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 of letters among the Bohemian community of Paris's left bank. Quickly becoming known for his wit, intelligence and decadent lifestyle he was 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 al powerful at the time, 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 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." 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." 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 to create Utopia) campaign of 2008.
Each twist in the plot, each natural disaster, disease, and misfortune that befalls Candide is intended by Voltaire to show the perpetual optimism of Pangloss’s thinking to be utterly absurd and detached from reality. Pangloss’s personal sufferings alone are unusually extreme. In regard to his own misfortune however, Pangloss convinces himself that his suffering is necessary for the greater good. The result is that the philosopher appears lost in his intellectual ramblings and thus 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 the sufferer 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 poxed on each side."
Voltaire also uses Dr. Pangloss as a metaphor for what he considers useless, impractical metaphysical speculations on unknowable topics. Hence the philosopher is described as a tutor of "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology." Such scholars, according to Voltaire, waster their lives talking instead of doing (note that "pangloss," derived from two Greek words, means "all-tongue"). At one point Candide is on the verge of death but rather than get him water which he is asking for, Pangloss carries on talking, analyzing the situation. Or when everyone ought be tending the garden (a metaphor for life), Pangloss instead wants everyone to talk, or rather to listen to him talking. Following the aforementioned earthquake, Pangloss also tries to reassure people by…talking. Pangloss is always so intent on talking about circumstances he is quite unable to heed good advice when it slaps him round the cheeks with a big dead fish.
In addition to his high irritant factor, Pangloss’s way of living is impractical. Completely absorbed in analyzing and theorizing, Pangloss and his student are unable to live their lives. It may have been Voltaire's intention in ridiculing not only Pangloss’s particular philosophy that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds and his obsession with philosophy in general to satirize the work of his contemporary Jean - Jaques Rousseau. Much of Rousseau's work focused strongly on the subjectivity and introspection that has come characterized modern writing.
The Scottish philosopher, David Hume "professed no surprise when he learned that Rousseau's books had been banned in Geneva and elsewhere" (Wikipedia). Hume wrote of Rousseau, "he has not had the precaution to throw any veil over his sentiments; and, as he scorns to dissemble his contempt for established opinions, he could not wonder that all the zealots were in arms against him. The liberty of the press is not so secured in any country... as not to render such an open attack on popular prejudice somewhat dangerous."
Scientific research was fresh and exciting in Voltaire's lifetime which overlapped with those of Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestly and Robert Boyle acknowledged as the founder of mordern chemistry a colleague of Isaac Newton, Christian Wolff in Germany , who revolutionised the teaching of natural sciences, Edwald von Kleist invented his Leyden (or Leiden) 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 while reciting statistics to prove that 'the truth is out there' or that medical science can find a cure for death.
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 I wonder?) He takes Pangloss with him but the philosopher is never completely cured of his addiction. On the final page of the book we read:
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."
For references to Voltaire's text I have used my own dog - eared and heavily annotated copy of Candide, anyone interested in the book can find free e-book versions (Kindle, epub, pdf and raw text formats at Project Gutenberg)