'Candide: Or Optimism'
By Voltaire (Author), John Butt (Translator)
It was the indifferent shrug and callous inertia that this "optimism" concealed which so angered Voltaire, who found the "all for the best" approach a patently inadequate response to suffering, to natural disasters, not to mention the questions of illness and man-made war. Moreover, as the rebel whose satiric genius had earned him not only international acclaim, but two stays in the Bastille, flogging, and exile, Voltaire knew personally what suffering entailed. In Candide he whisks his young hero and friends through a ludicrous variety of tortures, tragedies, and a reversal of fortune, in the company of Pangloss, a "metaphysico-theologo-comolo-nigologist" of unflinching optimism. The result is one of the glories of eighteenth-century satire.
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One of the most famous of all French philosophers and essayists, Voltaire became well known by writing against tyranny and defending the rights of the individual. Although he studied at a Jesuit school, he became a free thinker and in fact is one of the archetypes of European free thinkers of the twelfth/eighteenth and thirteenth/nineteenth centuries who turned against religion. Voltaire also wrote for the theater as well as composing philosophical treatises but was criticized by both philosophical and literary opponents for his attacks against religion. In fact, he was exiled to England for some time where his philosophical interests deepened and in 1734 he wrote his Philosophical Letters against the established schools of both religion and philosophy. Toward the end of his life, he settled in Switzerland where he died. His most important philosophical work is without doubt Candide which is considered one of the literary masterpieces of the French language.
Voltaire became well known by free thinkers and rationalists as a great champion of human freedom against religious prejudice and of rea- son against the dictates of the church. In fact, a number of Muslim modernists were attracted to him because they thought that his attack against Christianity could also be used by them as a way of defending their rationalistic interpretations of Islam against the attacks of certain Christian writers and missionaries. Voltaire knew something about Islam and wrote about it but his knowledge was fairly shallow. He was also attracted to certain aspects of Islamic literature, especially the writings of the Persian poet Sa'di, whom he saw mostly as a rational ethical writer rather than the devout Muslim that he was. Voltaire is remembered in history not only for his purely philosophical works but also for his impact upon the French Revolution and the ideas which emanated from it.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr)