Category Archives: Religion

Voltaire’s “Candide”

Anguish, Thomas. A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas, Deptford, On the Fast Day Appointed by Royal Proclamation. John Clarke, 1756. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.

French philosopher Voltaire presented his critique of Leibnitz’s theory of metaphysical optimism in the satire, Candide. In it, he not only mocks the idea that this is “the best of all possible worlds” but also the different religions of the time. Voltaire was spurred to write his masterpiece by the devastating earthquake in Lisbon, Peru in 1755. The following year, Thomas Anguish presented his sermon at St. Nicholas, Deptford, presenting the same Christian view that Voltaire critiqued in his satire. In studying this primary source, one would note that Candide challenged the cultural expectations of the time, just as Voltaire desired when he wrote the novel.

Thomas Anguish broadly presents several classic Christian ideas in his sermon, from suggesting the will of God to discussing the egocentric human nature of man. He begins by mentioning that previous earthquakes and natural disasters led the people to flock to churches and repent. “[O]ur churches were filled, and our conversations turned upon the probable judgments of God” (Anguish 3). Throughout his sermon, Anguish returns to this idea that people turn to religion in times of desperation and ends his sermon by mentioning that “such a want of faith and goodness under so clear a light, will destroy both body and soul in hell” (Anguish 14). While promoting Christianity and its lack of judgment, Anguish contradicts himself by commenting condescendingly on these souls that repent in their times of need for self-preservation. He then preaches that other religious figures and groups will pass judgment, referring to them as “this intolerant kind” (Anguish 6). Contradicting his distaste for judgmental behavior, Anguish uses words such as “barbarous and ignorant” to describe those that pass judgment on others. Such words suggest strong, negative connotations and a condescension towards those groups, putting Anguish in the same position as the others that judge. Conflicting ideas and connotations such as this in the sermon are likely to be critiqued by satirists like Voltaire.

One of Anguish’s next points is his comparison of earthquakes and war. He refers to the earthquake in Lisbon that inspired Voltaire to write his novel, stating that the superiors in London provided a “speedy, generous, and effectual relief recommended, but granted with an unison of mind and voice, without hesitation, without delay!” (Anguish 6). His praise of his own church continues throughout the sermon, likely to promote it to those that he mentions above, those that only turn to church in their times of need and desperation but forsake it when they find themselves stable and secure. Further discussion of earthquakes leads Anguish to state that earthquakes are mysterious wonders and that humankind should not question how they happen, or they would be too afraid to exist. This suggests the belief that earthquakes are God’s will, an idea that contradicts the growing Age of Enlightenment in Europe during the 18th Century. He moves to discuss that war, unlike earthquakes, “is a calamity of man’s own making” (Anguish 9). While God created earthquakes, war is supposedly man’s fault and does not stem from God. However, Voltaire would likely point to the Crusades as evidence that God’s will is often a cause of many wars that men wage on each other.

Despite the critiques of other religions and those that are not devote followers that Anguish provides in his sermon, his overall message promotes Christianity and that men can redeem themselves. He states that everyone has these “animal desires” but those that follow the virtuous life can be free of these desires. This sets the stage for the religious society that Voltaire critiques in his satire, Candide.

The protagonist Candide challenges the expectations of the culture through the mockery of religious figures throughout the novel. Many of the religious leaders in the satire behave self-righteously and are ridiculed throughout the text. These characters typically face the most gruesome deaths in the novels, including the Jew and the Grand Inquisitor that Candide slays. “Without giving time to the Inquisitor to recover from his surprise, he pierced him through and through, and cast him beside the Jew” (Voltaire). His quick slaughter of these two figures without hint of repentance or guilt would cause outrage in the community, especially with one of the commandments being “thou shalt not kill.” The Grand Inquisitor is a powerful figure that would usually demand respect, but Candide does not practice any religion, nor does he show any respect for the man in this scene. He is spurred to action by brash thinking and his lust for his lover Cunegonde. The main character then proceeds with his adventure in the story, not sparing a second thought or moment of respect for the deceased. Everything about Candide presents a disrespectful attitude and lack of regard for religious figures and power, reflecting the same attitude that Voltaire, a Deist and man of reason, has for the religious figures of his time. This comment on religion would likely outrage a number of different people. Voltaire purposely creates a character that does not subscribe to a particular religion, instead presenting a man of “science” that believes in the theory of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology.

Once again going against the accepted ideas of society, the only religious figure that is presented in a pleasant manner, though also falling to his demise, is the Anabaptist James. This likely ruffles the feathers of the society at the time because Anabaptists were one of the rejected and persecuted religions. To put positive connotations on such a man would seem to suggest that Voltaire was regarding him with greater favor than the more accepted religions such as Christianity or Catholicism. “A man who had never been christened, a good Anabaptist, named James… took [Candide] home, cleaned him, gave him bread and beer, presented him with two florins” (Voltaire). Voltaire makes the Anabaptist the most generous character in his novel, protecting Candide after he is rejected by others and denied bread. The Anabaptist then also saves Candide but drowns in the ocean after his final good deed. The decision to make a man from a shunned religion the most kind of the novel was not a mistake in Voltaire’s plan. Rather, the purpose was to show his disdain for these more common religions, as Voltaire was a Deist. This targeted religion, one that would typically be under severe scrutiny and judgment, is actually representative of the other religions that Christianity often criticizes, as Thomas Anguish’s sermon demonstrates. Voltaire is actively demonstrating the compassion and capability of other religions as providers for salvation, while also still criticizing religions that believe in God’s intervention in man’s life by writing the Anabaptist James out of the story.

Promoting his Deist beliefs, Voltaire creates the country of El Dorado, where religion does not plague the people and prevent them from progress or reason. In 1755, science had not advanced enough to establish many of the basic ideas accepted as truths, allowing many religions to continue the Greek tradition of claiming natural events as work of the gods, although the Age of Enlightenment was taking place and promoting the pursuit of knowledge and philosophy. However, as a man of reason, Voltaire rejects beliefs of divine intervention, such as earthquakes simply being something of God’s will that should not be studied. Religion does exist in the fictional country of El Dorado, but as the old man in chapter XVIII insists, “’We do not pray to Him,’ said the worthy sage; ‘we have nothing to ask of Him; He has given us all we need” (Voltaire). The old man also confesses that they do not have religious authority figures. Instead, all of the people are equal worshippers, dismantling the need for figures such as the Grand Inquisitor or the Pope. This society, while worshipping God, is also scientifically advanced and does not allow their religion to prevent them from their studies. “But what surprised [Candide] most… was the palace of sciences, where he saw a gallery two thousand feet long and filled with instruments employed in mathematics and physics” (Voltaire). Voltaire promotes his Deist ideology with the concept that the people of El Dorado believe God exists, but they do not believe that He intervenes, a crucial tenet of Deism that the Christian church would vehemently oppose. In Candide, Voltaire’s example of a perfect society where the people do not fight and promote intellectual pursuit without forsaking God is only possible when Deist principles are applied, evidently challenging the mainstream religions of his society and celebrating the rise of the Age of Enlightenment.

Candide served as Voltaire’s platform to critique other religions and promote his own, while also critiquing an assortment of other aspects of society in the 1750’s. Primary sources from the time show the exact type of religious beliefs that Voltaire, as a Deist, opposed and considered ridiculous. His satire purposely opposed the accepted ideals of his time and sought to point out these flaws in a ridiculous adventure of a simple, religiously apathetic man.