Allan Powell: The case for optimism is still fragile

June 22, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

Every year, I visit the AAUW book sale and look for “oldies” and “goodies” missed earlier. This year, I spotted a copy of Voltaire’s “Candide,” which readers find liberally quoted in history and literature books.

His saucy wit is always provocative and many find his biting sarcasm objectionable.

The subtitle, “Optimism,” should be a warning to read carefully. Voltaire is an accomplished poet, playwright, historian and philosopher who is appalled at the naïveté of those who are admirers of an old idea then promoted by a German philosopher, Gottfried Leibnitz. He argued that this is the best of all possible worlds because everything is made to serve an end because everything necessarily serves the best end or purpose. This doctrine, if true, makes it possible to see the world through rose-colored glasses. Voltaire is not convinced the world is so ordered.

To test this idea in the real world, Voltaire pits Candide and his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, against plain observation of what they see and record as they travel widely through the real world. Candide, from which we derive “candid,” connotes “unspotted,” “pure of soul” and “trusting,” and is an avid believer in what Pangloss (which translates as “all tongue”) tells him about the best of all possible worlds. What they record in their travels was identical to what Voltaire expected, but they interpreted all events through the eyes of an optimist while Voltaire interpreted those events from the perspective of a Philosophe — a French philosopher of the Enlightenment.


Candide and Pangloss begin their travels in the year 1759, a year which alone provided Voltaire with adequate proof that this was not the best of all possible worlds managed by an all-knowing, all-powerful and omnibenevolent overseer. A horrendous earthquake in Lisbon crushed to death thousands of helpless human beings. The Seven Years War, called the French and Indian War in America, was raging in Europe and resulted in daily reports of cities being ground to ashes by cannon fire while whole regiments were being shot and gutted by bayonets. In addition, the Inquisitors within the Catholic Church were burning people at the stake for holding opinions they found objectionable.

What Candide and Pangloss saw in every country they visited was no less unnerving. Sickness, famine, exploitation, unspeakable barbarities and bloodshed made all honest observers question whether it was appropriate to declare human beings civilized. Still, Candide, who had experienced many personal abuses, held to his conviction and those of Pangloss. The heavy vocabulary of optimism (omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence) smothered any possibility of a change of mind.

Philosophy and theology combined to produce a belief of an overreaching optimism that seemed compelling to many but which housed a huge contradiction for Voltaire. How is it possible for an agent with the combined powers of unlimited knowledge, goodness and capacity to act to withhold the power to change events. If that agent was truly good and had the power, how could it fail to supply relief and curb evil? All attempts to deny this logical flaw were intellectual dishonesty for Voltaire. This logical flaw is still acceptable to many theologians.

Voltaire, as a realist, asked this blunt and sarcastic question: “When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry whether mice on board are comfortable or not?” He has the conviction that optimists have made a serious miscall.

Long ago, I had the good fortune to read an essay by William James, one of America’s notable thinkers.

He argued that we cling to ideas not on the basis of their inherent truth, value or intellectual power. We cling to ideas that we feel good about. He called this need to feel good about certain ideas and not others, the “sentiment of rationality.” We see this when, at the end of all their travels, Candide and his companions had the same outlook about the world that they had before they left. It would appear that William James is right; whether we are an optimist or a realist is dependent on personal temperament.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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