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Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Best Of All Possible Worlds–Yet To Come, Here And Now, Or In Days Past?

Leibniz and Voltaire remarked that theirs was the best of all possible worlds.  God, said Leibniz, who is all-good, omnipotent, omnipresent, all-knowing, and supreme, he said, could never have created evil without a reason; and that was to challenge us, incite and urge us to goodness.

Voltaire satirized Leibniz and his idealistic optimism in Candide where Dr. Pangloss speaks glowingly of ‘the best of all possible worlds’.
Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron’s castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. —It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.
The zeitgeist of today is to complain that ours is far from an ideal world, not the best by any means, not the worst, but in need of reform.  There are those who,  dismissive of any ingrained ineluctability of human nature, believe that through committed action Utopia is indeed possible; that nothing is set in stone, no obstacle too high, and no challenge to difficult for a free, determined, and faithful citizenry.  There are others who see nothing but familiar, predictable, and unavoidable cycles of history, set in motion by an aggressive, self-interested, and territorial set of hardwired imperatives.  There can be no compromise between absolute determinism and idealism. No sitting on the moral fence.

Charles Dickens began his Tale of Two Cities this way:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
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There is  no better way to describe a humanistic philosophy which bridges determinism and optimism.  In Dickens’ view there is no good or evil, nor any hope for a better world; but the likelihood of both together – a random, accidental, perhaps felicitous ebb and flow which ultimately changes nothing, erodes some shores but adds to others, but is in itself unchangeable – is most likely.
Nietzsche went one step further.  In his view the moderate, philosophically temperate world of Dickens was fantasy itself.  While he agreed that his world – any world – was beyond good and evil, he saw no hope in settlement or resignation.  Only the herd trampled on while the Supermen, amoral and beyond good and evil, gave meaning to their lives through the expression of pure will.  There were no better days neither in the past nor to come.  Life was a matter of randomness, insignificant and unimportant, with no morality, higher purpose or ends.

It was easy for a serf in Medieval England, a low caste peasant in Mauryan India or a slave in Ghanaian Africa to accept his lot.  His world was the only the one he was born in, would die in, and would perhaps be reincarnated in.  There was nothing special about his penury, servitude, or misfortune.  Such was life.

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The Buddha and his Hindu predecessors understood this unavoidable determinism and made a religion of it.  While there was no escaping the miseries of life, there was another world that awaited – a spiritual, enlightened one.  The world was nothing but illusion, said Hindu sages, not only neither good nor bad but illusory, nonexistent.  Not worth a second thought, a waste of time considering all eternity.

The European Church was built on the same foundation – the insignificance of life within the context of a divine eternity – but it demanded more than philosophical understanding.  The Kingdom of Heaven was only for those who were worthy.  In other words, life did have a purpose and was far more than colliding billiard balls of chance.  It offered an opportunity for salvation – to do the right thing, to believe, and to have faith if not good works.

The Church, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and even Nihilism offered sanity if not hope.  Since there was no way to engineer a better life either for oneself or one’s children, acceptance was the most reasonable and sensible response to chaos.  Religion and philosophy offered a temporary sanctuary and a promise of better days.

Today’s citizen has no such support – no doctrinaire, absolute religion to assure salvation; no willful secular individualism; not even an established principled society to at least make one’s days as pleasant and untroubled as possible.  One is on one’s own.  Life is once again to be lived in the raw without institutions, doctrines, or even principles to provide guidance if not hope.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  Such floundering begs for a home.  Regardless of existential despair, lost faith, or profound depression; and despite the erosion of trust in church, society, and government, there is a way – a facile way perhaps, but at least a port in a storm.  If you take your identity however configured as the essential character of who you are and ask no more, you are welcome.  Regardless of Aquinas, Tertullian, Paul, or Augustine; and despite Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Nietzsche, you can have meaning. You need not ask existential questions.

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We live in a facile, expedient, age. Philosophy is settled. No moral inquisition is required.  No questions about being, non-being, and existential purpose are necessary in secular world in need of civil and environmental reform.

Some would say that despite the moral ambiguity of the present day and, given the complexity of society, the impossibility of coming to rational conclusions, we live in the best of all possible worlds – one which is not settled at all, but dynamic; and what more affirming than human inquiry?

Others would say that we live in the worst of all possible worlds - one absent of true belief, direction, and purpose.  Better to live in a structured, inflexible, and inopportune world with clear guidelines of behavior and intimations of immortality than to flounder betwixt and between, uncertain, anxious, and without direction.

Most of us have no such decisions to make.  Métro, boulot, dodo is good enough for most.  Surviving the only challenge for millions; and living well without question the option for the privileged few.  In the end we all end up ‘dans un tas pêle-mêle’, undistinguished, without identity and without purpose.

Progressive movements despite their passion and insistence are without philosophical perspective and are limited to immediate, secular questions. Advocates neither ask nor attempt to answer the question 'Why?'.  To what end is temporal reform? In a perpetually changing world and an imponderable universe, how can secular conviction have any resonance? 

Religion has provided some context.  The world is deceptive and illusory; and man's only purpose is to know God. Philosophies like Nihilism and Existentialism have offered a secular foundation for human action. Believing only in the perpetual revolutions of history or the randomness of the universe is a faith.  Meaninglessness can be as comforting as the idea of God.  Pure secularism - action to satisfy immediate concerns with neither moral, spiritual, or philosophical foundation - can only itself be temporary and unsatisfying.

We do not live in a perfect world nor will there ever be one.  Perhaps that conclusion alone is hope for the future.

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