Literary Criticism – Optimism v Pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide and Johnson’s Prince of Abissinia



Optimism in the eighteenth century derived from the period of Enlightenment where progress in scientific, political, and religious thought created widespread hopefulness.  Optimists such as Leibniz believed that ‘from among an infinity of possible worlds God has chosen for existence the one that is the best of all possible worlds.’ [1]  With the prospect of liberty and a claim for happiness, ‘faith in reason […] permeated even Christian thought’. Whilst many people were pursuing happiness, others were competing with fears of a cyclical history and the concept of political and religious regression. As a result, an abundance of philosophical questions arose about the nature of the world involving morality, reason, will, and faith. Progressive optimism, which was the driving force of hope in the eighteenth century became contested, and therefore, paralleled with pessimism. The existence of evil versus the nature of God’s good intention in the creation of the world became the defining argument of the pessimist. In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between optimism and pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide , and Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, and argue that optimism and pessimism co-exist and are subjective depending on observation, experience, and perspective, therefore, philosophy has its limitations.

Candide is a satirical novel that takes the reader through the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. The novel’s title is ironic. Candide or optimism suggests a positive narrative yet Candide is subject to a high degree of hardship, which suggests that pessimism also exists. The main theme in the novel is storytelling which Voltaire uses to demonstrate that optimism or pessimism is subjective and can alter depending on an individual’s experience and knowledge of the world. Written in the form of a travel narrative, Voltaire links both theories through the experiences of Candide. Optimism in the character of Candide is constructed and Voltaire demonstrates this through the innocence of childhood. This is presented in chapter one through uncomplicated language, humour, and ignorance such as, ‘[The] Barron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his castle had a gate and windows’. [2] This is a very childish notion of power that establishes the character’s innocence. The word innocently is used on numerous occasions, which strongly enforces that the protagonist is unlearned and inexperienced.  According to Locke, children’s ‘notions are few and narrow, borrowed only from those objects they have had most to do with, and which have made upon their senses the frequentest and strongest impressions.[3] Candide receives his education from his tutor and philosopher Pangloss who is ‘the oracle of the establishment, to whose lessons little Candide listen[s] with all the good faith of his age and nature’, (Voltaire, p.4). Voltaire is demonstrating how easy it is to inscribe ideas into a young mind. Due to Pangloss’ theory that the world is the best of all possible worlds (Voltaire, p.4) his young pupil accepts this as his own belief.

Candide is unwillingly ejected from his world after kissing Cunégonde. Voltaire increases the pace of the novel by writing episodic chapters where the character experiences a vast amount of misfortunes one after the other. In order to show a pessimistic theory of the world, the author uses a real account of war:

First, the cannons toppled about six thousand men on either side; then the muskets removed from the best of possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface. Next, the bayonet proved sufficient reason for the death of a few thousand more. The total may well have amounted to thirty thousand corpses (Voltaire, p.7-8).

At first glance, the above quotation is presented as Candide’s unbiased account of war. The language and detail prove this to be otherwise because, at the time of action, Candide is hidden out of sight. Even if he were to see most of the goings on, the approximations of the number of deaths and the details of military equipment would be impossible for an individual to observe. The author is, therefore, using free indirect discourse to combine the narrator’s voice with Candide’s. Voltaire’s knowledge of events allows him to satirise optimism, for example, ‘the muskets removed from the best of possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface’, (Voltaire, p.7). This sentence suggests that pessimism does exist in the world and ‘God ha[s] given reason to men, [which] should teach them not to […] imitate animals, particularly when nature has given them [no] arms to kill their fellow-creatures. [4] The author’s pessimistic views of war combined with Candide’s belief in optimism demonstrate that both theories co-exist in the text but are subjective depending on individual perspective and knowledge. The simile that ‘Candide trembled like a philosopher’, (Voltaire, p.8) reveals that Pangloss’ philosophy of optimism is unstable because Voltaire applies the simile to Candide, whose only experience of philosophy is the optimism of his tutor.

Voltaire draws the reader into his narrative by switching between past tense and historic present tense. The purpose of this is to attract attention to, particularly important moments in the story whilst demonstrating the ways in which different characters respond. An example of this is found when Candide and Pangloss reach Lisbon:

They feel the earth tremble beneath them; a boiling sea rises in the port and shatters the vessels lying at anchor. Great sheets of flame and ash cover the streets and public squares; houses collapse, roofs topple on to foundations, and foundations are levelled in turn; thirty thousand inhabitants without regard to age or sex are crushed beneath the ruins (Voltaire, p.14).

The above quotation refers to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and Voltaire writes the account based on his own experience of the disaster.  In his poem The Lisbon Earthquake, Voltaire says that the ‘lamentations which inspire [his] pain (6) Prove that philosophy is false and vain (7) (Voltaire, p.100).  There are three separate reactions to the earthquake in Candide. For the sailor, the theory of optimism is applied. He ‘dashes into the ruins,[…] in his search for silver;[…] seizes it, gets drunk, and […] purchases the first willing girl he finds’, (Voltaire, p.14). Pangloss questions the sufficient reason for the earthquake whilst Candide assumes that it is the end of the world, therefore pessimistic (Voltaire, p.14). Pangloss’ reaction to the earthquake shows that his firm belief in optimism falters temporarily. This demonstrates that optimism and pessimism are subjective and variable.

Eldorado is Voltaire’s representation of utopia. Everyone in Eldorado is happy and equal. Although the country is sealed off from the rest of the world, its people consent to never leave. For this reason, it has ‘preserved [their] innocence and […] happiness’, (Voltaire, p.46). This is due to the historical knowledge derived from the previous generation who experienced political upheaval and war. Optimism in this instance is, therefore, created. Candide first recognises pessimism once he leaves Eldorado and he describes Europe as ‘illusion and calamity’, (Voltaire, p.70). The metaphor of spectacle and illusion runs throughout the novel to demonstrate that optimism and pessimism can be manufactured. For example, after the earthquake, the sages of Lisbon decide ‘to give the people a fine auto-de fe, (Voltaire, p.15) where ‘the spectacle of a few individuals being ceremonially roasted over a slow fire [is] the infallible secret recipe for preventing the earth from quaking’, (Voltaire, p.15). The purpose of the ceremony is to create optimism for the people and, as a result, creates pessimism for the victims. Voltaire therefore, demonstrates that optimism and pessimism are a state of mind and are dependent on circumstances, place, and reaction to events. This is clarified in the final chapter of the novel when Candide and his party finally end their journey. Armed with knowledge and having experienced both optimism and pessimism, Candide says ‘we must cultivate our garden’, (Voltaire, p.93). This is Voltaire’s final explanation that we must live in the now and make the most of what we have.

Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, is also a travel narrative, but unlike Candide, the characters journey is circular.  The two main themes in the novel are ‘the choice of life’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’. Written with a pessimistic tone, Johnson’s protagonist seeks to find optimism through happiness. The narrator summarises the moral purpose of the novel in the opening paragraph:

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.[5]

In the above quotation, Johnson satirises optimism by explaining that those who believe in the fallacy of hope will be taught a lesson by the novel. Moreover, in relation to ‘hope’, the author juxtaposes words such as ‘fancy’ with ‘phantoms’ to present optimism as an illusion. The full quotation is written in the present tense in a singular long sentence, which contrasts the young and the old, the present and the future, expectation with accomplishment and shortages with supplies. These contrasts provide a clue as to the moral of the story which is that choice of life is to be found between these contrasting words which are to live in the now.  The word ‘whisper’ seems out of place in this sentence however, it comes from the Gospel when Jesus addresses his disciples “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” [6] According to Ham, ‘Jesus was making the point that we learn some things gradually. We may not understand something at first but with reflection […] we finally get it’ (Ham, 2014). The impression the reader gets from Johnson is that happiness can only be found in reflection, therefore should not be sought. Moreover, optimism and pessimism are subjective to a person’s perception of the present and co-exist as a state of mind.

In order to demonstrate the effects of constructed optimism Johnston describes the palace of Abissinia, which is closed off from the rest of the world. It is preserved by the ‘wisdom or policy of antiquity [and] destined for the residence of the Abissinian princes’, (Johnson, p.7). This reveals that the protagonist’s ancestors were pessimistic of the world and therefore, created optimism in Abissinia as a solution to bring up the princes in the best of all possible worlds. In this creation, ‘All the diversities of the world [are] brought together, the blessings of nature [are] collected, and its evils extracted and excluded’, (Johnson, p.8).  By creating optimism, the ancestors have proven that it is merely an illusion The author goes on to establish the flaws of manufacturing optimism by limiting Rasselas’s choice of life. Rasselas cannot perceive happiness in Abissinia; this is because he has not experienced pessimism. He believes that seeing the miseries of the world is ‘necessary to happiness’, (Johnson, p.13). The protagonist, therefore, seeks knowledge from the poet Imlac whose wisdom inspires him:

Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure, as is confessed by natural desire, which every mind feels of increasing its ideas. Ignorance is mere privation, by which nothing can be produced: it is a vacuity in which the soul sits motionless and torpid for want of attraction; and without knowing why, […] if nothing counteracts the natural consequences of learning, we grow more happy as our minds take a wider range (Johnson, p.31).

In the above quotation, Johnson is suggesting that knowledge is an important factor in achieving pleasure and Rasselas feels dissatisfied because this is what he lacks. By oppressing him in the confines of optimism, the protagonist is unable to feel happiness as his mind is confined within the boundaries of Abissinia. A similar situation occurs in Paradise Lost. When Satan, disguised as a snake, tries to convince Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge he suggests that Eve is ‘Deterred […] from achieving what might lead To happier life, [which is] knowledge of good and evil.’ [7] The difference between the two characters is that Eve has free will whilst Rasselas in imprisoned in his own country. Imlac suggests that learning is ‘one’ of the ways to feel enjoyment, which suggests that there are other means. Rasselas understands this because he presumes that God has ‘balanced peculiar sufferings with peculiar enjoyments’, (Johnson, p.11). In this instance, the author demonstrates that both enjoyment and suffering are necessary to guarantee equilibrium and that the perception of optimism and pessimism are equally essential in order to accept life in the present.

Johnson is determined that happiness is an illusion because an individual can never know how another is feeling. Rasselas explores the choice of life on his journey where he seeks answers through his observation of man. His continued unhappiness confuses him because he observes happiness in others. Imlac intervenes by telling the protagonist that  ‘We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself’, (Johnson, p.42). In The Adventurer, Voltaire suggests that happiness is comparative and that we compare our misery to the happiness of others. ‘We can never obtain as much happiness as we might enjoy.’ [8] Unconvinced, the protagonist seeks direction from a hermit whose advice states that ‘To him, that lives well […] every form of life is good’ (Johnson, p.50). The author is clarifying that happiness is not something that can be found, but is subjective to how one feels about their present situation. Imlac confirms this by telling Rasselas ‘that while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live’, (Johnson, p.66). The author is, therefore, suggesting that living in the present is the best of all possible worlds because by looking for happiness, you are living in a pessimistic state. It is for this reason that the travellers return to Abissinia after searching for happiness and the choice of life and with a realisation that in order to live they must choose to make the most of what they have. Johnson concludes his novel with no answers. He is confirming that optimism, as well as pessimism, is subjective and that you can choose to live in the best of all possible worlds or the worst. Either way, philosophy is a state of mind and we should live in the moment before we look back with regret.


Both novels are pessimistic and satirise the Leibniz theory of optimism. In Candide, the essay established that optimism is constructed through the innocence both in childhood and in Eldorado, where external forces are shut out in order to maintain innocence, therefore, unnatural. This was also demonstrated by showing that optimism and pessimism can be manipulated by illusion, and so unnatural. The essay demonstrated that optimism and pessimism are subjective and co-exist depending on an individual’s perception of experience. For Candide, this was through his unfortunate experiences and how he felt in comparison to others. Similarly, the essay clarified that in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia optimism and pessimism are subjective. Happiness is the key to optimism in the novel and the essay demonstrated that pessimism has to exist in order to create hope. Overall, the essay argued that optimism and pessimism are a state of mind and are not fixed. Both theories fluctuate depending on what a person experiences and how they feel and are therefore subjective.


Delon Michael, ed., Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment (Oxon: Routledge, 2013)

Ham Rev John, ‘Hearing the Whisper of God Matthew 10:27’, The Footscray Baptist Church (2014)     HTTP://≥

Johnson Samuel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Johnson Samuel, Francis Pearson Walesby, and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson: The adventurer and idler (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825)

Locke John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836)

Milton John, Paradise Lost and Regained (London: Harper Press, 2013)

Rutherford Donald, Lebniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (London: Penguin Classics, 2005)

Wright Henry Clarke, Defensive War Proved to be a Denial of Christianity and of the Government of God: With Illustrative Facts and Anecdotes (London: C. Gilpin, 1846)

[1] Donald Rutherford, Lebniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.177.

[2] Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), p.3.

[3] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836), p.20.

[4] Henry Clarke Wright, Defensive War Proved to be a Denial of Christianity and of the Government of God: With Illustrative Facts and Anecdotes (London: C. Gilpin, 1846) p.128.

[5] Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.7.


[6] Rev Ron Ham, ‘Hearing the Whisper of God Matthew 10:27’, The Footscray Baptist Church (2014)≥ [accessed 03 December 2014] (para, 4 of 17)

[7] John Milton, Paradise Lost and Regained (London: Harper Press, 2013), p.220.

[8] Samuel JohnsonFrancis Pearson Walesby, and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson: The adventurer and idler (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825) p.105.


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