Author: Voltaire (1694–1778)
Translator: Theo Cuffe
Publisher: Penguin Books (2005 edition)
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François-Marie Arouet was a French writer, historian and philosopher better known by his pen–name Voltaire.

Voltaire is one of the leading figures of the intellectual revolution that swept across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ideas that were developed during this period came to be called the Enlightenment because, according to the historian E. H. Gombrich, “the people who held them wanted to combat the darkness of superstition with the pure light of reason” (A Little history of the World, p 215). Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), David Hume (1711–1776), Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716), John Locke (1632–1704), Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and Jean–Jacque Rousseau (1712–1778) are just some of the luminaries whose works influenced Voltaire.

Voltaire came into prominence as a playwright with the publication of Oedipe (1718) when he was only 24 years old. He wrote the play while imprisoned in Bastille for criticising the ruling establishment. In 1726, he chose self exile to avoid a potentially lengthy imprisonment. For the next 3 years, Voltaire lived in England. There he met major writers of the day including Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. While he never met Isaac Newton, Voltaire came to know many Newtonians. He attended the funeral of Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey and later related the account of how a falling apple inspired Newton to come up with the theory of gravity. This is one of the most famous anecdotes in the history of science and first appeared in Elements de la Philosophie de Newton (1738).

He returned to France with an admiration for the British model of constitutional monarchy and the English philosophies of Bacon, Locke and Newton which he viewed as superior to the Cartesianism orthodoxy of France.

Voltaire rebuilt his career and wrote prolifically. His major philosophical work from this period was Lettres Philosophiques (1734).

Voltaire had a complicated relationship with the ruling establishments of first France and then Prussia. He was exiled from the court of Frederick II (Frederick the Great) in Berlin in 1755 and was barred from returning to Paris. In late 1758, he settled down in Ferney, a small town on the French–Swiss border. There, he wrote Candide (1759) and Dictionnaire philosophique (1764). He died in Paris on his first visit there after nearly 20 years.

Voltaire lived during the reigns of the last three kings of the House of Bourbon before the French Revolution, Louis XIV the Sun King (1643–1715), Louis XV (1715–1774) and Louis XVI (1774–1792). The French Revolution claimed Voltaire as one of its ideological forefathers in part for his advocacy of civil rights and hostility towards the Ancien Régime.

What is the story about?

Candide is a bildungsroman about the eponymous young man whose strong belief in Leibnizian optimism was shaken by a litany of misfortunes, including the Seven Years’ War (1754/1756–1763) and the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, and encounters with men and women of the worst kind from avaricious and lecherous clergymen, quack doctors, deposed emperors, freeloaders, corrupt government officials, inquisitors, pirates,  rapacious soldiers, slaves, swindlers, thieves to whores.


Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was a German rationalist philosopher. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The dispute between rationalism and empiricism concerns the extent to which we are dependent upon sense experience in our effort to gain knowledge. Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge”. One of Leibniz’s main ideas, developed to reconcile his Christian beliefs and the problem of evil in the world, is this: “Because God is both all–powerful and morally perfect, he must have created the best possible world. If you think about it, under the circumstances it was the only possible world. Being all–powerful and morally perfect, God could not have created a world that wasn’t the best” (Thomas Cathart & Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, 2007).

The Seven Years’ War took place across many theatres and involved many European nations between 1754/1756 to 1763. France one of the major superpowers of the time fought a colonial war against the British in North America, India and Africa, and as part of a coalition against Frederick II of Prussia in continental Europe. Estimates of casualties range from 800,000 to 1.4 million.

On All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1755, Lisbon was struck by a major earthquake known today as the Great Lisbon Earthquake. Estimates of deaths as a result of collapsing buldings, as well as the ensuing tsunami and fires, range from 10,000 to 100,000 people. The authorities in the deeply Catholic country predictably proclaimed that the earthquake was caused by the wrath of God brought on the city because of its sins. This position is undermined by the fact that churches tumbled while the red light are was largely unscathed. More than 250 years later, it is easy to underestimate the wide ranging effects of the disaster on European society. The earthquake influenced a number of thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment including Voltaire to reject the notion of an all–powerful and benevolent deity.

How is the book?

This translation by Theo Cuffe (also available in Deluxe Edition) is the second one published in the Penguin Classics series, after an earlier translation by John Butt (1947).

This edition includes an alternative opening to the famous Chapter 22 found in the sole surviving manuscript, an essay and poem written by Voltaire on the Lisbon earthquake and extracts from Dictionnaire philosophique.

Finally …

Great read. The notes are very helpful.