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Philo and Sophia

Dr. Pangloss Said All Is For The Best


by Ian R Thorpe.

Ever been irritated all those exhortations to "lok on the bright side"and "be positive" Felt let down by hopey-changey stuff and people who say "lets join hands and sing kumbiya to create utopia" but fail to deliver. This article might be just what you need to read

All Is For The Best In This, The Best Of All Possible Worlds

. Ian R Thorpe
08 January, 2011

The title is a phrase used to sum up the philosophy of Dr. Pangloss. "Dr. who?" you might well ask because few people today are likely to be familiar with Pangloss or his philosophies. Dr. Pangloss, you see, is a fictional character, friend and mentor to the main character in Voltaire's novel "Candide". Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694 - 1778) 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 or letters among the Bohemian community of Paris's left bank. Quickly becoming known for his with, intelligence and decadent lifestyle he was accepted by other French radicals, writers, thinkers and political reformers. He was to become the best known of all his colleagues.

Voltaire was a satirist most effective in the field of religious polemic against the corrupt but all powerful Roman Catholic Church but he did not spare the tight lipped protestants of his day from the thrust of his favourite weapons, sarcasm, ridicule and parody. Because so much of his work , particularly in early writing, targeted religion is common to dismiss him as a biter and resentful atheist, but to do so is intellectually lazy and exhibits ignorance. Discarding revelation and divine mystery, he steadily upheld the truths of natural religion, and was, in fact, a Deist. There is possibly no greater a master of stylish and polished ridicule in the literature of any language.

Through the course of his long (by the standards of his day) life Voltaire wrote ninety books and it is perhaps a measure of the man's talent as a satirist that the best known, Candide or The Optimist is in fact a satire of philosophy, a subject he loved dearly. (Voltaire biography)

The novel tells in desultory fashion the story of Candide and his philosopher friend 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. This philosophy parodies the beliefs of Gottfried Leibniz, an Enlightenment era thinker who believed that the world was perfect and that all evil in it was simply a means to achieving the greatest good of the greatest number. A philosophy, you might think, that has much in common with Barack Obama's "hope and change" (all hold hands and sing Kumbiya and create Utopia) campaign of 2008.

Every twist of the plot, every new natural disaster, disease, and incident of robbery or assault that befalls Candide is intended to prove Pangloss’s Optimism utterly absurd and out of touch with reality. Pangloss’s personal sufferings alone are more than unusually extreme. In regard to his own misfortune, Pangloss responds that his suffering necessary to the greater good. The result is that the philosopher appears utterly blind to his own experiences as well as the horrors endured by his friends.

At one point Pangloss contracts syphilis. Candide 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!" cried Candide, "what a strange genealogy! Is not the Devil the original stock of it?"

"Not at all," replied this great man, "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 p-x-d on each side."

Voltaire also uses Dr. Pangloss as a metaphor for what he considers useless, impractical metaphysical speculations on unknown topics. Hence the philosopher being a tutor of "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology." Such scholars, Voltaire informs us, spend all their time talking instead of doing (note that "pangloss" means "all-tongue"). At one point where 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 comforts people by…talking. Pangloss is so busy blabbing that he is unable 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, Pangloss and his student are unable to live their lives. 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 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 during which modern chemistry was developed on foundations laid by Robert Boyle, Edwald von Kleist invented his Leyden Jar, effectively the first capacitor and Benjamin 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 and the dead hand of orthodoxy suffocating much original thought and experiment while 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 what must be done. Dreaming of exploring the galaxies does not grow any grain and the $billions being spent on searching for and trying to contact alien life forms 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."

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."

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KEYWORDS: pangloss, voltaire, candide, satire, french, france, paris, bohemian, radical, writer, science, philosophy,literrature, ianrthorpe, Ian Thorpe, existentialism

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