Candide, by Voltaire **If there is one thing I cannot stand it is the straw-man argument. It is a lazy man’s approach to argument; empty, vapid, and cowardly. As brilliant as the movie “12 Angry Men” is, its straw-man argument against the death penalty makes me want to take a sledgehammer to the projector any time I watch it. My reaction to “Candide” was no less strong, for it is nothing more than a straw-man response to philosophical optimism; the notion that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” as posited by the German philosopher Gottfried Liebniz. On the surface, this optimism seems ridiculous enough to almost refute itself. As one digs deeper, though, one discovers that it is far from ridiculous and pays due attention to the tragedies that are encountered in this life. But in Candide, Voltaire gives Liebniz’s optimism no more than a superficial treatment and concocts a ridiculous straw-man argument with which to attack Liebniz. The plot is as follows: a young man by the name of Candide grows up the ward of a minor German nobleman and lives in his castle. Candide is taught by the local philosopher and schoolmaster Pangloss that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that all circumstances that befall us are for the best. Candide falls in love with the baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunegonde, and the two are caught in the act of embracing one day. He is banished from the baron’s domains and embarks on a series of misadventures, each one filled with pain, suffering, and hardship for the somewhat hapless Candide. As time passes he meets up with his former acquaintances, including Cunegonde and Pangloss, learning from each of them the many horrors they have encountered, some equal to or greater than his own. Eventually, through sheer chance, Candide comes by a modest fortune that allows him to purchase a farm large enough to support himself and his companions for the rest of their miserable lives.Voltaire tells the story of Candide as though it were a joke, applying a humorous twist to every misadventure, winking hideously as Candide and his friends face death through starvation, thirst, torture, cannibalism, war, and natural disasters in which thousands die horrifically. Before I reached the halfway point I felt like screaming “Okay! I get the point, get on with it!” But Voltaire piles miserable circumstance upon miserable circumstance in a ridiculous chain of events, constantly calling attention to the fact that he is telling a joke. Eventually, rather than refuting optimism, his story becomes little more than a parody of itself and Voltaire even comes dangerously close to refuting himself. Yes, there are lives that are filled with pain and misery. There are people who rarely, if ever, know any respite from hunger and pain. But that is not the whole story. There are many others who know joy, hope, and triumph even in the face of bitter struggle, something of which Voltaire was fully aware. Voltaire was also aware that Leibniz struggled with the ideas of pain and suffering in his philosophical work, treating those subjects with far more dignity than Voltaire himself does. Moreover, as scientific knowledge has increased in the intervening centuries, we have discovered that the physical laws of the universe are so amazingly fine tuned that if any were to vary from their state by so much as one part in one thousand, life on earth would not be possible. It may truly be that, at least from a physical perspective, we live in the best of all possible worlds. For these and many other reasons I found “Candide” to be dishonest and disingenuous. It was not, however, a waste of time. It is always important to know how, why, and what others think and believe. “Candide” will always be an interesting look into one of the most celebrated minds of the enlightenment, and an excellent exercise in recognizing a straw-man argument.