Everything Happens for a Reason as a Philosophy of Optimism

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Voltaire’s novel, “Candide” has three characters who advocate two important philosophical viewpoints that attempt to provide an understanding of human suffering and evil. The two philosophies in question are pessimism and optimism, which will be judged through their logical strength with consideration of the events in the novel. Optimism is a weaker philosophy than pessimism because it is burdensome, contains self-defeating ideas, and is poorly supported. Pessimism is stronger because it adequately explains the causes of evil, provides a better understanding of human suffering with proof and logic and grants considerable advantages over optimism.

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Pangloss and Candide are the characters who believe in optimism. Pangloss and Candide believe that we live in the best of all worlds (Voltaire 4). This belief is a derivative of Leibniz’s idea that “because God is omnipotent and omniscient, he knew which possible world was the best and was able to create it” and so he did (Best Of All Possible Worlds). Optimism also expresses that everything happens for a reason (Voltaire 4). Lastly, optimism’s stance on evil is that it is not part of human nature (Voltaire 55). Martin, is the pessimist and believes that evil is an innate component of humanity (Voltaire 55); we don’t exist in the best world, but “a rather mad and rather awful one”(Voltaire 65). Lastly, Martin believes that whatever state people find themselves in, they will always be miserable (Voltaire 85). Martin joins Candide on his trip back to Europe in which he shares his worldview with Candide through arguments and providing his insight in the choices Candide makes.

Pessimism provides a good understanding of evil, and optimism fails to argue against it and for itself. Martin believes that human nature is predatory and unyielding just like a hawk’s inclination to kill a pigeon when it finds it (Voltaire 55). In response to Martin’s analogy, Candide disagrees and mindlessly tosses the notion of freewill being the difference between man and animal (Voltaire 55). However Candide’s assertion unwittingly supports pessimism’s understanding of evil. Animals kill because they need food or are protecting their offspring, man however can choose whether or not to harm others but often abuses the power of choice for personal gain. As seen in the novel a priest and doctors attempt to exploit Candides idiocy in order to get money out of him (Voltaire 56). even professionals that work towards the good of society are willing to scrap any moral sentiment for their own advantage, revealing evil to be characteristic of man. Optimism displays a weak stance by failing to support itself, ratifying the fact that are humans naturally evil and simultaneously supporting the pessimistic understanding of evil

Optimism attempts to explain suffering by stating it happens for a reason just like everything else; the following events and analogy will test this idea. The old woman was held captive along with other women and each had one buttock removed to feed the starving janissaries under siege, Russian forces would soon kill the janissaries, just after they have eaten their meal (Voltaire 27-28). Candide accumulates a fortune in gold and precious stones from El Dorado (Voltaire 47). Candide would lose his treasure through a series of bad choices and cons and in pursuit of reuniting with Cunegonde however she would turn out ugly and he would lead a life of misery (Voltaire 85). Candide and the old woman’s suffering was in vain. Pangloss tries to prove that everything happens for a reason by alluding to his idea that, “noses were made to bear spectacles” (Voltaire 4). This assertion carelessly suggests that spectacles were made before noses and we developed noses just to fit them into glasses. This analogy is logically flawed because we made glasses, not noses, and we could have easily designed glasses to go onto a human face if we did not have nose, and also, glasses were not made just sit on a nose but to help the eye see clearer. Pangloss lost his nose, which is proof that noses were also made to fall off too, which challenges Pangloss’ argument for the purpose of noses (Voltaire 11). Optimism’s tries to find reason for suffering but fails because there is no logic in its explanations because there is no logical explanation for suffering to begin with. Suffering never has a catharsis.

Optimism’s idea that we live in the best possible world is attacked by Candide’s notion of free will. Free will contains not only our ability to decide whether or not to act on an evil impulse, it also entails our capacity to judge. This capacity is a gift from God, in which we can examine our personal problems and decide on an individual level whether or not we live in the best of all possible worlds, and also exercise the freedom to decide which interpretations matter. Altogether this renders optimism’s notion that God has made the best possible world, irrelevant. Lastly, how could anyone know that they are living in the best of all possible worlds if they have only experienced one? This prompts the idea that perhaps we don’t live in the best possible world, supporting the pessimist notion that we probably live in a “rather awful one”(Voltaire 65).

Martin’s insight for suffering doesn’t provide an explanation why it happens, but explains how it works. Martin states, “one is just as badly off wherever one is” (Voltaire 85). Candide regrets leaving Eldorado and always yearned for a life with Cunegonde because he believed that these two things would make him happy (Voltaire 58,66). In the end of the book Candide finally gets Cunegonde but she is ugly both in looks and personality (Voltaire 84) and he is evidently unhappy. In the novel there was a Venetian senator who was rich, owned Raphael paintings, had the company of classy women, read a large collection of literature (Voltaire 70-71). Before meeting the senator, Candide assumed he would have no problems in life, and would be happy (Voltaire 70). However when he meets the senator he appears to be completely apathetic because he has everything a man could want. Even If Candide remained in Eldorado, retained his wealth and managed to make Cunegonde his wife in her physical prime, he would still be unhappy too because he would experience the same kind of apathy the senator feels. Suffering is a universal and existential reality and that is all we can know and need to know.

There are more advantages of being pessimistic than optimistic. Pessimism may keep one in a constant state of skepticism and unhappiness however these are appropriate responses to the way the world is, this renders one protected from disappointment because they wouldn’t have high hopes for anything, offers a heightened awareness of human nature and people’s true intentions which is necessary for noticing incoming deception and devising an appropriate response. Optimism has disadvantaged Candide by ensuring he was “brought up never to judge things for himself”(Voltaire 72). This suppresses critical thought, which is important for analyzing and navigating everyday life. In the 24th chapter Candide assumes that Paquette and the monk were happy, but Martin suggests otherwise and he is right because it turns out that Paquettte is an unhappy prostitute who puts on a fake smile and the monk is a poor and depraved whoremonger (67-69). Candide, feeling sorry for them, gives them money, which he believes will make them happy, only to find out later in the novel they are still unhappy, Martin predicted this too, Candide made a fool of himself and lost money, once again (Voltaire 69, 86). The accuracy of martin’s predictions are that they show how much of a liability optimism is and how pessimism can help people anticipate and avoid misfortune. Pessimism can help people similar to Candide to acknowledge that they can either continue life in passivity and foolishness and regret it on their deathbed or attempt to be a master of their own destiny and at least die with comfort, dignity and satisfaction knowing that they tried to take control of their lives.

Pessimism provides a sensible understanding of suffering as well as a better explanation of evil than optimism and offers more advantages than it, making it a superior philosophy. An appraisal of Candide is necessary to understand what really prevented him from switching to another philosophy. It is effortless to say that he could have just decided to follow another philosophy whenever he wanted to. True, Candide doubts optimism from time to time but he never abandons it. Candide doesn’t make the change because he is profoundly stupid and incapable of fully internalizing the experiences necessary to make the switch. Candide is an irredeemable and worthless character. 

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