Use this teacher's guide on Candide, a farcical, humorous, and far-fetched satire, to expand your classroom discussions and learn more about author Voltaire and his work.
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by Voltaire
CandidePenguin Group

In a world of bureaucrats, engineers, and producers, Voltaire is the necessary philosopher.
– Gustave Lanson


While Candide is without a doubt a farcical, humorous, and far-fetched tale, a seriousness lies beneath its satirical veneer. Candide is the story of an innocent young man embarking on a series of adventures during which he discovers much evil in the world. Throughout his journey Candide believes in and adheres to the philosophy of his teacher, Pangloss, that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." This philosophy was prevalent during Voltaire's day, and Candide is Voltaire's scathing response to what he saw as an absurd belief that for its followers, the Optimists, was an easy way to rationalize evil and suffering. Candide was composed mainly as an attack on Gottfried Leibniz, the main proponent of Optimism. Candide was also written in opposition to Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, which espouses that "partial evil" is for the "greater good." Though he was by no means a pessimist, Voltaire refused to believe that what happens is always for the best.

Voltaire's vehement response was triggered in part by two catastrophic events: an earthquake in Lima, Peru, in 1746, and an even more devastating earthquake in Lisbon, Spain, that killed fifty thousand people in 1755. Incensed that the Optimists were comforting the earthquake victims by assuring them that this event had happened for "the best," Voltaire wrote Poeme sur le desastre de Lisbonne (1756), in which he expresses sympathy for the earthquake victims and lashes out at the Optimists. In the Introduction to the poem, Voltaire addresses their callousness by writing: "The heirs of the dead would now come into their fortunes, masons would grow rich in rebuilding the city, beasts would grow fat on corpses buried in the ruins; such is the natural effect of natural causes. So don't worry about your own particular evil; you are contributing to the general good." Voltaire again confronted the mockery of this belief in Candide, which he wrote three years later in 1759.

Candide is rooted in historical events of the time, including the Seven Years' War, the execution of Admiral Byng in 1747, and the war between England and France for Canadian territory. Furthering this time of political unrest was the beginning of the Enlightenment period during which an educated elite called the Philosophes – including Voltaire and other well-known figures such as Denis Diderot – began questioning European beliefs and institutions and speaking out against intolerance and injustice. While extremely popular with the Parisian public, his contemporaries, and even royalty, Voltaire himself was subjected to injustices (particularly his imprisonment in the Bastille for writing a satire about the Regent of France) that are believed to have influenced his writing of Candide.

Due to its scandalous nature, Candide was published clandestinely and anonymously, and its exact publication date is unknown. However, in mid-January of 1759, Voltaire's publisher sent 1,000 copies of Candide to Paris, and by late February Voltaire's identity was revealed. The police were ordered to seize all copies of Candide that could be found, but the controversy only served to further fuel the book's popularity – and by the end of the year, at least seventeen editions of the work had been published.

Religious officials, however, pronounced the book "full of dangerous principles concerning religion and tending to moral depravation." The critic Madame de Stael remarked that Candide was a work of "infernal gaiety" by a writer who laughs "like a demon, or like a monkey at the miseries of this human race with which he has nothing in common." Nonetheless, the reading public adored Candide, and the phrase "Let us eat Jesuit" was spoken repeatedly, and since the late nineteenth century Candide has been recognized as a masterpiece. Even Gustave Flaubert admitted that he read Candide one hundred times and used it as a model in his own writing.


From his birth (ne Francois-Marie Arouet) in Paris in 1694, Voltaire's life was filled with turmoil. He was never on good terms with his father, Francois, or his elder brother, Armand. He believed his real father was an officer and songwriter named Rochebrune. His mother died when he was seven, and after her death he rebelled against his family and began a close relationship with his godfather, the Abbe de Chateauneuf, a freethinker and Epicurean. Voltaire attended the Jesuit college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he grew to love literature and the theater.

At the age of twenty-two, Voltaire was exiled to Sully-sur-Loire for seven months for writing a satire of the Duke of Orleans, the ruling Regent of France. The next year he wrote another satire that resulted in his imprisonment in the Bastille for eleven months. In 1718, he began using the name Voltaire, rejecting the family name he had long detested. That same year his first play, Oedipe, was staged, and his epic poem La Ligue was published in 1723 to great popularity. Voltaire spent several years as a member of the royal court of Louis XV at Versailles during which time he was also at the height of his success in Paris.

In 1726, his life changed dramatically when he quarreled with the Chevalier Rohan, a member of one of France's leading families. Voltaire, who was beaten by the Chevalier's servants, contemplated calling the Chevalier out for a duel, but he was again imprisoned in the Bastille for being a threat to public order. He was released after a month on the condition that he leave Paris, and he spent the next three years in England.

Upon the publication of Lettres philosophiques (1734), Voltaire was condemned by the Parliament of Paris as offensive to politics and religion. A warrant was soon issued for his arrest. He went into hiding at Cirey where his mistress, Madame du Chatelet, lived.

When the War of the Austrian Succession broke out in 1742, Voltaire was sent on a secret mission to rally the King of Prussia to the French cause. This act restored his favor with Louis XV, and he was appointed court biographer at Versailles. His period of favor at Louis' court ended in 1747 amid indiscretions of his affair with Mme du Chatelet, and the two were forced to flee.

Voltaire faced the greatest crisis of his life when he witnessed Mme du Chatelet's death in childbirth in 1749 (the child was not Voltaire's). Devastated by her death, he accepted the invitation of Frederick of Prussia to join him in Berlin. At Frederick's court he brawled with a compatriot, Maupertius, on whom he then based a satire which was immediately burned on Frederick's orders. His clashes with Frederick caused Voltaire and Mme Denis, his niece with whom he was having an affair, to leave Berlin in 1753, and he was held under house arrest by Prussian authorities. Louis XV forbade him entrance to Paris, and he eventually settled in Geneva.

Voltaire wrote two major historical studies, Le siecle de Louis XIV (1751) and Essai sur les moeurs (1755), which traced the history of the world from the end of the Roman Empire and was designed to show how humanity was slowly heading beyond barbarism. In 1755, the devastating earthquake struck Lisbon, and the next year he published Poeme sur le desastre de Lisbonne. Candide followed in January or February of 1759.

In 1764, the widely read Dictionaire philosophique was published. Voltaire considered founding a colony for philosophes in Frederick's Prussia, but his fellow writers were unwilling to leave Paris. That same year Le Philosophe ignorant was published. L'Ingenu (1767), an attack on religious intolerance and persecution in France, is still considered, along with Zadig (1747), to be Voltaire's most important work after Candide.

Voltaire spent the last twenty years of his life in Geneva at his estate where he wrote essays, participated in politics, and corresponded with royalty, philosophes, and actors. Voltaire's fame was worldwide: He was called the "Innkeeper of Europe" and welcomed at Ferney such literary figures as Giovani Casanova, Edward Gibbon, and the Prince de Ligne. Appalled by the barbarism of the French authorities, Voltaire devoted the rest of his life to defending the miscarriages of justice.

In 1774, Louis XVI came to the throne, and Voltaire returned to Paris in 1778 to a triumphant welcome. Three months later, Voltaire became seriously ill with uremia and died on May 30. He was unable to be buried in consecrated ground in Paris since he had not made a religious end to his life, and his body was smuggled out of the city and interred at Scellieres in Champagne. In 1791, his remains were brought back to Paris and placed in the Pantheon after a solemn but magnificent procession.

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