Friday, 11 January 2013

Killing King Reason

Pangloss was right.  And he can prove it!  Oh, and very easily.  In his own experience he did live in the best of all possible worlds; living as he did on Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh’s rich and well-managed estate, tutoring the Baron’s beautiful daughter, making love to an attractive young lady, who reciprocated his affections, he could easily demonstrate that no other world could possibly compare with it.  Bliss! and truth.  Nothing, nothing, can compare with this.  Here indeed was a world sufficient unto itself, and it was ideal; a real life utopia that only ignorance and contingency could destroy.  He knew it, and thus stated a truism that should be obvious to us all.   To attack him as a fool is to reveal the limits to our own understanding, while exposing both our prejudices - against wealth, against luxury, against the old aristocracy – and our envy.  If we had been so lucky, hey?

Voltaire’s wit demolishes this Elysium; the immature world of the young Candide, who lives in a state of unblemished innocence.  His life a childhood fantasy, which ends when the Baron’s daughter, Cunégonde, sees Pangloss teach

experimental physics to her mother’s waiting woman, a pretty little brunette, who seemed eminently teachable.  Since Lady Cunégonde took a great interest in science, she watched the experiments being repeated with breathless fascination.  She saw clearly the Doctor’s ‘sufficient reason’, and took note of cause and effect.  Then, in a disturbed and thoughtful state of mind, she returned home filled with a desire for learning, and fancied that she could reason equally well with young Candide and he with her.

We are back to religious parables.  While partaking of their newly acquired ‘science’ Cunégonde and Candide are caught, and he is expelled from the Garden of Eden.  His childish innocence has ended.

Now was the time for his teacher to revise his theory.  And later, when the invading armies came and Pangloss was also evicted from paradise, he should have jettisoned his ideas completely, accepting that his own personal experience, that most crucial of empirical tests, had disproved them.  He didn’t, so revealing his foolish and dogmatic attachment to a theory that had been destroyed by the facts, which indicates a belief in a dubious faith rather than curious and productive thought.  His excessive attachment to an increasingly absurd idea showing that he doesn’t so much teach as preach; either a disciple of some thinker (Voltaire suggests Leibniz) or an inflexible dogmatist who cannot change his opinions once he has formed them (like an old academic unable to revise his youthful theses, although age has rotted their conclusions).  However, until Candide’s expulsion from the Baron’s estate Pangloss’ ideas had much to commend them, accounting, as they did, for the facts so neatly arranged before his philosophical gaze; even though they were inadequate to interpret the world beyond this Eden’s gates.

Pangloss’ first mistake was to base his theories on a single and unrepresentative case; his second to then generalise it to the rest of humanity.  This is understandable, and just about tenable, providing he doesn’t leave the Baron’s estate, which itself must remain prosperous and secure.   Although his theory would be wrong, even the villages outside the estate’s walls would disprove it, at least his ideas would accord with his own experiences, and he would thus exhibit a modicum of rationality, while retaining the respect of those close to him, for it would still appear that he was correct – the occasional poor villager an anomaly which could easily be ignored.  A few rowdy peasants and the occasional evil stranger would simply be aberrations to prove the rule that nothing could be better than this self-centred and very desirable life – even in God’s garden Adam would have cut himself, and Eve sprained her ankle.  With so few counter examples he could easily demonstrate that he was right; and his pupils would never have discovered the errors in his reasoning or the weakness of his judgement, which is hardly more than a child’s.

The tragedy for Pangloss, though typically he doesn’t recognise it, idealists are the most obtuse of egoists, is that he loses this respect over the course of time; the novel a record of his disciple’s journey towards increasing disillusionment, as the ugly facts crowd out the beautiful theory.  By the book’s end Candide has come to recognise the poverty of Pangloss’ mind:

[After listening to a lengthy justification that no other life could have been possible than their fall and present distress, Candide replies] ‘That’s true enough… but we must go and work in the garden.’

It is a marvellous put down.  His friend’s ideas are casually disregarded as irrelevant to the business at hand; nothing more than a simple truism, a tautology that justifies all actions as the right ones.  The best of all possible worlds just another way of saying, “life is what it is, and there can be no other”.  A theory that defines the universe by one idea is exactly the same as a non-theory that attributes no reason to anything; both are equally irrational and lacking in content (although experience has to first prove this). Pangloss a wonderful example of the weakness of reason; with its propensity to create generalisations based on limited evidence, which are then extended, like imperial armies over conquered territory, to confine an unruly mass of disparate and incompatible facts within a single (and thus absurd) concept.  Early on Pangloss provides us with a fantastic example of this common but facile trait:1

‘It is proved,’ he used to say, ‘that things cannot be other than they are, for since everything is made for a purpose, it follows that everything is made for the best purpose.   Observe: our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles.  Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them.  Stones were meant for carving and for building houses, and that is why my lord has a most beautiful house; for the greatest baron in Westphalia ought to have the noblest residence.  And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all the year round.  It follows that those who maintain that all is right talk nonsense; they ought to say that all is for the best.’2

Pangloss lives in a selfish world, and one that is based on privilege, but which is also humane, safe and beautiful.  Like an idyllic childhood home it is a place sensible people would never want to leave.  Pangloss is thus justified in idealising it, but wrong to project this ideal onto the rest of society;3 for it is based on a unique case that cannot be easily replicated. The good doctor is like the clever child of a rich family who knows nothing outside of his own heavily circumscribed life, having spent all his time inside the big house with the wise father and the kind and beautiful mother, who both adore him.  Until confronted with very different lives he is right to believe this is the only one that exists.  His ignorance protects him from irrational error and fanatical belief, although it gives him undue confidence in his own limited experience.  However, what he doesn’t realise, and here is his big mistake, is that his ideas represent ignorance not wisdom; while his experience is too poor to be used as evidence for large scale theories about social reality, a subject of which he knows little.  He lacks maturity, but is unaware of it, a disaster for serious thought.

Growing up is painful.  Not least because it shows how puny and irrelevant we are when fitted into the universe’s great pattern, which is mostly indifferent to how we act and think.  How sad.  And how it hurts!  Few listen, while those that do usually reject us as stupid and badly informed – “hey mate, your ideas are crap!”  A good education teaches us that we are not omniscient; a good student acquiring this knowledge, and thus accepting the truth of his own banality.  This can be hard.  Usually we don’t like it.  The revelation is shocking for being so unexpected; the oracle often that most sweetest of teachers – our first girlfriend. 

We must now put love and sex onto the syllabus...

First love is the first serious confrontation a young adult has with their own limits, Candide is a case study; a love affair forcing an individual ego to live outside itself, now only too aware of its dependency on another person – a single glance or a few words enough to produce day-long joy or gloom.  Pangloss is lucky, he has chosen a willing servant, and is therefore safe from the Baron’s wrath (one of the curious characteristics of idealists is that they often survive while their followers fall).  However, in applying his ‘sufficient reason’ to the young woman he has unleashed an uncontrollable force that, by turning Cunégonde and Candide into lovers, destroys this calm and reasonable life - their difference in status too great for the prejudices and pride of the Baron, who throws out his adopted son.  Sex is a force of nature that overwhelms reason, and when unleashed destroys the comfortable and secure world it had previously made possible.  It is the moment the adolescent matures into an adult; and illusion is replaced by reality.

Once outside the Baron’s estate Candide slowly acquires wisdom and maturity; and learning from his new experiences he comes eventually to reject the ideas of Pangloss – he finds his own, which turn out to be no ideas at all!4  Work not reflection is the solution to life’s predicament, is his final conclusion.  Candide has completed a full cycle, and has settled down in another garden, this time in the Ottoman Empire.  Yet this is not some new exotic Elysium, Candide is not cavorting with the Old Man in the Mountain, where poets and philosophers converse about ideal types and admire fair maidens who flirt with their words and engorge their speculations.  No!  Indeed, it is exactly the opposite.  This is a poor place, crowded with worn out and ugly people who although disenchanted are satisfied to live a life without incapacitating poverty; submitting at last to their broken reality.  Give up your dreams!  Forget your grand theories!  Do not be fooled by reason!  These are the lessons Candide has learned on his travels.  Be modest in your expectations, and stick close to experience, occupying yourself with the essentials of daily living.  It is a place where reason is a handy tool put at the service of hard work.

The book, a record of its hero’s extraordinary journeys, is a prolonged whittling down of abstract reason, this once grand Vizier, who began by governing a large empire and seemed destined to rule the entire globe. 

Although we could go further: Candide is a literary guillotine designed to chop off King Reason’s head.

It is odd to reflect that the French Revolutionaries once built a temple of reason, and treated Voltaire as the revolution’s saint.5  An example of the blindness of disciples to the prophets they worship.  By making a God of Reason they committed the very act that he condemns in this justly famous book.  For you cannot build a society based on pure rationality, for it is too weak a foundation, and will quickly be demolished by natural forces, of which man is not the least dangerous.  It is experience, not reason, that should be our guide; Voltaire still true to his early enthusiasm for the English scientists and John Locke’s empiricism.  To be wise we must downgrade reason, making it a servant to our instincts and a slave to our judgement; that mental capacity based on a largely intuitive understanding of our own experiences.  Candide’s last garden is a place from which abstract reason has been evicted.

Pangloss is a servant.  This is his proper place, teaching facts and theories to students in a classroom – his “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology” is suitable only for philosophical reflection, it is not a guide for daily living.  The mistake of both Cunégonde and Candide, who are little more than children, is to project that academic study onto their ordinary experiences; thus the Baron’s daughter’s belief that sex is simply another lesson, as Voltaire depicts so hilariously in the passage previously quoted.  If only life was so supine!   They quickly learn that it is not; wrestling behind the screen their sighs and groans are overheard by the Baron, who incandescent with rage loses control of himself.  Out Candide must go!  Here is the defeat of reason.  Ordinary life is too vigorous, too diverse, too unknowable, to be confined within the simplicities of abstract thought and the temperate pages of the school textbook.  A clever theory now made to look stupid by a few kicks on the backside, as Candide is forced out of the Baron’s home. Cunégonde has confused the abstract theories of her tutor with life itself, and her lover pays a devastating price for her error.  Pangloss is a bad teacher!  He should have told his pupils that a high wall and a locked door must separate philosophical theorizing from practical action; Leibniz’s ideas only suitable for the scholar’s study and the university seminar; which have their own rules of intellectual engagement.  It is a lesson Candide will eventually learn after many chastening experiences.  Although our hero, after undergoing such terrible adventures, may have committed an error equally as bad: he appears to have rejected abstract thought entirely by his journey’s end.  Gainful employment is enough to satisfy a man and woman is the conclusion; which is clearly not the case, even in Voltaire’s day – his own success and livelihood depended on his pen and the enlightened intelligentsia amongst the aristocracy.  One theory has been replaced by another of equally dubious value; Candide’s scepticism a reaction to a bad idea rather a properly thought out alternative.  We should reject both – one is implausible, the other too limiting.

Love drives Candide insane.  Responsible for his removal from his enchanted home, it later forces him to make gruelling travels around the globe as he searches for Cunégonde, who is sold into slavery when the Baron’s estate is ransacked by a foreign army.6  He even gives up Eldorado for his lover, who, when they are do eventually meet and settle down, is nothing more than a withered hag, whom he no longer likes.  Here is Voltaire’s wit at its most lethal.  All the hero’s idealism, its destruction of his reason, is wasted on an unfulfilled illusion.  Love itself an irrational fantasy that dies in the end. 

Candide does regain his sanity, although he is far too sober when the book ends.  On his travels he lived through hell, his illusory hope in the beauty and moral purity of Cunégonde the only thing that sustained him. He needed these fantasies in order to survive, although he would have been better off without them – satisfied with his loss, and recognising the probable degradation of the loved one, he should have stayed in Eldorado.  How happy he could have been!  But humans cannot live in utopia.  Always the itch of nature nudges us out of its so inviting gates…  Reason is never enough, too thin to be emotionally satisfying.

His illusions about love cannot survive the extremity of both his and Cunégonde’s suffering – beauty is unable to withstand the battering of an extremist’s life.  This is seems to be reason for the unbelievable afflictions Candide is forced to endure: Voltaire arguing that it takes an enormous amount of pain and disappointment to remove one’s preconceived ideas; tenacious as a bull terrier whose teeth are clamped to its victim’s leg.  Only those last stubborn facts, of Cunégonde’s ugliness, their own poverty, and the hope a neighbour provides by showing that satisfaction is possible even from their diminished situation – suggested by a local Turk who lives contentedly -,7 is enough to convert him into a stolid farmer; prepared to accept that he must adapt to the reality that exists outside his consciousness. His illusions had to be beaten up and kicked out of him before finally Candide learns the truth, and decides that thinking must be the slave of doing; and that work is the only thing which matters.

And Pangloss?  Nothing that he has experienced has changed his ideas.

There is a chain of events in this best of all possible worlds; for if you had not been turned out of a beautiful mansion at the point of a jackboot for the love of Lady Cunégonde, and if you had not been involved in the Inquisition, and had not wandered over America on foot, and had not struck the Baron with your sword, and lost all those sheep you brought from Eldorado, you would not be here eating candied fruit and pistachio nuts.

Here is the madness of reason.  It creates a mental environment within which a particular kind of person can live very comfortably.  Imagine…

Imagine a large and tastefully decorated house, which has no windows and doors to the outside world; while existing just beyond the boundary of its extensive gardens is an industrial landscape of cotton factories, flour mills and small iron works.  Instead of windows and doors there are only walls, all painted with beautiful vistas… Across the length of the enormous dining room there is a meadow crowded with blue flowers, in which the white dress of a young woman is tastefully swayed by a light wind, although her pink parasol remains inexplicably erect and immobile.  The visitor ponders, compares it to a glass lampshade, and curious walks closer to the wall...  In the bathroom there is a sailing ship on an empty bay, shaped like a perfect scimitar.  When he enters the living room he sees a Venetian canal.  Towards one end there is a gondola flooded with the red dress of a beautiful brunette, whose white face gazes at a clear blue sky, and whose her long hair drifts in the water.  He imagines her reading this sky, her reflections entangled amongst her train of curls, which traps them like seaweed.  He thinks perhaps he should unpick them…  In the library he loses himself on a Parisian boulevard, looking at the elegant ladies and imagining conversations with all the smart people who crowd around him.  So much to see! and to think about.  Once inside these capacious rooms there is no need to leave.  Indeed, why would you?

Novel experiences cannot easily penetrate such a mind, which projects itself on the world around it, so that all new things are simply evidence to support its existing ideas, formed years previously.  In Pangloss’ case he thought up (or took up) a theory to confirm his good fortune on the Baron’s estate which he cannot junk when the cruel world proves it wrong.  Once acquired that theory remains fixed in place; it is like a tenant that cannot be evicted, even though she no longer pays the rent.  Too much reason!  It is also, as the book makes only too clear, a sign of madness, Pangloss trapped forever inside his idée fixe.  Here is the world of the ideologue and the religious fanatic, a world that paradoxically the Enlightenment also helped to perpetuate, by putting too much stress on reason, an irony not lost on Voltaire it would seem.  Pangloss condemned to a life sentence in his very own Garden of Eden which although beautiful is a prison nonetheless.  In contrast to the good doctor Adam and Eve were expelled from their paradise, a sign of their sin but also their ability to acquire knowledge.  They had learned too much to remain in their idyll.  They had grown up!  And must leave their childhood behind, to discover a new world of pregnancy, familial responsibility and hard work.8  Pangloss, by contrast, will never attain enough understanding to leave his Eden.  He is the precocious adolescent who, having acquired his ideas when young, fixes them permanently for life, and so never learning from experience his mind does not properly mature; his ideas too static and thus incapable of growth and metamorphosis.9  He is the eternal child who wants the world to be as he imagines it, never quite noticing how his ideas subtly change to accommodate circumstance: by the end the best of all possible worlds has been reduced to a justification of all existence, no matter how prosperous or how poor.

And we see these infantile adults all over the place. I saw one only yesterday in a second hand bookshop; a middle aged woman telling the shopkeeper about her obsessions with Phillip Pullman and Harry Potter, while at the same time aggressively labelling both her kids as “disabled” – one with a form of dyslexia, the other with autism.  To me it seemed that she was the one with a mental deficiency.  She has remained the clever but unthinking adolescent whose emotional and intuitive understanding is poor; the result a profound ignorance of other people.  This was reflected in the way she treated her children; reducing them to easy to think categories, to mental stereotypes, while being completely insensitive to how this labelling could affect their feelings; their shame at being publicly described as mentally handicapped.10  Of course, both diagnoses may be true, but more likely, given the circumstances,11 they are projections of her simple ideas onto a reality she can neither properly grasp nor control.  Thus to ask a few easy questions… How much of this “autism” and “dyslexia” is ordinary behaviour misinterpreted?  Are the kids defending themselves against her overbearing personality, including her obsession with books, by creating their own defence mechanisms?  Are they simply reacting to her own lack of feeling, children very sensitive to surface phenomena?  The answers would require painstaking and nuanced investigation and thought; they would also need empathy, and some intuitive sense of the quotidian.  Reason though is not enough.12  Already I am floundering…

All speculations, I know; of course I do; of course of course.  Always I try to learn from experience, aware that my ideas are almost certainly wrong, at least in detail.  It would be madness to think otherwise.

[i] And which should make us sceptical about the easy functionalism of contemporary Evolutionary Biology; which in the hands of the less sophisticated can imagine a use for any old trait.
[ii] Voltaire’s “cruelty” comes out in this last sentence.  Pangloss is oblivious to what he is saying. His own words condemn him!  It is he who has been talking nonsense all along; for by the end of the novel we have come to realise that his theory can accommodate every eventuality: by justifying all that has happened in their lives – including all the murders, beatings and rapes – the best of all possible worlds has been reduced to the simple truism that everything is as it should be: there can be no other life but the one we live.  That is, those “who maintain that all is right” are exactly the same as those who believe “all is for the best.”  Pangloss and his critics are both of the same mind; his ignorance of this fact both telling and alarming.
[iii] And thus the erroneous conclusion at the end of the quoted passage – all has to be for the best!
[iv] Tellingly he borrows them from a neighbour.  Neither Pangloss nor Candide are original thinkers.
[v] For a wonderful account of the temples of reason and the transfer of Voltaire’s remains to the Panthéon see Simon Schama’s Citizens.
[vi] It is around this point in the narrative that Candide begins to resemble Don Quixote, with his belief in the virginal (or more correctly: spiritual) purity of Cunégonde.  For although she has been repeatedly raped she says has not freely given herself to another man, an assertion that seems absurd – Pangloss, the Lisbon merchant and the Portuguese Archbishop all appear to have been her lovers. It suggests Candide is living inside a self-willed fantasy, and Cunégonde is a Dulcinea in an updated chivalric satire. 
[vii] This is very clever of Voltaire.  Having reduced Candide and his “clan” to poverty – they have lost nearly everything -, he is at last susceptible to the lessons experience can teach him.  Only when you have no illusions left can you truly give them up. 
The author is also realistic about the nature of the successful teacher.  He is someone in a similar position to Candide, but whose views are utterly different and unknown; in this case a person who is realistically optimistic, advocating the narrow belief that we should be thankful for what we’ve got, no matter how little. 
But notice how the Turk’s ideas are not that different from Pangloss’; based, as they are, on the belief that you must make the best of what is available.  The Turk idealising the particular and useful; Pangloss the general and abstract.  Their mindsets are at completely opposite poles of conceptual thought yet they share a common assumption; albeit their conclusions are radically different.  This is why Candide can learn from this new teacher; swapping one idealism for another, junking only the detail of his former faith.
[viii] “Unto the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception.  In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children: and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.  And unto thee Adam… cursed is the ground for thy sake: in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.  Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field.  In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” (The Bible)
[ix] A brilliant study of precocity is Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter.  The world picture of the precocious adolescent is fixed early on; the rest of their life a defence against inconvenient fact.
[x] I use the word advisedly.
[xi] In a shop with strangers she was loudly and repeatedly referring to their disabilities, utterly unaware of the embarrassment this might cause them.  The way it was done suggested that she was imagining these learning disabilities so as to explain the reactions of her children whom she didn’t understand.  At the very least she had no feeling for this situation, which will affect any sensitive person; and who are more sensitive than children?
This incident suggests the danger of living in a too simple world of clear ideas and logical rationality – you produce a world that is both unreal and harmful, for it ignores the facts and forces, the feeling, of ordinary living. It is the indifferent cruelty of Pangloss, brilliantly brought out by Voltaire:
            “The Anabaptist gave what help he could in directing the ship’s course, and was on the poop when a madly excited sailor struck him a violent blow, which laid him at full length on the deck.  The force of his blow upset the sailor’s own balance, and he fell head first overboard; and hung dangling over the ship’s side.  The worthy James ran to his assistance and helped him to climb on board again.  The efforts he made were so strenuous, however, that he was pitched into the sea in full view of the sailor, who left him to perish without taking the slightest notice.  Candide was in time to see his benefactor reappear above the surface for one moment before being swallowed up for ever.  He wanted to throw himself into the sea after the Anabaptist, but the great philosopher, Pangloss, stopped him by proving that Lisbon harbour was made on purpose for this Anabaptist to drown there.  Whilst he was proving this from first principles, the ship split in two and all perished except Pangloss, Candide and the brutal sailor…”
            Here is the detachment of the over-rationalised mind – of the theologian, the intellectual and the bureaucrat.
[xii] An extraordinary example can be found in James Meek’s brilliant analysis of the electricity industry, with its description of a modern day Pangloss, Stephen Littlechild.  (The name of course is perfect!)

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