Dr. Pangloss Said All’s For The Best In This, The Best Of All Possible Worlds. But Is It?
All’s for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds,” is a phrase often used by Voltair’s fictional philosopher Dr. Pangloss, and sums up his philosophy perfectly.
“Dr. who?” you might well ask because few people today are likely to be familiar with Pangloss or his philosophies. Dr. Pangloss was created by the French writer Voltaire as friend and mentor to the main character in the satirical novel “Candide”. Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778) usually known simply as Voltaire was destined for a career in law but found formal study “too disgusting” and gave it up to become a philosopher and man of letters among the Bohemian community of Paris’s left bank.
Incidentally while most people will be familiar with the story of the political terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ originating from which side of the King’s throne French aristocrats and dignitaries, depending on whether they supported the King or not, would sit in the pre — revolutionary National Assembly. Like most official narratives that is nonsense, they seating system was simple, if you supported the King and wanted to stay in his good books you sat where he told you to, if you challenged the Royal will, you very quickly found yourself sitting in a deep, dark oubliette* in some remote chateu, very likely with an iron mask over your face if the monarch was really pissed off with you. There is an alternative story I learned wile working for an investment bank in Paris during the 1980s.
In most cities through which a major river flows, citizens wil refer to the north bank and south bank or the east and west bank but in Paris it is the right bank and the left bank. The reason for this is the River Seine follows an S shaped course through the city so sometimes the north bank is the south bank and vice versa. But if you are facing upstream, wherever you are on the letter S, left and right are always the same. That settles the geography but where do the politics come in? you might well ask.
The centre of the city is around the point where the stream splits to flow around the Ile de Cite on which the burnt out shell of Notre Dame de Paris, the French capital’s great cathedral (just visible, top left corner) is currently being restored to its former glory, upstreamon your right is the quarter which houses government buildings, law courts, military and police headquarters, the former royal palaces and where the apparatus of state is found. On your left is the commercial centre and the bohemian quarter, where the banks, merchants, stock brokers and the music halls, burlesques, gaming houses, cabarets, bars, brothels, molly houses, opium dens, fortune tellers, artists, writers, philosophers, dissidents, anarchists, revolutionaries and other disreputables were to be found. The notorious left bank of Paris — for an account of life in the area I recommend Emile Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris (the belly of Paris) set somewhat later than Voltaire’s lifetime, in and around Les Halles, the great marketplace on the left bank, now an underground shopping mall.
It was to this rather chaotic place and its ‘anything goes’ lifestyle the young Voltaire was drawn as he sough escape from the formal constraints of respectable society. Quickly becoming known for his wit, intelligence and decadent lifestyle he was readily accepted by other French radicals, writers, thinkers and political reformers. Voltaire was a satirist best known for his religious polemic against the Roman Catholic Church, corrupt but all powerful in France at the time (even the King did not dare to tell the cardinal and Bishops where to sit in the assembly,), but he did not spare the tight lipped protestants of his day from being pricked or beaten by his favourite weapons, sarcasm, ridicule and parody.
Because so much of his work , particularly his early writing, targeted religion it is easy to regard him as a bitter, disillusioned atheist, it is intelltually lazy and displays casual ignorance. Though Voltaire rejected divine mystery and the dogma of the catholic church and was equally disdainful of the literalism protestants employed in their interpretations of The Bible, he was a deist and recognised the truths of natural religion, holding to the belief that there is a personal god to be found in our individual relationship with the world, but no patriarchal divinity controlling the affairs of individuals or nations, and no great universal truths.
Many academics in the world of literature share the opinion that there has never been a better exponent oif the art of of stylish ridicule in any language. Throughout his long (by eighteeenth century standards,) life Voltaire wrote ninety books, many of them on the subject of philosophy. An insight into the writer’s character lies in the fact that though he loved philosophy and the quest for understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature, his best known and most enduring work is Candide, subtitled The Optimist, which introduces the windbag philosopher Pangloss (in classical Greek, ‘all tongue’) is a satire of philosophy, the subject he loved most dearly. (Voltaire biography)
The desultory narrative tells of Candide and his philosopher mentor Dr. Pangloss as they embark on a ridiculously optimistic quest to prove the world is essentially a perfect environment and that everything in it that seems bad, brutal and evil is necessary as a stepping stone to a greater good.
Dr. Pangloss and his philosophy are the principal focus of Voltaire’s satire. Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s tutor and mentor, teaches that “in this best of all possible worlds, everything happens because no other course of events is possible and therefore everything happens for the best.” The philosophy of Pangloss parodies the ideas of Gottfried Leibniz, an Enlightenment era philosopher (the term ‘existentialist had not been coined at that point,) who posited that the world was perfect and its evil were simply a path to achieving “the greatest good of the greatest number.”
It is a philosophy which, it may occur to you, has much in common with Barack Obama’s “hope and change” (all hold hands and sing Kumbiya and thuscreate Utopia) campaign of 2008. Obama, it turned out, was ‘all tongue,’ his message of ‘hope and change’ and promises to be a peacemaker and conciliator was shown to be vacuous campaign rhetoric as his presidency saw the US government engage in more local wars and military interventions than under any other administration.
Each twist in the plot, each natural disaster, disease, and misfortune that befalls Candide and Pangloss is intended by Voltaire to show the perpetual optimism of Pangloss’s thinking to be utterly absurd and detached from reality as are the campaign promises of all politicians who claim to knoe the express route to utopia. Pangloss’s personal sufferings are unusually extreme but the windbag easily convinces himself that his suffering is necessary for the greater good.
The result is that his philosophical musings appear to degenerate into incoherent ramplings and he blinds himself to his own experiences and folly as well as the horrors endured by his friends. At one point Pangloss catches syphilis. Candide sensibly suggests they seek a doctor to cure the potentially deadly disease but Pangloss insists on philosophising about it to convince himself his infection is in fact “for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.
“Oh, Pangloss!” protests Candide, “what a strange genealogy! Is not the Devil the original stock of it?”
“Not at all,” Pangloss replies, “it was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not in an island of America caught this disease, which contaminates the source of life, frequently even hinders generation, and which is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should have neither chocolate nor cochineal. We are also to observe that upon our continent, this distemper is like religious controversy, confined to a particular spot. The Turks, the Indians, the Persians, the Chinese, the Siamese, the Japanese, know nothing of it; but there is a sufficient reason for believing that they will know it in their turn in a few centuries. In the meantime, it has made marvelous progress among us, especially in those great armies composed of honest hirelings, who decide the destiny of states; for we may safely affirm that when an army of thirty thousand men fights another of an equal number, there are about twenty thousand of them poxed on each side.”
Voltaire also uses Dr. Pangloss as a metaphor for what he considerd to be useless, impractical metaphysical speculations on unknown topics. Hence the philosopher being a tutor of “metaphysico-theologo-cosmologology.” Such scholars, Voltaire informs us, spend all their time talking instead of doing, a condition I have often referred to as CHIMPS (Completely Hopeless In Most Practical Situations.)
At one point Candide is on the verge of death and, rather than get him water, Pangloss talks. Or the time when everyone should be cultivating the garden and Pangloss…talks. Following the earthquake, Pangloss also tries to comfort people by…talking. In any situation Pangloss is so busy yakking that he is unable see the reality of his situation or to take good advice when it slaps him round the cheeks with a big dead fish.
In addition to being unrealistic, Pangloss’s way of living is impractical. Completely absorbed in analyzing and theorizing (like so many modern academic in all fields but particularly ‘the scince,’ Pangloss and his student are unable to live their lives and thuis learn from experience. In this sense, Voltaire seems to critique not only Pangloss’s particular philosophy of Optimism, but more broadly, his crippling absorption in philosophy in general.
At this point we may get the distinct feeling that our science worshipping colleagues are having a sly little gloat as they delude themselves that their science is practical, realistic and grounded in solid mathematics while their rivals, followers of traditional religion and new agers are chasing dreams. Ah but things are never quite that straightforward my friends, what inspired me to put this article together was the content of main posts and comments in threads on favourite scientific topics; the indisputable truth of Big Bang theory, the evolutionary proof that “everything we think, do or say”* is programmed in our DNA or that life sprang spontaneously from the primeval soup (I’ve eaten Primeval Soup in airport and motorway restaurants — believe me, it has nothing to do with life.) or that the mathematical speculations of Albert Einstein and others explain how the universe works.
Scientific research was fresh and exciting in Voltaire’s lifetime which overlapped with those of Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestly and Benjamin Franklin, during which modern chemistry was developed on foundations laid by Robert Boyle, Edwald von Kleist invented his Leyden Jar, effectively the first capacitor and Franklin proved lightening was electrical. In biology Anton van Leeuwenhoek used a microscope and discovered red blood cells, bacteria, and protozoa and Edward Jenner invented vaccination after discovering the relationship between cowpox and smallpox, just a few of the developments. Religious thinking however was stagnant under the dead hand of clerical bureaucracy that lay on the Catholic faith, the traditionalism of the Orthodox churches and the Bible literalism of Protestants.
Things have turned round now, with scientific triumphs in the practical field becoming harder to achieve, many prominent scientists content to conflate science with mathematics, (which is in fact not a science but an art — an artifice, something created by humans rather than naturally occurring,) and the dead hand of orthodoxy suffocating much original thought and experiment. Those engaged in the futile quest for mathematical elegance in nature and the universe stretch their equations and torture their data in futile attempts to prove there is no more to life than mathematical formulae.
It is the scientists now who fill the shoes of Dr. Pangloss, claiming with unjustified enthusiasm that every blip in the electromagnetic radiation coming in from space is some enormously significant breakthrough in the search for alien life or every quirky and unpredicted reaction from an atom bombarded with a beam of sub atomic particles heralds the revelation by scientists of the secrets of the universe. These modern exponents of Panglossism are every bit as foolish as Voltaire’s creation, observe how they avoid addressing the problems of an ageing population, overpopulation, impending food shortages and an ongoing debt crisis while philosophising endlessly about problems that only exist in the virtual world of their mathematical models.
It is then, is it not, these inexhaustible enthusiasts for the science of speculation who are out of touch with reality, not the people who might believe in God, gods, nature, meditation or metaphysics but who do not let their beliefs get in the way of focusing on doing what must be done. Dreaming of exploring distant galaxies, apart from being impossible with any known technology does not grow any grain and the $billions being spent on searching for and trying to contact alien life forms is wasted, and when for all we know these aliens might be total bastards who want to kill us all, is sheer folly.
In Voltaire’s novel Candide does eventually seem to renounce philosophy in favor of activity and work and learns the importance of staying in contact with reality, of tending our gardens (does that metaphor come from The Bible?) He takes Pangloss with him but the philosopher is never completely cured of his addiction as Voltaire shows in his closing lines:
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 Cunégonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbéd 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.”