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Peter Kivy VOLTAIRE, HUME, AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL Voltaire's Candide is subtitled Optimism. It is about an impossibly naive young man who suffers incredible misfortune, while counselled by his teacher, Pangloss, to perceive the hidden benefits that this merely "apparent" misfortune and misery produce. Pangloss' speeches in this regard are well-larded with phrases and terms coined or made famous by Leibniz, and, so as not to leave the connection merely hinted at, the name of the philosopher himself is also invoked, as for example, where Voltaire has Pangloss say: "I still hold my original views, for I am still a philosopher. It would not be proper for me to recant, especially as Leibniz cannot be wrong; and besides, the pre-established harmony, together with the plenum and the materia subtilis, is the most beautiful thing in the world." Pangloss' various "explanations" and "arguments" are, of course, laughable and absurd. They are, on that account, the very soul of the book. And on that account, too, they, and the book, have been taken to be a devastating reductio ad absurdum of the Leibnizian optimism alluded to in the subtitle. One of the literary values of Candide, then, is supposed to be a philosophical one: its "refutation" of Leibniz; and it is to some considerable degree, at least, because of this philosophical value that Candide has maintained its reputation as a "classic" of modern European literature. This traditional "textbook" view of Candide might be thought of as a conjunction of the following assertions: (1)Voltaire intended to "refute" Leibnizian optimism in Candide. (2)Pangloss faithfully represents Leibniz's position. (3)The combination of Candide's misadventures and Pangloss' laughable "arguments" constitutes a successful reductio ad absurdum of Leibniz's view. (4)The author's intention is realized. (5)The philosophical success of Candide is one, if not the chief, reason for placing a high value on the work. 211 212Philosophy and Literature But, clearly, nothing that happens or is said in the book succeeds in logically "refuting" the Leibnizian. So if Voltaire really did intend to "refute" Leibniz, he failed in his intention. Therefore, whatever its virtues, Candide is bad philosophy, and cannot be justly admired for any philosophical merit. In some crucial way, then, the "textbook" view of Candide must be defective. In what way (or ways)? Erich Auerbach writes in Mimesis that "The novel Candide contains a polemic attack upon the metaphysical optimism of Leibniz' idea of the best of all possible worlds," and adds: ". . . Voltaire in no way does justice to Leibniz' argument and in general to the idea of a metaphysical harmony of the universe, especially since so entertaining a piece as Voltaire's novel finds many more readers than the difficult essays of his philosophical opponents, which cannot be understood without serious study." Two possible views are suggested by Auerbach's remarks. The first, what might be called a "frontal attack," can be summarized as follows: (1)Voltaire intended to "refute" Leibnizian optimism in Candide. (2)Pangloss faithfully represents Leibniz's position. (3a) The combination of Candide's misadventures and Pangloss' laughable "arguments" does not constitute a successful reductio ad absurdum of Leibniz's view. (4a) The author's intention is not realized. (5a) The work is a philosophical failure, and, on that account, the philosophical content of Candide cannot be a reason for placing a high value on the work. But a second view is also suggested, charging Voltaire not only with bad arguments but with serious misrepresentation of Leibnizian optimism . This "two-pronged" attack might go something like this: (1) Voltaire intended to "refute" Leibnizian optimism in Candide. (2a) Pangloss does not faithfully represent Leibniz's position. (3b) The combination of Candide's misadventures and Pangloss' laughable "arguments" constitutes a successful reductio ad absurdum of Pangloss' weak form of optimism, but not Leibniz's stronger and more sophisticated one. (4a) The author's intention is not realized. (5b) The philosophical success of Candide is a rather limited, trivial one, and cannot, on that account, be a reason for placing a very high value on the work. The second of these attacks suggests a riposte: that Voltaire really had no intention of "refuting...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 211-224
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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