A collaborative search for wisdom, at Middle Tennessee State University and beyond...
"The pluralistic form takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of, being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of 'co'"-William James
1. What English poet declared that "whatever is, is right"?
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?
4. What 1755 catastrophe deeply influenced Voltaire's philosophy?
5. What did Voltaire mean by "cultivating our garden"?
6. Was Voltaire an atheist?
1. If "whatever is, is right," is political reform or personal growth and change ever an appropriate aspiration? Does anyone ever really act as if they believe that this is the best of all possible worlds? What would you change about the world or your life, if you could?
2. Even if there's a logical explanation for everything, does it follow that there's a justification?
3. If you agree that "Panglossian" (Leibnizian) optimism is ridiculous, what form of optimism isn't? Are you an optimist? Why?
4. Why do you think people who survive earthquakes, floods, tornadoes etc. so frequently praise god for sparing them, even or especially when their neighbors are not so fortunate? What does this say about human nature and religion focused on personal salvation?
5. Was Voltaire's play an example of "cultivating your garden"? What other examples can you think of?
6. Do you like Deism? Is it more defensible, against charges of divine indifference, than mainstream theism?
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.”
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)
Brains, John Campbell was saying in his Berkeley interview, are a big asset. "It's very important that we have brains. Their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk."
Voltaire, dubbed by Russell "the chief transmitter of English influence to France," was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).
Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]
William James called Leibniz's theodicy "superficiality incarnate": "Leibniz's feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind..." And James's comments continue, in a similarly scathing vein. He was particularly incensed by the disconnect between Leibniz's philosophy and the suffering of a distraught Clevelander whose plight and ultimate suicide stands for the despair of so many through the ages. But if you like Leibniz's defense of the ways of god, maybe you'd love his monadology. Maybe not. But if one substance is good, how good is a practical infinity of them?
People wish to think the universe good, and will be lenient to bad arguments proving that it is so, while bad arguments proving that it is bad are closely scanned. In fact, of course, the world is partly good and partly bad, and no ' problem of evil' Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…” [Voltaire @dawn...Leibniz@dawn... Spinoza Leibniz slides... Voltaire_Leibniz_ James]
"Whatever is, is right." I don't care which Pope* said that, it's crazy. No way to think and live.
Submit.—In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony, not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
*An Essay on Man
Everything happens from a cause, sure, but not "for a reason" if that's code for "for the best."
Irremediably, irredeemably bad things happen. Regret is an appropriate first response. Of course we should try to prevent recurrences of the worst (by our lights) that happens.
Voltaire's Candide may be the most devastating parody ever penned. A "logical explanation for everything" leaves the world much as it found it, less than perfect and easy to improve. Feeding the hungry, curing the sick, educating the ignorant, saving the earth, etc., are obvious improvements to begin with. "All is well," Miss Blue? (An obscure reference to a sweet-hearted cleaning lady I used to hear on the radio when I was young, who ruined that phrase for me.) I don't think so.
But the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 did nothing to block Voltaire's "Pangloss" from continuing to insist that everything is the result of a pre-established harmony. What must it be like, to live in a bubble of denial so insulated from reality as to permit a learned person to believe that?
After tornadoes, earthquakes, and other fatal natural disasters, people interviewed on television frequently thank god for sparing them. Hardly a reasonable response, even if a lifetime of indoctrination and insulation makes it "understandable." But to say it in the hearing of survivors whose loved ones weren't spared? Unspeakably insensitive. If "acts of god" (as the insurance companies put it) take life randomly, and you happened to be one of the random survivors, is gratitude really the humane response?
Candide's statement that "we must cultivate our garden" is a metaphor for not just talking about abstract philosophical questions but instead doing something for our species while we have the opportunity. It's a plea for applied philosophy. I'm fresh from a philosophy conference where, I'm sorry to report, the old bias in favor of Grand Theory still has its champions. Spectators, not ameliorators, more concerned to polish their conceptual palaces than rebuild the crumbling human abode. (Thinking in particular of an environmental ethics session, where activists were slighted for being less than rigorous.)
Voltaire, as noted, was a deist, a freethinker, and a pre-Darwinian. He was not an atheist. But is that just an accident of history? If he'd come along a century later, might he have embraced godlessness?
Hard to know. He marveled at nature's universe, wondered at (didn't shrink from) the stars, and burned with a passion to make a better world. The highest powers are those aligned with that quest, not the complacent and wildly premature contention that this is the best of all possible worlds. His god, in any age, would not have been an excuse for passivity or indifference to the fate of the earth and its riders.