Friday, March 2, 2012

Philosophy, literature, religion, and geology (Part I)

The Théodicée, or more precisely, the Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal (Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil), was a philosophical work published in 1710 by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716).  Anyone who's ever taken calculus knows of Liebniz since he is given credit, along with Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), for independently developing this incredibly useful branch of mathematics (which was far more important than any of his philosophical ramblings).

Liebniz invented the term theodicy - derived from the Greek roots  θεός (theos, god) and δίκη (dikē, justice).  It refers to a branch of Christian apologetics dealing with the problem of evil - attempts to reconcile God's supposed omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence (all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving) characteristics with the obvious fact that the world is a really shitty place sometimes.  Bad things happen to good people and vice-versa.

Leibniz dealt with this problem by arguing that, despite all its imperfections, this is the best of all possible worlds (that phrase may have just rung some bells in the heads of my more literate readers, we'll get to that shortly).  It must be the best of all possible worlds because it was created by a perfect God.  If it wasn't the most perfect world He could create, He would have created something better.  In a later work, La Monadologie (from the Greek μονάς monas or "unit"), published in 1714, Leibnitz further discussed his philosophy which has been described as "Leibnitzian Optimism".  He argued that everything exists according to a reason and everything which exists is better than anything non-existent.  His conclusion was "Therefore this is the best of all possible worlds."

Convinced?  No?  Neither were a lot of other people, most notably the French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), better known by his pen name of Voltaire.  Voltaire was a prolific writer and social commentator (often using satire) whose ideas on liberty and freedom of expression influenced the leaders of the French and American Revolutions.  In 1759, Voltaire wrote (supposedly in only three days!) Candide, a satirical novella mocking Leibnitz's philosophical optimism (later versions of the book were subtitled All for the Best and The Optimist).

In the novella (read it here online), Candide is a young man brought up by the scholar and philosophical optimist Professor Pangloss (whose philosophy can be summed up by the phrase "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds").

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles - thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings - and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles - therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten - therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best."

Through a convoluted variety of events, Candide and Pangloss come to be traveling through Europe, South America, and eventually Turkey while a whole host of misfortunes befall them and those they meet.  While Candide becomes disillusioned with Pangloss's optimistic philosophy, Pangloss himself keeps the faith.

"Well, my dear Pangloss," said Candide to him, "when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped, and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything happens for the best?"

"I am still of my first opinion," answered Pangloss, "for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract, especially as Leibnitz could never be wrong; and besides, the pre-established harmony is the finest thing in the world..."

Voltaire wrote this novella mocking Leibnitz's ideas because he believed, with some justification, that current events like the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the Great Lisbon Earthquake (1755) showed that we certainly did not live in the "best of all possible worlds."

As soon as they recovered themselves a little they walked toward Lisbon. They had some money left, with which they hoped to save themselves from starving, after they had escaped drowning. Scarcely had they reached the city, lamenting the death of their benefactor, when they felt the earth tremble under their feet. The sea swelled and foamed in the harbour, and beat to pieces the vessels riding at anchor. Whirlwinds of fire and ashes covered the streets and public places; houses fell, roofs were flung upon the pavements, and the pavements were scattered. Thirty thousand inhabitants of all ages and sexes were crushed under the ruins.

The Seven Years War was understandably bad, but what was so bad about the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake?  The earthquake occurred on November 1 and some historians estimate that of the 200,000 people living in Lisbon, Portugal at the time, some 30,000–40,000 were killed in the earthquake - 20% of the population.  The quake occurred on a Saturday morning and, as it was All Saints Day, an important Roman Catholic holiday, many people were in the Lisbon Cathedral and other churches celebrating mass - structures that were almost totally leveled by the earthquake.  A tsunami followed the shaking making things worse.

Read this gripping contemporary description of the earthquake by the Reverend Charles Davy.

I'll pick up the thread of this story tomorrow...

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