Voltaire is most famous for his satirical novel Candide, written in his middle age, when his writing was more mature and developed. Although its satire and scepticism of tradition and superstition persist throughout his body of work, it was largely the influence of travel around Europe and his time with his beloved mistress, Madame du Châtelet, that caused Voltaire to begin to explore the more theoretical ideas for which his work is now famous.
As a young man, Voltaire intended to make his career as a poet, and his early work burgeons with the classical forms he tried to imitate. Published in 1723, his epic poem The Henriade, about the life of France's King Henry IV, draws heavily on Homer—including visits to the underworld, addresses to the muses, and of course the heroic exploits of the poem's hero. However, it also emphasised what came to be a traditional Voltairean theme: the disaster wreaked by religious fanaticism and a theocratic government. Upon The Henriade's publication, Voltaire's contemporaries hailed him as a genius, a poet to be compared to Homer and Virgil. However, today Voltaire's poetry is not quite so highly regarded; he simply happened to be writing at a time when there were few, if any, poets with comparable or greater skill, and modern scholars recognise his prose as the greater set of accomplishments.
The Henriade and other poems may have made Voltaire's early reputation, but throughout his career—and particularly at its inception—he made his living from plays. These were written in verse, as was the style of the time, and were mostly tragedies. This may come as a surprise to those who know Voltaire primarily for his wit, but Voltaire, set on being the next Racine, focused most of his energy on neo-classical tragedy. He held that the greatest aim of tragedy was to evoke empathy from the audience, and his plays often centred on themes of love, or recast the stories of classical mythology.
Voltaire's approach to his writing changed somewhat upon his visit to England in the 1720s. He was heavily influenced by British Enlightenment philosophy, particularly that which advocated rationalism and the separation of church and state. Upon his return from England, Voltaire wrote a book of Philosophical Letters, which was published in 1734. It criticised the French establishment in every conceivable way, decrying absolute monarchy, over-reliance on Christian faith, a lack of scientific inquiry, and French society's treatment of artists and writers. This naturally led to enormous controversy and the Philosophical Letters were burned in public in Paris. However, Voltaire quickly followed with a Treatise on Metaphysics, in which he considered the nature of God and advanced what is essentially a Deist philosophy. He also touched on free will and some ethical considerations, drawing heavily on the philosophy of John Locke to conclude on a generally optimistic note about human nature.
However, Voltaire was better-known in his lifetime—and still is today—for his contes philosophiques, 'philosophical tales' that used fiction to present Voltaire's recurrent themes about free will, the search for happiness, the nature of good and evil, and of course the role of organised religion. While dealing with heavy themes, Voltaire told these tales with his best wit and dexterity of language. While in his own time Voltaire's popular tragedies may have built his reputation, the contes enjoyed the best reception among the educated elite, and are today regarded as the strongest of Voltaire's works.
Amid this series of contes, which Voltaire first began to generate during his time with Madame du Châtelet, is Candide. Written in 1759, after Voltaire had settled at his chateau in Ferney, Candide is considered the most successful of the contes, due to its great success at blending philosophy and storytelling. Although it came under fire from the government censors, causing Voltaire and the publishers to lead the authorities on a complicated wild goose chase in order to prevent the seizure of the copies, it drew favourable attention from the critics. Unlike most of Voltaire's other philosophical works, Candide deals only with the situation of men—not with angels or gods or other mythical beings. It is about one man's search to find his place in the world, and as such it comes across as a touching and very human story.
Beginning with the title character's expulsion from the 'best of all possible chateaus', whence he is ejected because he dares to love the daughter of the baron of the chateau, Candide takes its protagonist on travels around the world, in search of the aforementioned daughter, Cunégonde, and a philosophy of life that makes sense given everything he experiences. Having been taught the philosophy of optimism from his tutor, Pangloss, Candide initially believes that 'everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds', but he eventually comes to realise that the only place where everything turns out perfectly is the mythical city of Eldorado. Suffering war, the Catholic Inquisition and multiple near-death experiences, and faced with opposing philosophies from characters such as the pessimistic Dutch printer Martin and the world-weary Senator Pococuranté, Candide eventually is reunited with his friends. He is finally able to be content with his lot, concluding that, rather than debating philosophy endlessly, 'we must cultivate our garden'.
The genesis of Candide was the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, a natural disaster which prompted many writers and thinkers to question how it could have happened. During the 18th Century, most scholars reconciled all their views about the natural world with the assumption that it was governed by a fundamentally good God. However, this raised the question of how a good God could allow natural disasters to occur. Few people pondered this question more than Voltaire, who in fact became obsessed with it for years. Astounded by the widespread loss of life and property, but also by the churchmen who suggested that Lisbon had brought this disaster upon itself because of its impiety, his reaction was a Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne. His position in this poem is essentially a confused one, as he has difficulty choosing whether to settle upon a theological position, a scientific one, or a deist one that would be a compromise between the two. While advancing what is essentially a religious position in order to pacify the omnipresent government and Church censors, he addresses the paradox that a God who causes earthquakes cannot be both good and all-powerful. He attacks Alexander Pope's then-popular doctrine that 'Whatever is, is right'—the beginning of his dismantling of the philosophy of optimism, which he develops further in Candide. He takes issue with the assertion that the earthquake was solely 'the result of eternal laws'. He concludes the poem by saying that all men can do is hope that fate will cause things to turn out well, since we have no guarantee that they will do so.
The Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne was written while Voltaire was still in shock about the earthquake. However, given a few years, he produced a more polished and developed version of a similar philosophical argument, advancing many of the same concerns about human nature. That version was Candide, a clear successor to the Poème.
Candide is often assumed to be a direct repudiation of the philosophy of optimism as espoused by Gottfried Leibniz, but if anything, it is a story primarily directed at the Lisbon earthquake and the many thinkers who had something to say about it. While Leibniz's terminology—most notably, the phrase 'the best of all possible worlds'—is parodied throughout Candide, he is only a part of Voltaire's more general attack on optimism. Optimism, as represented in Candide by the philosopher Pangloss, contends that because God is perfect, the world that he created must also be perfect, and every event that occurs in the world must further this perfection. Voltaire saw the logic in this viewpoint to be deeply flawed, particularly given the events of Lisbon. In Candide, he throws up situation after situation to challenge optimism, to which the naïve and impressionable Candide has been taught to subscribe. The people who help Candide and his companions die horrible deaths; all the women in the story are raped and mutilated; Pangloss himself contracts syphilis, losing an ear, an eye, and the end of his nose to the disease. Candide and Pangloss also encounter many opposing viewpoints—from Martin, the Manichean who holds that all people are inherently selfish and evil, to Cacambo, the faithful servant who believes in doing his job and getting along without meddling too much in other people's lives. What Candide learns, after so many disasters, is that it is useless to subscribe to optimism—or indeed, any inflexible philosophical position. He does not agree with either Pangloss or Martin at the end of the story, rather seeming to subscribe to Cacambo's way of just getting along. Voltaire seems to suggest that not only are men happier unhampered by optimism, pessimism, or the trappings of religion, they are happier without endless reasoning. The most content people the characters meet on their travels are those who just live, without 'reasoning about the effects and the causes'—and in the end, Candide learns to live by that example. By eventually cultivating his garden, he is able to achieve the earthly paradise he was unable to attain in his adventures.