35. Voltaire - Candide ou l'Optimisme (Candide) (1759)
Voltaire presents one of the funniest and darkest works on the list up until now. Candide works as a rabid attack on the idea of optimism, this is not, as Pangloss says, "the best of all possible worlds" in fact it is a pretty crappy world.
Near the beginning we fittingly have the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, one of the great turning points in western thinking, when many European thinkers finally realised the cruelty of nature due to the death and destruction inflicted in one of the principal cities in the continent. This is compounded by the 7 year war, another disgraceful loss of innocent life. In this it bears a remarkable resemblance to Simplicissimus that we have already had here.
This shift in thought has repercussions on the perception of the universe. People now start thinking that this isn't a benevolent God that we all live under, but that we instead live at the mercy of a nature that does not give a shit. How Voltaire manages to transform this into a funny tale is the great merit of this book. One of the earliest and best exercises of schadenfreude, Candide follows the misfortunes of the main character who tries to keep cheery through it all, in a cruel, sadistic but poignant way. A great little book.
The 1755 Lisbon earthquake, tsunami and resulting fires of All Saints' Day had a strong influence on theologians of the day and on Voltaire, who was himself disillusioned by them. The earthquake had an especially large effect on the contemporary doctrine of optimism, a philosophical system which implies that such events should not occur. Optimism is founded on the theodicy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that says all is for the best because God is a benevolent deity. This concept is often put into the form, "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds" (Fr. "Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles"). Philosophers had trouble fitting the horrors of this earthquake into the optimist world view.
Voltaire actively rejected Leibnizian optimism after the natural disaster, convinced that if this were the best possible world, it should surely be better than it is. In both Candide and Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ("Poem on the Lisbon Disaster"), Voltaire attacks this optimist belief. He makes use of the Lisbon earthquake in both Candide and his Poème to argue this point, sarcastically describing the catastrophe as one of the most horrible disasters "in the best of all possible worlds". Immediately after the earthquake, unreliable rumours circulated around Europe, sometimes overestimating the severity of the event. Ira Wade, a noted expert on Voltaire and Candide, has analysed which sources Voltaire might have referenced in learning of the event. Wade speculates that Voltaire's primary source for information on the Lisbon earthquake was the 1755 work Relation historique du Tremblement de Terre survenu à Lisbonne by Ange Goudar.
Bernstein's overture to Candide, his opera based on the book: