“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like!” Candide
Pangloss was the silly old philosopher (a stand in for Leibniz) that Voltaire poked fun at in his classic story Candide. I read Candide years ago and continue to learn from and enjoy it today. It’s always a good laugh watching the absent-minded philosopher go through countless contortions to justify his deep conviction that “this is the best of all possible worlds.” No matter how much pain and suffering he witnesses or goes through himself (earthquakes, war, slavery, disease, all sorts of bodily harm), he never wavers. You may be skeptical but I think silly old Pangloss understood more than maybe even he knew.
We have discovered that all of the other worlds in our solar system are likely uninhabitable. Other than our own sun, the closest star to the Earth is Alpha Centauri, 4.2 light years away. There may be inhabitable planets circling Alpha Center but that won’t help us here on Earth very much. With our current technology, it would take about 6300 years to travel there. So, Pangloss was right in one way, this is the best of all possible worlds we are likely to ever have access to. Whether or not there is life elsewhere in the universe remains an open question but recent research shortens the odds of finding alien life.
In a past blog Think in the Morning discussed the relationship between imagination and reason in the context of several thinkers including Voltaire (Imagination and Reason in the Time of Tragedy: Lau Tzu, Voltaire, Blake, Camus, and Marquez). We continue that discussion here. If this is the only world we are likely to get, we better take care of it. I suspect we are not doing a very good job of that and I’m not the only one. We discussed global warming in an earlier blog (Global Warming: Deniers, Doomers, Dreamers, Doers). A friend responded with a long to do list that makes saving the Earth seem nearly impossible. No doubt it is a daunting task. However, David Attenborough points out in this short clip how we can make a good start if we want to by taking a few steps. It won’t be easy but it may be possible.
A serious problem that complicates this picture is that most of the world’s population is poor relative to the average American. Consider, for example, most of Africa, India, China and Latin America just for a start. Many of these people want much of what we have in the developed West. That would require enormous economic growth and such growth could have equally enormous environmental impacts. Doing better at saving the Earth is going to require hard choices.
The sea level rise will cause widespread impacts sooner than expected. It is already creating serious problems for people who live close to the sea not to mention dangerous weather changes.
Much of the earth remains pristine and undeveloped but that is changing. There is hope even if we feel like Sisyphus at times. Camus ends his famous essay with a challenge: One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Pangloss and Candide’s journey reminds me in a way of poor Sisyphus pushing that big rock up that steep hill only to have it roll back down again and again. Yet, Pangloss never loses faith. It’s reassuring for those of us who tend toward pessimism.
Something as simple as telling a good story can have an enormous effect on what Nietzsche calls our will to power. People need inspiration sometimes to do the necessary work of taking care of this our Earth.
It’s not just action that we need to turn the environment around. The ancient philosopher Lao Tzu reminded us in his Tao Te Ching that wu wei (action through inaction) is often more effective in accomplishing one’s goals.
Hans Kung, whom we wrote briefly about HERE, reminds us that we will never accomplish much if we don’t learn to live together peacefully, respect each other, listen to each other, and learn from each other.
“No peace between nations without peace among religions. No peace between religions without dialogue.” (taz, 06.04.2021). “In the end, Küng’s global ethic leads straight to the revolutionary power centers of the Enlightenment and – thus closing the circle – of Christianity: humanity, justice, honesty and above all reciprocity. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you …”
All of this boggles the mind. It’s a tall order. We may be able to make some progress if we put our heads and shoulders to it. This may not be the best of all possible worlds but it is almost certainly to only world we will ever inhabit. I think this is what Pangloss was trying to tell us in his convoluted way. And, Candide finally came around at the end.
“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”
“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”
“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”
The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.
Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:
“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”
“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”
“The end of Candide is for me incontrovertible proof of genius of the first order; the stamp of the master is in that laconic conclusion, as stupid as life itself.” (Gustave Flaubert)
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