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Voltaire paints

In his work of satire, Candide, Voltaire paints a unique picture of a world where things are not what they appear and society does not come even remotely to exhibiting the virtues which it professes to uphold. At the time of the publishing of Candide, Voltaire was one of the framers of the Enlightenment movement and he uses satire to a great degree to drive the point home that critical thinking is the secret to freedom, as critical thinking can liberate a person from the fraudulent behavior that is commonplace from those in authority.

Consider the following excerpt of satire from the novel: Candide was struck with amazement, and could not for the soul of him conceive how he came to be a hero. One fine spring morning, he took it into his head to take a walk, and he marched straight forward, conceiving it to be a privilege of the human species, as well as of the brute creation, to make use of their legs how and when they pleased. He had not gone above two leagues when he was overtaken by four other heroes, six feet high, who bound him neck and heels, and carried him to a dungeon.

A court martial sat upon him, and he was asked which he liked better, to run the gauntlet six and thirty times through the whole regiment, or to have his brains blown out with a dozen musket-balls? In vain did he remonstrate to them that the human will is free, and that he chose neither; they obliged him to make a choice, and he determined, in virtue of that divine gift called free will, to run the gauntlet six and thirty times. The humor in this passage has a certain air of cruelty to it.

Consider the problem that faces Candide in light of the specific language that Voltaire uses. “In vain did he remonstrate to them that the human will is free, and that he chose neither; they obliged him to make a choice, and he determined, in virtue of that divine gift called free will, to run the gauntlet six and thirty times. ” While it would seem that a civilized person would not laugh at images of torture, but Voltaire paints an ironic and sardonic picture with those words.

Yes, human beings have free will, but free will (and freedom) in general comes with strings attached provided that the government, monarchy, military et al can distribute freedom with discretion. When Candide tries to present his option to exercise free will, he is quickly rebuffed and learns the valuable lesson that free and freedom are hardly as available as the character assumes. While this is humorous within the context of Candide’s comedy of errors, it represents a very clear reality that existed at the time the book was first published.

(Not that it doesn’t exist to some degree today) In Voltaire’s presentation of this irony, he illuminated people’s minds with the concept that their leaders often engage in corruption and doublespeak. This strongly hints (without overtly suggesting) that people should use discretion and critical thinking before accepting the words of an authority figure on face value. To a great extent, Voltaire presents a very ugly, yet very real, portrait of the world within the pages of Candide.

Because of this, some may label Voltaire a grim iconoclast who was trying to tarnish the reputation of institutions that would normally be considered sacred cows such as the clergy, the government and the army. To label Voltaire an iconoclast would be accurate if the world that he presented was not based in an actual reality or if it was done with the express purpose of trying to undermine the stability of society. In reality, he is preserving society by pointing out the flaws found in the institutions that serve themselves as opposed to the people that the institutions are supposed to serve and protect.

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