The Comeback Of Leibnizian Optimism
“It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.”
— Pangloss (Voltaire, Candide)
In 1759 Voltaire published Candide, or, The Optimist a brilliant novella that unveiled with sagacity and humor the inadequacy of optimistic thinking. However, for how Voltaire cleverly argued against optimism, his efforts did not prevent optimism from finding its way into our hyper-rationalized secular societies. In this short piece, I’ll attempt to explain how Leibniz’s optimism can be located in our own approach to life and the fundamental role it plays in maintaining and legitimizing the status quo, particularly when it comes to governance.
The Best Of All Possible Worlds
Since Epicurus, philosophers have wondered how to reconcile the idea of an almighty and perfectly good God with the existence of evil in the world. Is God unable to prevent evil? How could he possibly be good if he allowed evil to manifest?
One of the most ingenious attempts to address such questions was presented in 1710 by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that will later become known as the best of all possible worlds argument. The argument goes like this:
1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent;
2. God created the existing world;
3. God could have created a different world or none at all (i.e., there are other possible worlds);
4. Because God is omnipotent and omniscient, he knew which possible world was the best and was able to create it, and, because he is omnibenevolent, he chose to create that world;
5. Therefore, the existing world, the one that God created, is the best of all possible worlds.
According to Leibniz, before creating the world, God examined in his mind an infinite number of worlds all equally possible. Being the simplest and most varied, our world was picked by God as the best possible option. Evil in this world then is just one of the components that make this world be the best of the possible worlds.
From a metaphysical point of view, evil is essential for any possible world because if creatures were perfect they would be identical with their creator. If that were to be the case, the very idea of creation would be contraindicated and an imperfect world is still better than nothingness. The possibility of humans to choose between good and evil is a mark of God’s infinite goodness as it is what allows us to be free and achieve salvation.
The possibility of evil then pertains to the world as such while physical evil is something that only manifests through human’s doing. If God would have provided man with a stronger will to refrain from moral evil, it would not be the best of the possible world since it is precisely man’s ability to choose his deeds that opens up the doors of his eternal salvation.
Of course Leibniz’s philosophy of religion goes well beyond this argument, but discussing it would be beside the scope of this article. What makes this argument worth revisiting is the way its underlying logic has impregnated the 21st century worldview, in particular, that of Western liberal democracies.
The simplest form of Leibnizian optimism–the belief that despite not feeling like it, we live in the best of the possible worlds– is what allows us to keep endorsing the same structures and justifying the evil that results from them as ‘collateral damage’. This is clearly reflected in our approach to economic and political structures. It does not matter how many crimes and injustices a government can be found guilty of, we will keep believing that this way of organizing society is still the best possible way. We dump the responsibility of evil on individual actors and shut off any real discussion about the ways in which the structure we have built can turn people into adopting anti-social behavior.
21st Century Leibnizian Optimism With A Twist
“All men are by nature free; you have therefore an undoubted liberty to depart whenever you please, but will have many and great difficulties to encounter in passing the frontiers” (Voltaire, Candide)
In the 21st century Leibnizian optimism has found its finest expression in Western secular democracies–the quintessential best possible world. It doesn’t matter what output we achieve through our systems and institutions or whether they deliver on their promises or not, what we’ve got is still the best that we could possibly have.
On the macro level the main arguments sustaining the thesis that we live in the best of the possible worlds goes like this:
- Democracy might be imperfect but is still the best form of government we have.
- Life in the West is not perfect, but is the best among all other options.
- Our financial system is not perfect but it still works better than any other system.
- We have challenges in our time but it is still the best time to be alive.
By repeating these ‘truths’ like a mantra we are able to feel comforted, pacified, and above all passive in the endless chain of catastrophes that are unfolding right in front of our faces. These afterall are seen as an unavoidable evil, or rather, the best worst option. Structural evil simply became a metaphysical imperative, a rule of nature, that can only be accepted and embraced.
Even with all its little hiccups – ecological destruction, an endless financial crisis, the psycho-physical decay of our population – our society is still the best possible society. Drawn into our daily comforts and distracted by an infinite choice of pleasures to indulge in, we are ready to accept that we have indeed reached the end of history. The more powerless and insignificant we feel in the face of global challenges the more we numb our brains and feelings with stuff and experiences that further traps us into our predicament.
We look at all those illiberal, anti-democratic countries plagued by repression, wars, and famines, and pat ourselves on the shoulder for having been more enlightened than them for having put in place a different system. Although horrified, we can’t help but feel comforted by the affirmation to our way of life that this brings, the other’s experience is only there to confirm ours.
Everything can be articulated in false dilemmas that make us believe that the only two options available are either living according to the principles of Western democracy or perishing under the yoke of tyrants. That is the extent of our public discourse regarding political thinking. We are given two options, one bad and one good, and are told that these are the only two options available. And that goes for every aspect of our lives, too.
We believe we are the true masters of our lives, and yet, we still have a catalog to pick our options from that only offers unlimited shades of brown. Whether we work for the private or public sector, whether we are self employed or not, whether we work for a corporation or a small business, the perimeters of what is possible are already set for us. In the best of the possible worlds there is no need for creativity as there is no need for real change, and that’s why creativity is only truly accepted in its most superficial expressions. Any attempt to propose a real third way is purposefully shut down or ridiculed.
Research and education are unable to provide any source of inspiration and innovation. There’s no interest in investing in pure research anymore as we do not even expect to find any relevant alternative to what we already have. All we care about is pouring more money into researching what we already know and how to make it work despite setbacks (just take a look at any economics research program!).We expect to fight climate change, and all other challenges currently threatening our existence by simply deploying quick fixes delivered by scientists and thinkers that are allowed to work only on the assumption that the basis of our societies do not need a radical revisiting. We want to keep thinking and doing the same things expecting different results– change without really changing anything. Why change if we live at the apex of all civilizations? This is the Leibnizian optimism of the 21st century.
We Must Cultivate Our Garden
So how can we lift these blinders of Leibnizian optimism and bring back some healthy doses of critical reflection and negativity to our lives? How can we claim back our right of real self-determination and free ourselves from the oppressive frameworks that limit our capacity to create something new? I believe that Voltaire, probably the fiercest Leibniz critique, has some interesting insights to offer when it comes to countering Leibnizian optimism.
Candide, or, The Optimist is a masterpiece of a novel entirely dedicated to ridiculing Leibniz’s best of the possible worlds argument. The main character, Candide, a naïve and good-hearted young man, is living in the beautiful Thunder-ten-tronkh castle. Candide is receiving the teaching of Pangloss, a faithful Leibnizian, who thinks that things cannot be otherwise than they are because, since everything is created for an end, everything is necessarily for the best of ends. Candide is able to live a fully shielded existence from the world until one day he is forced out of the castle for having entertained a relationship with Cunegonda, the daughter of the Thunder-ten-tronkh’s baron. After this event, Candide just falls from one misfortune to another. He goes from being forced to fight in the Bulgarian army to survive a shipwreck, to being taken hostage by the Inquisition, become a slave (several times), and just experiening and witnessing all kinds of possible crimes and misfortunes.
After enduring the most terrible pains, Candide ends up in Turkey and is able to rejoin with his beloved Cunegonda. While the characters of this story are finally taking a break from all the troubles they suffered – slavery, abuse, battery, etc. – Pangloss asserts that we live in the best of all possible worlds since all they have suffered has led them to this moment of peace and enjoyment:
“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 Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed 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”.
The book ends on with Candide’s famous remark: “All is well said but we must cultivate our garden”. This simple sentence has found many different interpretations, from an invite to focus on immediate actions to an invite to shield ourselves from the influences of the world. In my understanding, the invitation to cultivate one’s own garden is not an invitation to withdraw from the world and focus on one’s own immediate business, quite the opposite!
A garden requires dedication, effort, care, and constant attention. It demands us to prepare the soil, fertilize it and be responsive to its needs. Just like a garden our lives require constant attention, without which they will stop bearing fruits. As a garden needs to be cleared from weeds and sod before it can become ready for fertilization, our minds need to be cleared from the debris of years of indoctrination before they can bear fruits. By undertaking a painful process of introspection and self-discovery we can initiate a process of disillusionment and detachment from ideas and worldviews that have become sterile and prevent us from bringing new thoughts to maturity. Clearing our minds from bad weeds and pests is an essential step to welcome new life and thoughts that can in turn propagate and permeate in their surroundings.
After clearing our garden we also need to fertilize it and provide the necessary water to maintain its health. Likewise, after we create more space into our minds, we need to nourish them through concrete actions and new experiences that will lead to new thoughts and knowledge as well as a more balanced life experience. Maintaining a healthy garden requires full attention and so do our minds. In a heartbeat a pest could destroy all our work as a sustained negligence and lack of care can turn our minds dull. It is hard work cultivating our garden, but it is our duty towards ourselves and others.
We can’t have good crops if we don’t cultivate our gardens properly as we can’t have a good society if individuals don’t take care of their minds. What kind of solutions can we expect from a society composed of unhealthy individuals? If our decisions have brought us to the brink of environmental collapse, we cannot trust our ability to solve it with the same approaches and old worldviews. We need to go back to cultivating our neglected gardens if we want to find real solutions, nothing good can grow on a wasteland.