Why do bad things happen to innocent people? Countless thinkers and theologians have wrestled with this conundrum throughout history. But although it may be impossible to justify the suffering of innocents, their ill fortune can, perversely, make for highly amusing storytelling. This map looks at the sometimes maligned philosophy of optimism as it occurs in chefs d’oeuvre like Voltaire’s Candide and Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts.
The full title of French Enlightenment writer Voltaire’s most famous work is Candide, or Optimism. At first blush, the novella appears to attack the reasonableness of taking a positive stance toward human existence. But is the book really so down on optimism? Its hero, Candide, is an eyewitness to numerous disasters, natural and man-made, and is the victim of romantic betrayal, theft and torture. Yet he manages to sustain the hopeful philosophy he learned as a young man under the tutelage of Dr. Pangloss. Given Candide’s dreadful experiences, his trust in Pangloss’s “best of all possible worlds” doctrine seems like foolishness. But Candide somehow survives every crime and cruelty he encounters. Perhaps he’s a “holy fool,” whose salvation lies precisely in his stubborn optimism. Voltaire’s book seems to suggest that optimism is both pure idiocy and a successful adaptation to a vicious world. It’s a common conceit: Among Candide’s literary kin are such characters as Prince Myshkin, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot; Chance, in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There (1971); Guido Orefice, portrayed by Roberto Benigni in the film Life Is Beautiful (1997); and the allusively named heroine of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s 1958 novel Candy.
Candide’s Dr. Pangloss is the archetype for the nutty professor, a stock comic character who lectures nonsense and is incapable of imparting practical knowledge. In Candide, Pangloss (Greek for “all tongue”) tutors the children of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, including Candide, the baron’s bastard nephew. The tutor is given to nonsense syllogism: “Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings.” The gobbledygook philosophy Pangloss dispenses—Voltaire calls it “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology”—boils down to one simple principle: This is the best of all possible worlds, and everything that happens therefore happens for the best. War, earthquake and the Inquisition severely test this dubitable thesis, but Pangloss, who reappears throughout the novella, never abandons this lunacy—even at the book’s end, when, by his own admission, he has come to disbelieve it.
Later takes on this comic type include the American comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey, who bills himself as the World’s Foremost Authority and whose shtick involves spouting malaprop-strewn gibberish, and Professor Julius Kelp, the clumsy, romantically inept chemistry teacher played by Jerry Lewis in his 1963 film The Nutty Professor (and by Eddie Murphy in the 1990s remakes).
German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was, like Voltaire, a man of the Enlightenment and a believer in the power of reason. But bookish Leibniz was, in the philosophical sense, an idealist; the worldly Voltaire was by contrast a realist.
Voltaire’s Candide can be read as a realist’s scoffing at an idealist’s naivety. Candide not only pokes fun at Leibniz the man—by way of nutty professor Dr. Pangloss—it attacks Leibniz’s theodicy. A theodicy (Leibniz coined the term) is a philosophical argument that tries to reconcile two discrete notions—in this case, that the world is governed by God and that evil and suffering exist. Leibniz posits that if (as he fervently believed) God exists, we necessarily must inhabit the best of all possible worlds. Why? For the simple reason that a god who is both all-knowing and all-powerful would not have created a less than optimal world for humans to live in. The argument sounds highfalutin but is only a highbrow version of what many optimistic people believe: that under God’s plan, everything works toward the good. Voltaire, however, was outraged by human suffering and had no patience for arguments that simply explained evil away.
Dr. Pangloss is a clown figure, but one who is as disturbing as he is laughable. The “education” he gives his young charges—Candide, Candide’s lovely cousin Cunégonde and her unnamed brother—is so delusional, so contrary to the hard realities they will face, that the reader wonders whether Pangloss is just stupid or deliberately mendacious.
Most nutty professors are more sympathetic—eccentric innocents whose social awkwardness goes hand in hand with a goodness of heart and a quirky (but genuine) genius. So too with a closely related comic type: the absent-minded professor. Professor Brainard, of Disney’s Absent-Minded Professor (1961), may be hopeless as a romantic partner—he forgets to attend his own wedding—but his well-meaning invention of the antigravity material flubber (“flying” + “rubber”) redeems him. (Fred MacMurray, who portrayed Brainard, reprised the role in 1963’s Son of Flubber.) Likewise, “Doc” Emmett Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd in the film Back to the Future (1985) and its two sequels, may have several screws loose, but he possesses a deep-seated moral sense utterly foreign to Voltaire’s vain, ridiculous Dr. Pangloss.
Optimism in the extreme can become a blindness to reality: the hope beyond hope that maybe, just maybe, things will work out this time around, even though they never have in the past. It’s what motivates Charlie Brown, the long-suffering protagonist of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts (1950–2000).
Any devoted reader of the strip will recognize the running gags Schulz designed to frustrate his pathetic hero: No matter how many times Charlie Brown’s nemesis, Lucy van Pelt, yanks the football away just as he is about to kick it, he always believes her promise that she won’t do it this time. (She will.) No matter how often he dreams that the object of his affection, the Little Red-Haired Girl, will send him a valentine, the valentine never comes. And no matter how hard he wishes he’ll be a Little League star, he always winds up missing a play and becoming the goat. Well, not quite always: In strips that ran on March 30 and July 2, 1993, Charlie Brown actually hits home runs—his only successes in countless miserable seasons. He later finds out the opposing pitcher let him hit the homers.
Leonard Bernstein was one of the few composers to have created music for both the symphony hall and the Broadway stage. Bernstein’s best-known musical is West Side Story (1957), a Romeo-and-Juliet romance set amid teenage-gang warfare in New York City. But some consider Bernstein’s comic operetta Candide, based on Voltaire’s novella, to be his most artistically exciting foray into musical theater.
Candide’s initial Broadway run in 1956 was not a success. Its creative team—Lillian Hellman (book) and John Latouche, Dorothy Parker and Richard Wilbur (lyrics)—lacked no literary firepower, but audiences were not delighted, and the production was shuttered after two months. A 1974 Broadway revival—with a new book by Hugh Wheeler and additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein’s collaborator on West Side Story—fared much better, running for almost two years. Bernstein continued to make changes to Candide, arriving at a “final revised version” shortly before his death in 1990.
The plot of Bernstein’s Candide is simpler (and, frankly, tighter) than Voltaire’s original; there are fewer characters, and one of them, Cunégonde’s brother, is finally given a name: Maximilian. If anything, Bernstein’s operetta actually amplifies the spirits—both mean and high—of Voltaire’s comedy.
Candide’s love object, Cunégonde, is better-drawn in Bernstein’s Candide than in Voltaire’s novella, where she is little more than a screen for the hero’s romantic projection. Bernstein’s Cunégonde is truly tragicomic: a pretty but bubbleheaded noblewoman whose only concerns are for wealth and social station but who, through “bitter circumstance,” is forced into harlotry in Paris and then a stint as a courtesan in Buenos Aires. She rues her fate even as she relishes the baubles she receives for services rendered. In the 2004 revival of Bernstein’s comic operetta, relative newcomer Kristin Chenoweth delivered a pitch-perfect performance as Cunégonde, nailing the signature aria, “Glitter and Be Gay.”
Chenoweth’s break came in 1998, when she landed the role of Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, in the Broadway revival of Clark Gesner’s musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on Charles M. Schulz’s characters from Peanuts. Sally Brown’s signature number, “My New Philosophy,” contains a fair measure of Panglossian silliness in Sally’s self-contradictory attempts to outline the principles she lives by. “Each new philosophy,” she sings, “can fly from tree to tree and keep me moving when life’s a dizzy maze; on alternating days I choose a different phrase!”