltaire is hostile to?)

Have a look at a letter Voltaire wrote on hearing of the Lisbon earthquake.

The auto-da-fé at Lisbon.  The term auto-da-fé is Portuguese for "act of faith."

It's worth having a look at a brief description of this practice.

What assumptions about the causes of the earthquake can we infer must have motivated the recommendation of the faculty of the University of Coimbra?

What does Voltaire think of the mentality of the faculty?

Can you put your finger on where exactly this opinion is most directly indicated?

How does Candide come to be reunited with Cunegonde?

What are the chief episodes in her story of her experiences since the "Fall"?

What points is Voltaire making about military honor and religious authorities?

What stress is this story designed to put upon the assumptions of philosophical optimism?

How are these implications emphasized by the sorts of happenings Voltaire has invented as the facts of the Old Woman who has become Cunegonde's valet companion?

Why does Candide have to skidaddle from Lisbon?  

What kind of advice does he get from the Old Woman?  

E How does her use of Reason differ from that of Pangloss, who is absent?

Spain (Avecenna, Cádiz) / Atlantic voyage to Argentina (Chapters 10 - 13)

How does Cunegonde lose her jewels?

What do you think Voltaire's point here is?

What qualities of mind does the Old Woman exhibit in this emergency?

What opportunity does Candide seize when the party arrives at Cádiz?

What kind of reasoning do the travelers engage in during the voyage from Cádiz to Argentina and Paraguay (Chapter 10)?

What are the main themes of the history of the Old Woman (Chapters 11 and 12)?  

What does this catalogue of disasters have to do with the overall theme of Candide?  

What attitude does the Old Woman adopt towards what has happened to her?  

What counsel does she give her companions on the basis of her experience?  

What does Candide (Chapter 13) think the old woman's history means for the theories of Pangloss?

Southern South America (Chapters 13 - 16)

Buenos Aires

What kind of fellow is the Governor of Buenos Aires?  

What is Voltaire's point in giving him the name that he does?  

What is the Old Woman's advice to Cunegonde?

What kind of a fellow is Cacambo?  (As you continue to get acquainted with him, try to find words to formulate the traits that seem to stand out with him.)

How is he similar to the Old Woman?  How is he different?  

What advice does he give his master Candide?

The "Jesuit kingdom" in Paraguay

What are the outstanding features of the "Jesuit kingdom" Candide and Cacambo visit in Paraguay (Chapters 14-15)?  

Why is Voltaire so hostile to this community?  (If you have seen the film The Mission, you will be struck by the divergence of evaluations!)

Whom does Candide meet there, to his great surprise?  

Why does the encounter end as it does?  

What advice does Cacambo give his master?  (How does his presence of mind here contrast with that of "the young philosopher"?)

An unknown country without a beaten path | a beautiful meadow 

In the third paragraph of Chapter 16 we read of Candide that "[w]hile he was thus lamenting his fate, he went on eating." What is Voltaire nudging us to notice here?  

What mistake does Candide make in rescuing the girls from the monkeys that are chasing them?  

What do you think might be Voltaire's the point in devising this episode?

The country of the Oreillons

How is it that the pair doesn't end up on a spit, and being eaten by the Oreillons (the "Big-Ears")?  

What's the fun Voltaire is having with the idea of "natural reason" -- the quality of intellect common (because "native," in-born) to the species?

El Dorado (Chapters 17 - 18)

How do the despairing pair get there?

What mistakes of interpretation do they make during their first encounters with the natives? 

What assumptions are these mistakes meant to throw into relief?  

Why does Voltaire want the reader to reflect on these?

What is Candide's comment on these initial discoveries (i.e., at the end of Chapter 17)?

What are the important points of the history of El Dorado that are conveyed by the old sage (retired from Court, and now living in the village C & C have stumbled into)?

What is striking about the religion of El Dorado, as explained by the old wise man? (Note how certain key facts are pointed up by having the old man be surprised by Candide's questions.)

There are at least 5 points that you'd want to take stock of.

What key features of prevailing European religion (i.e., Catholic and Protestant Christianity) get highlighted here?  

How are these connected with differences over the interpretation of divine providence in respect of

  • how God wills that sinners be reconciled to Him (i.e., how "justification" is accomplished)?
    • the effects of Original Sin on human nature (i.e., on the in-born character of all individuals)?
  • how God decides to act personally within human history (i.e., miracles, divine interventions)
  • how God chooses to make his will known to human beings (i.e., what constitutes ultimate authority for discovering God's will)

What is Voltaire's getting at in his overall portrait of religion in El Dorado?

Both philosophical optimism and Voltaire's renunciation of theodicy could be regarded as forms of deism, under these definitions.  

  • How so?  
  • What, though, are their essential points of difference?

What does Candide's reflection on this part of his conversation with the retired elder have to say about philosophical optimism?

What is striking about the political order that holds in El Dorado, as the Candide discovers in his visit to the capital?

What is striking about the reception Candide and Cacambo receive from the King of El Dorado?  

What is this meant to get us to question concerning European monarchs?  

Why are the latter the way they are?  

What "necessities" drive them to it?

What would be necessary for them to cease thinking of these as necessary?

What "indispensable" institutions of European society don't show up in El Dorado?

What underlying differences do these differences evidently stem from?  (Voltaire is here prompting the reader to do some reflecting.  Take up the challenge.)

Note that Voltaire does not seem to suppose that natural reason would lead men to form a democracy.  Why do you think that is?

At the same time, how does his conception of rational monarchy differ from what prevails in Europe, where one is constantly confronted with all sorts of policies justified in the name of "reasons of state."

Why does Candide resolve to leave El Dorado?  

[general issues to be thinking through concerning the El Dorado episode]

If Voltaire thinks that reason is a property of the human race as a species, how do you think he would account for the fact that what passes for "reasonable" and "required by reason" differs so strikingly in Europe from what it is in El Dorado?

But if Voltaire is going to reject this as an explanation for why reason does not seem to be prevailing in Europe, what explanation do you think he will be inclined to favor?

What is the focus of intellectual life in El Dorado?  

What essential features of European civilization are absent from El Dorado? 

The visit to El Dorado sits approximately in the middle of Voltaire's tale.  Could this be telling us something?

Northern South America / Atlantic voyage back to Europe (Chapters 19 - 21)

From El Dorado to Dutch Surinam

What point is Voltaire making in the encounter Cacambo and Candide have with the negro they find on the way in to Dutch Surinam?


Dutch Surinam / departure from it

What kind of a person is Mynheer Vandurdendur?  ("Mynheer," by the way, is a term of address, meaning "my lord" or "mister").

(We've encountered him twice, right:  he's the owner of the Negro C & C met on the way into town, and he's the owner of the ship )

How does Candide come to take on the company of Martin?

How does Martin define his own philosophical perspective?  

What exactly does he mean by describing himself as a "Manichean"?  

It would be worth memorizing his definition, so that you can bring it to mind when you see Martin interpreting things that he and Candide witness from now until the end of the story.

You might also want to have a look at a comprehensive discussion of Manicheism.  Try one of these (say, a shorter and a longer one):

[a key concept in the story]

This would be a good time to stop to consider the concept (or concepts) of prudence, and to start collecting and organizing our thoughts about its role in Candide.

What behaviors indicate that Candide and Cunegonde are somewhat lacking in prudence?

What in particular about their backgrounds may help account for this?

In what respects is James the Anabaptist an example of a prudence?

In what respects is he not?

In what respects are Pangloss and Martin (as Candide's philosophical sidekicks) not concerned with prudence?

How are Cacambo and the Old Woman, as valets (and hence, in the narrative, sidekicks) to Candide and Cunegonde, outstanding in prudence?

How does Mynheer Vandurdendur acquaint us with a different dimension or (alternatively) a different sort of "prudence" from the one we associate with Cacambo and the Old Woman?

How about the Batavian sailor we meet just before and during the Lisbon earthquake (in Chapter 5).  Does he qualify as "prudent"?

Is prudence the same thing as "competent selfishness"?  Or are there restraints on the kind of selfishness that is consistent with "true prudence"?  (What could be the force of the qualifier "true" in such a phrase, if we're not going to use it as a weasel-word to obscure the fact that we're just being arbitrary?)

Summing up:  what do you think Voltaire thinks about the virtue of prudence?

Are there virtues that are more important than prudence, in Voltaire's view?

If so, what might these be, and where (how) do you see the story indicating this?

Does Voltaire suggest that there is an important distinction to be made between a "broader" and a "narrower" understanding of "prudence"?

If so, what would this difference consist in?  Can you formulate it?  What, in your view, does the story provide that prompts us to frame such a distinction?

You'll want to return to this set of questions after you've finished the novella.  What in particular does the final chapter have to "say" on this subject?

Drawing near to the coast of France

Chapter 21 is worth at least a cursory look.

Consider Candide's speculative questions in natural and moral philosophy, and Martin's replies to them.  What do we learn about each character's inclinations from the questions and answers concerning

France:  Bordeaux, Paris (Chapter 22)

Candide and Martin encounter a scholar at the dinner hosted by the Marchiness of Parolignac.  What is Voltaire up to in designing this conversation?

What is the hoax played by the Abbé?  How do the pair escape?

England:  Portsmouth (Chapter 23)

How does Martin's view of England compare to his view of France?


Why is Candide inconsolably depressed upon their arrival in Venice?  (Would one expect consolation out of Martin?!?)

What do we learn from the stories (Chapter 24) of 

The visit to Senator Pococurante (Chapter 25) is an important episode.

Poco = Italian:  "little"   |   curante = Italian:  "caring"

How is his name fitting? 

Recall Pococurante later on when you encounter the Old Turk.  How do they exhibit different sorts of "indifference," with radically different sorts of implications for happiness?

How is one wise, the other foolish?

How does the theme of indifference arise in the picture the Dervish conveys through his little capsule parable of "his highness" (the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire) and the mice on board the ship?

What do Candide and Martin learn at the dinner with the 6 strangers at the public inn in Venice (Chapter 26)?

Who turns up, in what circumstances?  What is familiar, in the tale we've become acquainted with, about the kind of story behind this surprise reappearance?

What is Martin's view of the sufferings of the 6?  (Cf. Chapter 27, p. 78.) 

Who has the most convincing case - Martin or Candide?

Voyage to Constantinople (Chapters 27 - 29)

How does everyone in the little society come to be all gathered together at the end?

What are the themes of the Baron's story?

What are the themes of Pangloss' story?  

What are we to think of the explanation he gives of his refusal to recant?

What surprise is in store for Candide with Cunegonde?

What is the Baron's response to Candide's response to Cunegonde's demand, and Candide's response to the Baron?

[How does this ring a bell with the behavior of the Baron's aunt, in the rumor back in Chapter 1 (end of ¶1)?]

What do Candide and his advisors finally decide to do with the Baron?

This proves satisfying to all.  How so?  What larger issues does Voltaire seem to be getting at here?

Candide's farm outside of Constantinople (Chapter 30)

The great reversal occurs in the highly compact, and radiantly significant concluding chapter.

I.  The little farm's miserable beginning (pp. 84-5)? 

What question does the Old Woman pose that stumps them all?

[In the light of how things eventually turn out, what is the diagnosis of the root of the problem?]

What is the effect on their philosophical reflections of the arrival of Paquette and Friar Giroflée?

II.  The visit to the Dervish.

How does the Dervish's initial reply undercut the assumption of Pangloss's opening question?

How does the sequel explain the rationale of the rejection of that apparently eminently sensible assumption?

What is the significance of the Sultan's attitude towards the mice in the hold of the ship?  (What is the Sultan presumably concerned about?)

How is this a radical rejection of a fundamental postulate of the Judeo-Christian picture of the meaning of history?  (Where did we find that picture articulated?)

Now turn the perspective around:  what do we notice if we ask what the attitude is of the mice towards the Sultan?  (What are they presumably concerned about?  Is this appropriate - sensical - under the circumstances?)

What is the implicit advice in this parable for mankind?

What would Luther think of this?  Calvin?  the participants in the Council of Trent?  Pope Urban VIII?  Swift?  (even Pelagius?)

How does Pangloss' reply indicate that he hasn't heard what the Dervish has been saying?

How does the Dervish's answer to Pangloss' question speak to what is (wrong with) Pangloss?  (Remember what his name means:  pan = "all," gloss = "tongue," and derivatively "word.")

[Here we have to do with a brilliant translation (by the 18th-century English novelist Tobias Smollet).  Actually, the original French reads not "Hold your tongue" but simply "Shut up" ("Tais-toi").  Indirectly, the same irony is at work -- but far more indirectly than in Smollet's translation.]

What is "Pangloss" about Pangloss' final protest?

How does the Dervish's final gesture, in response to Pangloss' exasperation, execute his advice from his own side?

III.  The news from Constantinople:

How is this a translation (application) to the secular plane of precisely the categories at stake in the conversation with the Dervish, on a cosmic plane?

What is "Pangloss" about Pangloss' response?  How has he still not heard the Dervish's lesson?  (You should notice some similarity here between the sources of comedy with Pangloss and part of the fun Molière has with Madame Pernelle in the opening scene of Tartuffe.)

IV.  The visit with the Old Turk and his household:

How is the Old Turk implicitly acting, with respect to the political powers that be, in accordance with the Dervish's advice to the little group of inquirers?

What is the secret of the happiness of their household?

Do you see any connections with the conditions of "contentment" (in the "containment" of one's desires) that we were led to consider in connection with the El Dorado episode?

How does what the Old Turk say clarify the predicament of Pococurante?

V.  The "new order" at the little farm:

Can you see how what the group accomplishes is a kind of "mutualist commune"?

What is the attitude here towards the idea of "private property"?

Is this necessarily a "drop-out" attitude towards the world?  Or could one's "garden" include (say) a much larger social unit?

Keep in mind that Voltaire was very active in the campaign for political justice and against religious fanaticism in France.

The irrepressible Pangloss

How does the philosopher's last remark remind you of his reply to Candide's question about whether the Devil is the origin of syphilis (back in Chapter 4)?

General questions in light of the concluding chapter

Can you see how this ending amounts to an endorsement of a humble version of the Baconian project?

Can you see how one might describe Voltaire's position as a kind of secular and non-ascetic Pelagianism?

How does Voltaire imply that the attempt to interpret natural and historical events in theological terms is a waste of time?

How does the final chapter develop further our thinking on the topic of prudence?

Some other short works by Voltaire, bearing on themes important in Candide

In 1734 -- twenty-five years before Candide -- Voltaire published Lettres philosophiques [or Philosophical Letters], in which he offered to the French his reflections on British institutions and intellectual culture.  Two of these are especially pertinent here, revealing as they do Voltaire's admiration for two towering figures of  the 17th-Century scientific revolution, the philosopher of science Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the mathematician-physicist Isaac Newton (1642-1727).  Both laid the foundations for a movement away from revealed religion as a foundation of natural science.  And Bacon pointed the way towards a focus on improvement, over generations, of the conditions of earthly existence. 

[In 1620, Bacon published his Novum Organum (New Method).  In it he argued that progress in natural science would be necessary for progress in controlling nature for the improvement of the human condition, and that such progress in knowledge of the hidden laws of the operation of nature would require a new method of inquiry.  Ancient authority (whether secular, like the writings of Aristotle, or religious, like the traditions of the pronouncements of the Church, or the interpretation of Holy Scripture) would have to be set aside in favor of careful reasoning on the basis of systematic observation of natural phenomena through the senses.

This visionary programme -- which we can call for short the Baconian project -- is a major step in the process of secularization that has marked Western society since the 16th Century.  Extended from natural philosophy to moral philosophy -- in today's terms, from the natural sciences to the social sciences and to ethics and political philosophy -- it pointed towards education and legislation, rather than divine grace and purifying self-castigation, as the techniques by which the evils of social existence could be effectively addressed, and to utilitarian or "universal rationalist" ethics, rather than scriptural citation and interpretation, as the arbiter of rational social policy.  For these reasons, Bacon's view of where society and individuals should invest human effort and other resources remains controversial today, especially for persons of fundamentalist outlook, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, or Christian.]

[In 1787, the 24-year-old Newton published his Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica  (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), in which he generalized Galileo's studies of terrestrial acceleration into his famous 3 laws of motion, and used these, together with the law of gravity, to explain Kepler's revised version of the Copernican astronomical hypothesis, which accurately explained in turn the observed motions of the heavenly bodies.  From ancient times, the Ptolemaic picture of the structure of the cosmos had been integrated with Aristotle's physics.  With Newton's book, the credibility of Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system collapsed.  But because in the late middle ages the traditional Christian picture of history had been integrated with the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic synthesis, this picture of man's relation to God (based on centuries of interpretation of Scripture) came under serious strain as well.]

Fifteen years after the initial publication of Candide, Voltaire was still vigorously at work flogging philosophical optimism.  When you've finished reading the tale, you might want to have a look at his article "All is well" in the Philosophical Dictionary, initially published (also anonymously) in 1764, and continuously supplemented in later editions.

Here are two additional articles from the Philosophical Dictionary, which (as you can see) was not confined to the essay form:

A famous mini-philosophical-tale by Voltaire is "The Story of a Good Brahmin".  Here again we see Voltaire's distrust of "speculative philosophy," Voltaire's sly code-word (sly how?) for "theology" -- the attempt to explain nature and history in terms of the dispositions and decisions of divine beings.  

The Good Brahmin of this story, though, is treated with a good deal more respect than is either Pangloss or (even) Martin in Candide?  Can you see what it is about him that makes him sympathetic to the reader?  [For those who are interested, there's a Study Guide to this little tale.]

  Go to the Home Page of the course.

  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

   Contents copyright © 2003 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

   This page last updated 23 October 2003.