Are there any reasons to be optimistic? Seriously?


In the specialized interdisciplinary course that I teach as a team this semester, we are in the middle of the 18th century. And that, among other things, means satire. I love satire and frequently use it in class to good effect, an effect heightened by the fact that the average nineteen-year-old can’t tell the difference between satire, irony, and a spreadsheet (even if he is in the specialized program).

The texts for our Monday seminars include “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, published in 1729. The full title of Swift’s essay is A modest proposal to prevent the children of the poor from being a burden on their parents or their country, and to make them beneficial to the public. In it, Swift, with apparent seriousness, proposes that impoverished Irish people can alleviate their economic woes by selling their children as food for wealthy gentlemen and ladies. He goes to great lengths to support his point, including a list of possible preparation styles for children and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion, all in a pragmatic style that can easily convince the reader, for a while. time. at least he’s perfectly serious. It takes some time for the unsuspecting reader to realize that Swift’s essay is a clever and devastating satire and commentary on the abuse of Irish peasants by their English landowners.

Why were some of the greatest satires ever produced written in the 18th century? No doubt for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that optimism was in the air. In the first decades of the 18th century, the European Enlightenment was in full swing. Over the past century and a half, dramatic scientific advances, exploration of the New World, and the rise of enlightened leaders had sparked general optimism about human progress and our ability to improve the world around us. The breakthroughs of Galileo, Newton and others have led many to believe that we live in a rational universe, created and overseen by a rational God, a universe whose puzzles and puzzles are there to be solved through systematic use. and rigorous of the human spirit. .

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, one of the greatest Enlightenment philosophers, summed up one aspect of this Enlightenment perspective in a memorable statement: “This is the best of all possible worlds. A good and omnipotent Creator God could do nothing but create the best creation possible – the fact that it often appears otherwise from a human point of view is the result of our ignorance, an ignorance that the progress of the Enlightenment promised to reduce. and, perhaps, eventually eliminate.

Then, on November 1, 1755, one of the most powerful earthquakes in history struck Lisbon, followed by three tsunamis. It was All Saints’ Day; churches, filled with worshipers, simultaneously collapsed and caught fire from hundreds of burning candles. Thousands of people fled the buildings and made their way to the waterfront, just as a twenty-five foot high wall of water came ashore. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon has been destroyed; tremors were felt as far as Finland, North Africa, Greenland and the Caribbean. Estimates of the number of casualties vary widely, but it is clear that up to 75,000 people have died.

The earthquake had vast effects on the lives of the people and the intelligentsia. He had struck an important religious holiday and had destroyed almost all the important churches in the city, causing anxiety and confusion among the citizens of a devout and devout Catholic country. Theologians and philosophers have focused and speculated on the religious cause and message, viewing the earthquake as a possible manifestation of divine judgment. One of these intellectuals was François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pseudonym, Voltaire, he’s also on our reading list for Monday’s seminar.

In 1759, barely four years after the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire published his masterpiece Candid: or, Optimism, one of the great satirical works of the Western tradition. Voltaire’s hero, Candide, goes through a series of scandalous and bizarre experiences in the short story, experiences that produce pain, suffering, destruction, and death with increasing frequency and intensity as the story goes. as the story unfolds. Candide is joined in his adventures by a small group of companions, including Dr. Pangloss (“all languages” or “all words”), an intellectual who is the spokesperson for Leibnizian optimism.

After every catastrophe, including the Lisbon earthquake itself which occurs in a central chapter, Pangloss ties up logical and argumentative knots in his “proofs” that, despite all appearances, this is the best of times. possible worlds and that everything is going for the best. Pangloss himself is often the recipient of the worst experiences, which Candide points out to him towards the end of the story:

Candid: Well, my dear Pangloss, when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped, and you were pulling on the oar, did you always think that everything was going for the best?

Pangloss: I remain of my first opinion, because I am a philosopher and I cannot retract, especially since Leibniz can never be wrong. . .

Candide, a naive youth inclined to believe Pangloss’s authoritarian arguments at the beginning of the story, eventually changes his mind about his experiences and comes to define Pangloss’s optimism as “the folly of believing that all is well.” when it’s wrong. “

Panglossian arguments infect our contemporary world everywhere we look. It is enough to listen for a few minutes (if you can) to politicians of all stripes defending and arguing their pre-established positions regarding the Covid-19 vaccination mandates, often in the denial of clear facts contrary to their positions. The ever-present religious rigidity results from the insistence of the faithful that a handful of doctrines must be true and irreversible, even when they explain nothing and regularly cause damage.

Towards the end of Candid, Candide’s last friends reflect on what they have learned. Pangloss admits something that many of us fall prey to – honoring commitments we no longer believe to be true. “Pangloss confessed that he had always suffered terribly, but since he once claimed that everything had gone wonderfully well, he said it again, even though he no longer believed it.”

What do you do when you discover that what you pretend to believe has become, as Macbeth said in reflecting on his wife’s suicide, “a story told by an idiot, full of noise and fury, meaning nothing”? For those of us who are honest, even our dearest beliefs and commitments sound exactly like that on certain days. After a hundred pages of disaster, the last episode of Candid offers something both practical and optimistic. Candide and his friends meet an elderly Muslim who has spent his life cultivating twenty acres with his children, noting that “our work preserves us from three great evils: weariness, vice and misery”. Candide is drawn to this and, as his friends make various suggestions on how they might move forward, replies “we need to cultivate our garden.”

After Pangloss’ last attempt to prove that it is the best of all possible worlds, Candide turns his back once and for all on the overall argument in the novel’s last line: “All this is fine, but let’s cultivate our garden. ”There is a very important idea here that transfers well to our 2021 situation. I like the idea of“ conditional optimism ”from economist Paul Romer. He explains,“ Complacency optimism is the feeling of a child waiting for gifts Conditional optimism is the feeling of a child who is considering building a treehouse: “If I get wood and nails and persuade other children to help get the job done, we can end up with something really cool. “” Pangloss’ optimism throughout Candid was complacent, while Candide came to something akin to conditional optimism. Things are more likely to turn out for the best when we clearly know what we need to actively do to make it so.

Candide learned at a relatively young age what some only learn at an old age and many never learn at all: happiness, contentment and meaning are local. Cosmic commitments come and go, but what’s right in front of us is always in the same place, right in front of us. The prophet Micah made it clear when he answered the question “What does God want me to do?”

He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, if not to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?

Justice. Pity. Humility. These are things we can do, and in doing so, we can move towards the world we view with optimism. Let’s cultivate our garden.

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