Voltaire's The Definition of War

             In Candide or Optimism, Voltaire demonstrates a somewhat unique conception of war for his time, and manages to do so with something of a regard for humor. Throughout the book, Voltaire points to the oddities of war from all angles. He exposes the worthlessness of concepts such as honor and glory on the battlefield itself, he indicates that the causes of war are never sufficient, and that the leaders themselves are nothing without their armies or their empires. Voltaire is clearly of the opinion that war is a useless effort, but he does not give any indication as to what the limits of his point may be. The politics in Candide or Optimism are very petty, and merely make for a beginning to his case, and do not test its limits.

             The world Voltaire lived in was not the greatest supporter of what is known now as human rights. While modern in language and reason perhaps, the practices of the time were anything but contemporary. Military enlistment, for example, is in modern times typically a voluntary matter. In the past, however, it was not uncommon to find yourself fooled into service. Candide, for example, fell victim to such a hoax towards the beginning of his travels when meeting up with men at an inn. With little effort, the men managed to have Candide agree to drink to their king's health. They said to him that "that is sufficient”(p.5), and with that he was in the army. No time to adjust to his new life was offered or could have been expected, and Candide managed to make a case of this early on. As Candide was to receive a brutal punishment for wandering off without permission, he understood that ignorance of the law was not an excuse for breaking it. Only the passing king was able to, with the aid of his "vast genius”(p.6), see the crime in punishing Candide so brutally for a crime he did not understand. Voltaire seems to mock the Kings intelligence as if to say, "If the king is such a genius, why did his law not interpret the circumstances without the king's intervention?” Voltaire was not, however, concerned with the recruitment and treatment of soldiers alone.

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