This essay examines some of Voltaire’s writing techniques.
While it is a matter of debate whether or not Voltaire was the single most important writer of the French Enlightenment, there is not doubt that he was a vital part of the movement. By virtue of his long life (1694-1778), he was part of most of the important events of his time, and that alone assures him a place in history unique among writers.
This paper examines his work to see how and why he made such an impact.
Voltaire was a gifted writer with a huge number of readers. It is the size of his audience that made his propaganda so effective, because when he wrote, everyone read it. The size of his loyal audience gave him an advantage that his opponents lacked. (Sareil, PG).
Or perhaps one should say “opponent” in the singular, since Voltaire’s scorn was directed almost entirely at the Roman Catholic Church. Voltaire was not an unbeliever by any means; in fact, he had a strong faith in God. But he had no use for the Church hierarchy or the excesses of its priests, and it was the human element in the Church that he opposed. The Roman Catholic Church in Voltaire’s time was an immensely powerful organization, and furthermore it was closely allied to the state, which supported its doctrines and laws. Voltaire thus understood that outright attacks upon the Church would have serious consequences for him, so he cloaked his attacks in fiction which, as I’ve said, was extremely popular, gaining him legions of readers who adored him, as well as detractors who despised him.
Many of the philosopher's that existed during The Enlightenment influenced many countries, such as the United States of America, France and England, in both past and present history. One French philosopher in particular was Francoise Marie Arouet de Voltaire. He once established the statement, " I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. " I agree with ...
The point of all this is that Voltaire’s writings are more than sheer entertainment. They contain pointed commentary on the times in which he lived and on the excesses of the Church, and because that commentary was often critical, the writing is of necessity somewhat opaque. Despite this, everyone knew exactly what he was doing, but writing as he did, using satire, irony and wit, rather than direct attacks, enabled him to make his points without actually libeling his targets. (Sareil, PG).
Voltaire wrote an enormous number of works including plays, epic poems, letters, essays, articles and novels. He was a true genius, and found success in every genre. The work that is probably best known to us today is “Candide,” the picaresque tale of a young man and his adventures. Because the work is well-known and easily understandable, an examination of it will give us some of the answers as to how Voltaire used plot, characterization and so on to his advantage in his sixty-year battle with the Church.
“Candide” is one of Voltaire’s “Contes philosophiques” (philosophical tales), and is considered his masterpiece. These tales are a unique literary form specifically designed to illustrate one philosophical idea. The reason for these artificial scenarios to deal with philosophical issues is that such issues cannot usually be proven right or wrong by any means: good and evil, right and wrong, etc., are subjects of endless debate but do not lend themselves to absolute proof on way or the other. Voltaire tackled these subjects via his fiction:
“These were questions lacking a sure answer. If someone won an argument on one of these matters, it simply meant that he was a better debater. Consequently, Voltaire refused a theoretical discussion that led nowhere and decided to submit the ideas to experimentation. He imagined a story … that would be used as a test for a philosophical concept. Under such circumstances it would seem that the narration was just a pretext for the confrontation of ideas, but the contrary was true. The story was ironical and conceived in order to make the reader laugh at the expense of the partisans of the exposed system.” (Sareil, PG).
This, then is the basic means by which Voltaire did what he did: he used his philosophical stories to expose the opposing views and invite his readers to laugh at them.
... conclude that the reason why Voltaires Candide is still being regarded as such that represent a great philosophical values, despite its dubious ... philosophy becomes apparent to Candide. For the first time in his life, he realizes that this world might not be the ... wrong; and besides, the pre-established harmony is the finest thing in the world, and so is his plenum and materia subtilis (Voltaire, ...
“Candide” is the most famous of these philosophical tales, and Voltaire uses it to debunk the theory of Optimism. The theory held that evil was present in the world because a just and good God had created it, and because he was good, God had created the best of all possible worlds. If we don’t agree with this, runs the thinking, it’s because we have a limited viewpoint and cannot recognize the grandeur of God’s design. (Sareil, PG).
Voltaire, looking at some of the events of his own time, challenged this doctrine by creating a world in which the words “the best of all possible worlds” are understood to be supremely ironic.
The plot of Candide serves Voltaire’s philosophy, and is merely a series of adventures in which people Candide knows and loves go through the most horrific experiences (rape, torture, imprisonment, apparent death) because they have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For them, as for Candide, a young man raised by a Baron in a castle and now turned out onto the road, to protest that this is the “best of all possible worlds” is a logical absurdity. However, Voltaire’s approach to this is not to demonstrate the fundamental idiocy of the statement, but to have all the characters approve of it. Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s old tutor, is forever saying just those words. But no sooner has someone uttered the phrase than some other disaster befalls them. It’s as if every statement that supports the theory of Optimism results in an immediate catastrophe. By using the mechanism of juxtaposition of opposites, Voltaire succeeds in his object, which is to ridicule the Optimistic viewpoint.
The characters in general are likeable, innocent, and guilty of nothing more sinister than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But some of them also function as symbols of the system against which Voltaire was rebelling. Pangloss in particular is the champion of Optimism. He is full of windy speeches that mean little or nothing, and his support of Optimism in the face of the kinds of misery they undergo reveals how empty the philosophy is. Voltaire embodies the philosophy of Optimism in this character, and then shows him to be a buffoon, thereby demolishing his philosophy as well. This is one of the writer’s sharpest weapons.
“Everything happens for the best, in this the best of all possible worlds.” This is a statement that can be found many times within Voltaire's Candide. Voltaire rejected Lebitizian Optimism, using Candide as a means for satirizing what was wrong with the world, and showing that, in reality, this is not the best of all possible worlds.The philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, which Voltaire ...
He also structures the story so that the reader is hurled through it at a breakneck pace. “If you skip a page, you have no idea what country you are in or what is happening. The catastrophes multiply beneath the characters’ feet without anyone taking the trouble to be astonished at the fury of fate…” (Sareil, PG).
Voltaire achieves his effect by exaggeration, first by the rapid movement of the plot; next by the way in which he constructs his prose (short sentences that are linked only loosely); and finally by the pile up of misery upon misery. When there is a death, or an earthquake, a fire, arrest, kidnapping or some other horrible event, readers feel great sympathy. When such events occur three and four times on a page, the effect becomes comic. Thrust into the middle of all this mayhem, the reader has a great deal of fun, the result, Sareil says, of the seamless construction of the piece by its extremely talented author.
Voltaire’s success comes from several things, but probably most from his ability to perform a sort of literary sleight-of-hand, distracting potential enemies by his unique characters and style even as he skewers them. In “Candide,” the paramount example of his technique, he creates disaster after disaster into which all the characters fall, only to proclaim that, oh well, this is still the best of all possible worlds. The superb use of irony, the coherence of the plot (the story, despite its far-reaching locations and numerous digressions is a seamless whole) and his creation of characters to embody human traits are the hallmarks of a master storyteller.
Sareil, Jean. “Voltaire.” European Writers. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1984: 367-392. Retrieved 16 Feb 2003 from The Literature Resource Center, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA: http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC?c=2&ai=91294&ste=6&docNum=H1479001452&bConts=16303&tab=1&vrsn=3&ca=2&tbst=arp&ST=Voltaire&srchtp=athr&n=10&locID=san67255&OP=contains
This paper analyzes a scene from Candide as an example of Voltaire's doctrine of the pursuit of happiness.IIntroductionVoltaire is generally considered to be the most important thinker of the Enlightenment. He held a basic belief in the power of human reason. This put him in direct conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful organization of the day, which, of course, believed that ...
Voltaire. “Candide.” On-Line Literature Library. 29 June 1999. Accessed: 16 Feb 2003. http://www.literature.org/authors/voltaire/candide/