On the exterior Voltaire’s Candide is a witty and entertaining narrative that describes the title character’s adventures as he seeks to be reunited with his beloved Miss Cunegonde, but when examined further it becomes evident that Voltaire used this work to criticize the institutions of the Old Regime in France. Specifically, he utilized the story of Candide to vilify the religion, philosophy, nobility, and absolute monarchy that was the infrastructure of France during the Old Regime.
Voltaire had nothing but hostility towards religion and the Catholic Church. He openly denounced the hierarchical system of power that the Church practiced. Voltaire despised the clergy as well. He even claimed that during his childhood, while attending a Jesuit school, several of the priests were sexually abusive. His abhorrence for religion and the Catholic Church endured until his final breath. He refused to confess to his sins and rejected priests who attempted to perform the Last Rites ceremony. This anti-clerical sentiment was a response to the enormous amount of power that the Church had. There was no separation of church and state, so whatever the Church declared became law. In addition, the lack of equality of religion made Protestants subject to persecution.
Throughout Candide examples of Voltaire’s detest for religion and the Catholic Church are apparent. One interesting criticism occurs when Candide reunites with Dr. Pangloss, his old philosophy teacher. During there conversation Dr. Pangloss informs Candide that he contracted syphilis from a woman named Paquette. Pangloss then continues to name whom Paquette received “this present” from and whom that person got it from and so on. This lineage of the venereal disease syphilis is supposed to parody the genealogies that the Bible uses in the Old Testament. Also, this comparison of syphilis and religion may expose the infidelity of many Catholic priests.
Voltaire possessed a similar distaste for the way many philosophers, at this time, theorized. He especially disagreed with German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his “principle of sufficient reason.” This principle relies upon the fact that everything in this world happens for a reason and that nothing occurs by chance. All events that take place are God’s will.
Voltaire rejected this claim and questions its validity numerous times in Candide. The section in the text that depicts the great earthquake in Lisbon is one of the times Voltaire questions Leibniz’s doctrines. As a result of this disaster thousands of people are killed and even more injured, including Candide. Candide assesses the situation the way in which Leibniz would. He claims that all is for the best and that the earthquake must have happened for a reason. Voltaire jibes Leibniz another time when he describes Dr. Pangloss’s area of study as “metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-boobology.” This obscure term ridicules Leibniz’s comprehensive philosophical canons.
The institution of French nobility was attacked by Voltaire as well. He despised the nobility of France deeply and threw it in their face when he actually changed his name from Francois-Marie Arouet to Francois-Marie de Voltaire. The “de” in his new name was used to differentiate nobles from non-nobles. This was the ultimate slap in the face because he was basically saying that anyone could become a noble. In fact, the hereditary concept of the French nobility was perhaps Voltaire’s most hated aspect of nobility. He loathed the fact that just because a person was born with a particular name they were automatically a better person. In addition, he found the idea of selling titles ridiculous. Anyone who had enough money could become a noble; it did not matter what kind of person you were.
An example of nobility being criticized can be seen in the initial chapter of Candide. Candide meets Miss Cunegonde in the courtyard and they begin to kiss. However, the Baron of Miss Cunegonde’s castle catches them in the act and banishes Candide from the territory. If Candide had been of noble blood he probably would not have been ostracized from his home.
The absolute monarchy of France is Voltaire’s next victim for criticism. A monarchical form of government had been in effect in France for centuries, but during Voltaire’s lifetime it changed into an absolute monarchy. This meant that all decision-making power went through the king. This was troublesome because it did not allow the voice of the common people to be heard. The king did what he wanted to do no matter how unpopular it was with the people. Voltaire was not an advocate of an absolute monarchy because he was in favor of freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the abolition of slavery. Under an absolute monarch these reforms could never take place. However, Voltaire agreed that the only sensible form of government was a monarchy, just not an absolute monarchy. Voltaire contended that the king was the only person powerful enough to implement reforms.
In Candide the tenets of the absolute monarchy come under fire when Candide travels to the New World. Through his travels Candide sees the effect of slavery on humanity. He finds it quite appalling, but theorizes that it must happen for a good reason. Voltaire used Candide’s experiences with slavery in the New World to promote its abolition.
Of Voltaire’s numerous criticisms, his strongest may be his views on the Catholic Church and nobility. The question of hypocrisy of priests in the Catholic Church has always been controversial, but I agree with Voltaire that many priests were not doing what they were telling their worshipers to do. Priests were of the “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. This is problematic because it refutes the validity of the Catholic Church. As far as nobility, I agree with Voltaire that the hereditary method of selecting nobles is absurd. Just because I have the last name of Faust does not mean that I am more qualified to be a Lord than someone who has a different, non-noble name. The whole idea of nobility is just not a good one, especially when they received privileges such as tax breaks, which other social classes did not.
Voltaire’s masterpiece Candide is an excellent example of social criticism in France during the Old Regime. The way in which Voltaire flawlessly criticized all of the major institutions of France is remarkable. Readers of Candide will agree that there is much more to absorb from this work than a humorous tale about a lovelorn boy from Westphalia.