After reviewing earlier editions of Pope’s work, Voltaire developed a correspondence with the author of “Essay on Man.” As their correspondence progressed, Voltaire gained a greater admiration and adherence to Pope’s beliefs and teachings. His didactic writing spoke of God’s infinite wisdom with man’s existing in a world that is for the best, with genuine goodness existing in the whole rather than isolation. Pope’s “Essay on Man” created an ideal that Voltaire initially respected and adopted. However, with Mme du Chatelet’s death, Voltaire swiftly renounced his adherence and support of Pope and Leibnitz’s fervent optimism. The loss of something so dear to him in a world that was supposedly “perfect” and having “everything for the best.”
The destruction and evil in the world convinced Voltaire that though Pope’s teachings were noble and well-intentioned, they described a utopia that would never exist. Pope claimed, “All discord, harmony, not understood; all partial evil, universal good: and, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, one truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.” But Voltaire could not accept the concept of everything being for the best because too much suffering exists in the world. He realized that Pope’s ideals were not applicable to real life, which quickly caused him to adopt a slightly mocking attitude towards Pope’s work. His critique of “Essay on Man” is certainly somewhat brash and harsh; he inserts cutting remarks that simplify the Pope’s argument. One such instance is about Jove and its satellites. Pope posed the rhetorical question, “Why Jove’s Satellites are less than Jove?” Voltaire simply responds with “Ridiculous, for a satellite ought to be lesser.” By mocking Pope’s words and adopting obscure interpretations, Voltaire exploits his natural talent of deft argument and strengthens his claims.
Voltaire’s first comment concerning the forbidden fruit sets a strong foundation for the rest of his argument. By questioning Pope’s mention of the forbidden fruit, he slightly questions why Pope is writing about the perfect world and the ideals of man. He attacks the impracticality of Pope’s writing and also asserts his tone, a tone of antagonistic mockery. In his second remark about laughter, Voltaire asserts that there is nothing to laugh about. “Il n’y a pas la de quoi rire; et voila d’antitheses.”Voltaire understands the great evil that exists in the world and almost wonders how Pope can advocate laughter as a means to deal with such evil.
Voltaire takes upon a different path because he feels that Pope does not address the current issues. In the instance of Jove and its satellites, Pope originally focuses on why there is even a relationship between the satellite and the planet to begin with. But Voltaire applies his realist views and indirectly implies that the relationship is given. There is no need to question the existence of the relationship because we know it exists. The issue of debate is not the existence of the relationship, but rather, what the relationship is. Pope questions the satellite’s size in relation to Jove, while Voltaire simply remarks that it is obvious the satellite should be “lesser.” In a way, Pope includes numerous passages that seem to ponder the intangible and rhetorical questions about why things are the way they are. Voltaire abandons such an optimistic view and exploits the weaknesses of “Essay on Man,” by attacking simple phrases. His marginal comments state the obvious and make Pope sound somewhat ridiculous to ask such questions.
But the main factor in Voltaire’s shift in perspective is captured in his response to “And all the question (wrangle ;ere so long) Is only this, if God has plac’d him wrong?” Voltaire remarks, “No, but why he made him so miserable.” Voltaire abandoned such optimistic views because man suffered through so much misery and hardships that it was hard to believe “everything was for the best.” His novel Candide, was a satirical response to Pope’s teachings and beliefs. In the novel, he focuses on the belief that “everything is for the best.” As the philosopher and Candide’s guide, Pangloss believes and teaches “metaphysico-theologo-cosmonigology,” which believes that “this is the best of all possible worlds.”
Yet Voltaire allows the protagonist to suffer throughout his whole journey, experiencing all of the horrible human vices and sheer brutality. Candide sees suffering to the harshest extremes and listens to stories of others hardships. Voltaire did not believe that such a great degree of suffering could exist in a world that is supposedly for the best. Furthermore, he believes Pope’s statements are simply too idealistic and unfounded. “But thinks, admitted to that equal sky, his faithful dog shall bear him company.” Voltaire’s response is simply sarcastic and focuses on the literal meaning rather than the implied meaning. His lack of respect for Pope’s words expresses Voltaire’s inability to accept Pope’s conception of man, god, and the cosmic schema. His satirical novel certainly mocks Pope’s teachings, but it also sheds light on Voltaire’s reasons for diverging from Pope’s optimistic views.