Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Johnson, Boswell, Voltaire, Leibniz, James

No quiz today, since we're doing an exam; but here are some questions about Voltaire and Leibniz that might be on it:

1. What English poet declared that "whatever is, is right"? LH 93

2. What German philosopher, with his "Principle of Sufficient Reason," agreed with the poet? 

3. What French champion of free speech and religious toleration wrote a satirical novel/play ridiculing the idea that everything is awesome? 94-5

4. What 1755 catastrophe deeply influenced Voltaire's philosophy? 96

5. What did Voltaire mean by "cultivating our garden"? 97

6. Was Voltaire an atheist? 98

The Almanac recognizes Sam Johnson's sidekick James Boswell, who was also Voltaire's friend. A good segue for us.
It's the birthday of James Boswell (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1740). He is best known as the author of Life of Johnson (1791), a biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson, which is considered by many people to be the greatest biography ever written in English. As a young man, Boswell's father wanted him to settle down and take care of the family's ancestral estate in rural Scotland. Boswell wanted adventure, excitement, and intrigue, so he ran away to London and became a Catholic. He began keeping a journal in London, and instead of describing his thoughts and feelings about things, he wrote down scenes from his life as though they were fiction. He described his friends as though they were characters and recorded long stretches of dialogue. 
As a young man, Boswell was the life of the party, and everyone who met him liked him. The French writer Voltaire invited him to stay at his house after talking to him for only half an hour. David Hume asked him to stay at his bedside when he died. He hung out with the philosopher Rousseau, and Rousseau's mistress liked him so much that she had an affair with Boswell. He was even friends with the pope. And then on May 16, 1763, he met the scholar and writer Samuel Johnson in the back room of a bookstore. Johnson was a notoriously unfriendly man, but Boswell had long admired him and tried hard to impress him. The next time they met, Johnson said to Boswell, "Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you." Johnson was 30 years older than Boswell and he was the most renowned literary scholar in England. Boswell was undistinguished compared to Johnson's other friends, but Boswell never tried to compete with Johnson's intellect. Their relationship was like an interview that went on for years. Boswell would just ask questions and listen to Johnson talk, and then he would go home and write it all down in his journal. 
The two men eventually became great friends. They talked about everything from philosophy and religion to trees and turnips. Boswell knew early on that he would write Johnson's biography, but he didn't start until after Johnson's death. The work was slow going. He watched as several others published books about Johnson, and he worried that no one would care about his book when he finished it. He had to fight with his editor to keep the odd details, like the things Johnson had said to his cat and what kind of underwear he thought women should wear. He felt that these were the details that revealed who Johnson really was. When the book finally came out, it was a huge best-seller. No one had ever written such a personal biography that so completely captured a life, and no one has done so since.
It's possible that he, like Yogi Berra, didn't say everything he said. Abe Lincoln warned us not to believe everything we read on the Internet. But these lines attributed to Voltaire are good:

  • “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
  • “‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” 
  • “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” 
  • “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” 
  • “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” 
  • “The most important decision you make is to be in a good mood.” 
  • “I have chosen to be happy because it is good for my health.” 
  • “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” 
  • “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.” 
  • “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly - that is the first law of nature.” 
  • “The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”
  • “One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything's fine today, that is our illusion” 
  • “The greatest consolation in life is to say what one thinks.” 
  • “Let us cultivate our garden.” 

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz 

...La Monadologie (Monadology) (1714) is a highly condensed outline of Leibniz's metaphsics. Complete individual substances, or monads, are dimensionless points which contain all of their properties—past, present, and future—and, indeed, the entire world. The true propositions that express their natures follow inexorably from the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason.

The same themes are presented more popularly in the Discours de Metaphysique (Discourse on Metaphysics) (1686). There Leibniz emphasized the role of a benevolent deity in creating this, the best of all possible worlds, where everything exists in a perfect, pre-established harmony with everything else. Since space and time are merely relations, all of science is a study of phenomenal objects. According to Leibniz, human knowledge involves the discovery within our own minds of all that is a part of our world, and although we cannot make it otherwise, we ought to be grateful for our own inclusion in it.

And the meliorist just wants to make it better.

William James, in Pragmatism:
Truly there is something a little ghastly in the satisfaction with which a pure but unreal system will fill a rationalist mind. Leibnitz was a rationalist mind, with infinitely more interest in facts than most rationalist minds can show. Yet if you wish for superficiality incarnate, you have only to read that charmingly written 'Theodicee' of his, in which he sought to justify the ways of God to man, and to prove that the world we live in is the best of possible worlds... (continues)
...there are unhappy men who think the salvation of the world impossible. Theirs is the doctrine known as pessimism.

Optimism in turn would be the doctrine that thinks the world's salvation inevitable.

Midway between the two there stands what may be called the doctrine of meliorism, tho it has hitherto figured less as a doctrine than as an attitude in human affairs. Optimism has always been the regnant DOCTRINE in european philosophy. Pessimism was only recently introduced by Schopenhauer and counts few systematic defenders as yet. Meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.
It is clear that pragmatism must incline towards meliorism... (continues)

1 comment:

  1. Hume and Rousseau
    FQ: Rousseau believed that true religion came from where? LH(106)
    FQ: The argument for the existence of God is known as? LH(100)
    FQ: According to Hume, did the argument prove the existence of God? (101)
    DQ: What would you consider as true freedom?