"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Pangloss, Politics, And The Best Of All Possible Worlds–When Does Idealism Lose Its Flavor?

Alas! ‘My dear,'said she, 'unless you have been raped by two Bulgarians, stabbed twice in the belly, have had two castles destroyed, two fathers and mothers murdered before your eyes, and have seen two of your lovers flogged in an auto-da-fe, I do not see how you can surpass me; moreover, I was born a Baroness with seventy-two quarterings and I have been a kitchen wench’ (Candide, Ch.10)
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Things could always be worse, thought Bethany Beech, a pretty, innocent, and charmingly hopeful optimist.  God was indeed always in his heaven, and all was right with the world. To have come to such a profound moral conclusion so young in life was remarkable although very unusual.  Her idealism was so simple and uncomplicated that she was never criticized for being a dreamer nor ever warned about the dangers of her naïveté.  Her warmth and charity was a happy thing.

Her upbeat, chipper view of the world was surprising, given the cynicism of her mother and the nihilism of her father.  Neither was given to moralizing, but it was not hard for the young girl to figure out where her parents stood.  Her father was a successful businessman with a natural talent for opportunity and risk; an equanimity which allowed him to take profit and loss with the same dispassion; and a profound belief in individual responsibility. One ended up where one did because of ambition and ability or the lack thereof, and nothing was to be gained by compassion.

Her mother had never met a person she could trust or believe.  Duplicity was the order of the day in all but saints, and even then sainthood did not automatically erase the sins of the past.  Saints Paul, Anthony, Jerome, Aquinas and all the rest were men like any other; and despite their inspirational letters and writings, had to have been no different than the herders, clerks, and rabbis of the time.

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Goodness was a social construct, she believed, a keen way to keep order and preserve the integrity of the body politic to make individual enterprise more productive.

Where Bethany’s idealism came from was a mystery to her parents.   Even the most dire and depressing events had their good side, their lessons, or even their optimistic promotions.  A washed out field hockey game meant more time for the school picnic, or a special under-the-umbrellas camaraderie with her girlfriends.  Poor grades were a blessing in disguise never failure.  The most disadvantaged child – slow, unattractive, clumsy, and ignorant – certainly had a warm underbelly, a considerate and thoughtful nature, and a God-given gift.

Regardless of the origins of her idealism, she never doubted herself.   Of course there are few chances of disillusionment in childhood, especially a very advantaged one like Bethany’s.  Hardship, penury, and misfortune were far from her privileged existence, so it was not surprising that her buoyant optimism lasted through childhood.  Her parents were healthy, prosperous, and well-situated; she wanted for nothing, and the worst reversals were no more than insignificant and temporary setbacks.

Her idealism began to be tested once she reached her adolescent years when girls turn catty, devious, and mean; and boys become dumber and dumber.  Once admired teachers lose their luster and once their pimples and warts begin to show – a stumbling lack of coordination in one, a stutter in another, and a maddening repetitiousness in a third – they are no longer heroes but clowns.

Bethany, however, was never disappointed or discouraged by these revelations.  They were exposures, no more no less, of human nature to be taken as is without criticism or censure.  There was every reason to continue to see the world as a good place, despite everything.

College was a different story altogether, for there she saw students who were convinced that the world was headed for a better place; that personal and social progress was indeed possible. This she could not understand, for history was anything but a positive trajectory.  Since the beginning of human civilization, men fought for territory, wealth, resources, status, women, and prestige.  Wars, civil strife, inequality, and human misery were common to all eras; but so were advanced civilization.  The same kings, queens, princes, and courtiers that engineered wars of territorial expansion used their newly-acquired wealth to built castles, churches, monuments, public architecture, roads, aqueducts, and palaces.

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There always seemed to be a moral balance.  One thing resulted in another, and there could never be a conclusion as to relative value.  Without Genghis Khan, the Crusades, Mohammed, the Persians, Mauryans, Angles, Danes, and Jutes there never would have been Western and Eastern civilization.
When looked at from an even more distant perspective, the world looked very small indeed and human history insignificant.  How could anyone possibly conclude that the world was becoming a better place.

Both Candide and Pangloss were right.  It was vain and silly to imagine that any moment was the best of all possible moments; but just as fanciful to believe that any moment, time, or era would be any better than those previous.  Once one accepted the inescapable fact of an unchangeable human nature and the consequently predictable repetition of history, every moment was indeed the best simply because it could be no other way.

Bethany agreed with Voltaire and therefore had nothing to do with campus activism.  In fact, given Voltaire there was no more folly than that of progressive idealism – a waste of time, energy, and resources.  The world would surely be a saner, less contentious, and more peaceful place if one gave up one’s hold on righteousness and progress.

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Bethany was more like her father than her mother.  Although he never gave philosophy a second thought, so busy was he making money, his views, if parsed, would be worthy of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer.

Kierkegaard posited an early form of nihilism, which he referred to as leveling, the process of suppressing individuality to a point where the individual's uniqueness becomes non-existent and nothing meaningful in his existence can be affirmed.

Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.

For Schopenhauer, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world. Einstein paraphrased his views as follows: "Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants."

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Randall Beech simply carried on, doing what he did best, driven by that particular configuration of nature and nurture which created him but unaware of and indifferent to it.

Bethany was very aware of her Panglossian attitude which was very distinct from the nihilist philosophers who proposed them because of her conclusion that things simply were.  They were neither meaningful nor meaningless; neither influenced by pure will nor only acted upon. 
How then could anyone invest anything more than desultory interest in proposals to change the course of a determined, valueless world?

Her special brand of indifference was particularly threatening to campus activists.  Had she said she was a nihilist and staked out a clear philosophical position, she would have been tolerated or at least invited into the big progressive tent.  Nihilism was a dare sight better than reactionary conservatism.
She did not claim a higher moral ground, and said that she was only indifferent.  “I don’t care”, she said, and the culture warriors took it as a battle cry.  Indifference was tantamount to capitulation, and capitulation was tantamount to moral cowardice.

Once she left university and pursued an academic career, she was no longer hounded.  Everyone in associated Harvard PhD program was focused on elemental research whether in philosophy, linguistics, hermeneutics, or physics.  Neither they nor she had any time for speculation about a better world.  There might or might not be one, and their work might or might not contribute to it, but it was of no concern to them. 


One of the by-products of the best of all possible world is unconcern about implications.  Only results matter.

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