All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds. (orig: Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles). This was the maxim of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s political satire, Candide. Whatever misfortune befell, Dr. Pangloss would console himself with these words of undefeated optimism. To this day, excessive and unjustifed optimism is referred to as the Panglossian view.
The Panglossian view is not without merit when correctly understood. Pangloss is not saying everything is going to turn out well. In particular, he is not saying everything is going to turn out well for me. He’s not a fool. In fact, his position is more a version of God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. Pangloss accepts, as articles of faith, that the world is imperfect, that it must be so, and that God has everything under control. His philosophy is more one of ours not to reason why. Personally, I think it is a wrong-headed, confused and dangerous philosophy, not least because it clears the stage for malevolent human forces, yet it has elements of inherent goodness that can be respected. The same cannot be said of–
The law of attraction. This piece of latter-day mumbo-jumbo is nothing more than a hotchpotch of new age mysticism, pseudo-science and marketing. It appeals to naivety, desperation, escapism and greed. Its high priests are cynical manipulators at worst, fast-buck salesmen at best. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with maintaining a positive attitude, but espousing charlatans as gurus is never a good option.
Pangloss and fatalism. One problem with Panglossian optimism is its similarity to fatalism– if everything is for the best, then attempts to improve matters are futile, almost presumptuous, as interference with God’s purpose. All that’s then left is acceptance. This is not true optimism. In fact it’s more akin to denial and, in truth, not far removed from pessimism. True optimism should be motivational and based on a belief that the individual or group can make a difference.
Pessimism is self-fulfilling– optimism less so.
This asymmetry is unfortunate but inescapable. The explanation is simple enough. Pessimism may lead to depression, depression to inaction, inaction to loss of control, loss of control to failure. And this is as true of whole populations as of the individuals within them. Optimism, on the other hand, does not inevitably lead to success. Why not? Simply because the odds might be stacked against you. Stronger forces might desire your failure. Optimism leads to endeavour, but some endeavours fail. Asymmetry– tough! Or to put it another way– you don’t have to fight your way to the bottom.
Courage, friends, the devil is dead!
Denys of Burgundy, a very different optimist from Dr. Pangloss– a warrior, a simple man of huge strength, courage and loyalty. His rallying cry, courage, friends, the devil is dead! never far from his lips. But his weapon is the crossbow and warfare has moved on. He sees his fate coming, but fights it at every turn. Just as his creator, Charles Reade, must have known that his great book, The Cloister & The Hearth, would prove an inadequate weapon against its target, the tradition of celibacy in the Catholic priesthood. But Reade, like Denys, was a campaigner. These great optimists, Reade and Denys, one real, one fictional, but equally inspirational, are true models of courageous optimism, campaigning optimism. Not the accepting, uncritical, ‘soma-optimism’ of Dr. Pangloss.
What devil shall we kill today?
That is a very hard question to answer. Whereas our friend Pangloss is wrong in believing everything is for the best, he’s right in acknowledging that the world is too complex to fully understand. Maybe this is why people are so drawn to single issue politics. Let’s save the whales– OK, good, no harm will come from that. Let’s ban hunting with hounds– that will save some foxes and only upset a few rich farmers. Let’s enforce net-zero carbon emissions– no worries, that will only prevent all but the very rich from travelling. What, you don’t like that idea?
The fact is, in a complex world there is no single devil. Even a perfunctory scan of social media will expose attempted demonisation of America, China, Islam, Christianity, atheism, nationalism, conservatism, liberalism, LGBTQ, capitalism, socialism… no doubt many other groups too.
It’s time to grow up, time to reject the soundbite culture that actively encourages stupidity and bigotry, from whatever persuasion it comes and wherever it is aimed. There is a need for optimistic campaigning, even against formidable opposition, for tilting at windmills if you like, but let it be informed by rationality and humanity. Or let it stay home.
Denys of Burgundy
Courage, friends, the devil is dead
and now is the time to make amends
for tears we drew and the fear that bled
Welcome the joy that sunlight sends,
showing as ghosts the words we said,
ghosts of the night that never ends
but need not hold us, ghosts that fed
ravenous on the lie that lends
truth to the cry the warrior led–
Note to Voltaireans – if I have misrepresented Dr Pangloss, perhaps made of him a straw man to tear down, I apologise.