I’ll begin by observing that , though I ma not agree with Blake that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it, I do consider his theodicy, as a theodicy  like Descartes’ “proof” of God, to be a failure.

This is not to say that the poem is a failure, far from it (though Voltaire, as we’ll soon see, did think it was a poor effort). Milton successfully, in my view, brings new light to the Genesis story, and his creative interpretation is so strong that it is difficult, after reading Paradise Lost to ever see the story of Adam and Eve in the same way. He has made it his story, so that the characters of Satan, Adam, and Eve that we will encounter in art, literature, music, and film for the next 400 years, invariably owe as much to Milton as to the Bible. Could the Rolling Stones have produced “Sympathy for the Devil,” without Milton?

But as a defense of God, the poem is, in my view, a noble failure, if for no other reason than that the character of God, Himself, comes across as so stiff and unsympathetic. When He calls man an “Ingrate” who “had of me/ All he could have” (3.97-8), he sounds like a petulant overlord. When He asks “what proof could they have given sincere/ Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love” without being tested (3.103-4), He sounds like a jealous husband, and when He declares “Die he or justice must, unless for him / Some other, able and as willing, pay / The rigid satisfaction, death for death” (3.21-12), He sounds to me like more like some sort of Cosmic loan shark or gangster than a beneficent God.

And what about the Son? Doesn’t he mitigate God’s justice with his sacrifice? Well, maybe, but, at least as Milton depicts it, how much of a sacrifice is it really? “On me let death wreak all his rage,” says the Son. ” Under his gloomy power I shall not long Lie vanquished. . . . Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave / His prey” (3.241-248). What is the Son saying here? Sure, I’ll die for Man because I know You (God) won’t leave me dead. So then, really, he’s not dying at all. He may suffer, of course, but he knows with certainty—unlike humans—that his death is not real, that it won’t last more than a few days. That doesn’t seem like such a great sacrifice to me.

Am I being blasphemous? Maybe a little, but my point is that—to an objective observer—I don’t think Milton makes a strong case. Yes, the choir may appreciate his sermon, but they are not the ones who need God to be justified.

So it is, in the end, in my view, another example of the Enlightenment’s reach exceeding its grasp. A bold, if failed, attempt to use reason where reason cannot be of much help.

Indeed, the poem, itself, seems to understand, even if Milton does not, the limits of reason. All the way back in Book 2, the poem takes a stance on reason that is, at the very least, ambivalent. What do I mean by “ambivalent?” I use the word in the psychoanalytic sense of the term—meaning not “unsure” so much as holding in one’s heart two diametrically opposed ideas or feelings about the same object. To feel ambivalent about someone in this sense is not to feel like you sort of like or don’t like them but to feel you hate and love them at the same time.[1] Milton’s poem, I would argue, demonstrates powerful ambivalence toward reason.

On the one hand, Milton seeks to “justify the ways of God to men” (1.26). What does “justify” here imply if not some sort of rational defense? And Milton’s poem does attempt to articulate, often through the mouth of God Himself, a justification based on reason, most especially through the argument of Man’s free will alluded to earlier (see 3.96-125) where God explicitly states that if He had not left Man free to fall, Man’s obedience and fealty would mean nothing.

And yet, in Book 2, who else do we find “in thoughts more elevate. . . reason[ing] high / Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate, / Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute”  and who “found no end, in wandering mazes lost “(2.558-61)? Who? Fallen angels, that’s who, demons who in their philosophical speculations seem not very far off from God in Book 3 who excuses himself from responsibility for Man’s fall on the grounds that “If I foreknew / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, / Which had not proved less certain unforeknown “ (117-9). How is God’s philosophizing here any more elevated than that of the fallen angels Milton mocks in Book 2?

Adam praises reason to Eve in Book 9 but also warns of its susceptibility to fraud:

But God left free the will, for what obeys

Reason is free, and reason he made right

But bid her well beware, and still erect,

Lest by some fair-appearing good surprised

She dictate false and misinform the will

To do what God expressly hath forbid. (351-7)

Eve, when debating with the serpent, declares that outside the one commandment given by God to Adam and herself, “our reason is our law” (9.654). But it is the evidence of speech and reason in the serpent (the two capacities Descartes said were denied animals) that ensnares Eve, that and a speech by Satan worthy of the greatest of courtroom lawyers, a speech based as much on rationality as on lies, so that they seem to her  “imprenged with reason” (9.737). She, herself, uses what seems like reason to justify her action, “How dies the serpent? ” she asks. “He hath eaten and lives” (764); if the serpent didn’t die from eating the apple, then neither should she. It’s almost a mathematical equation.

Of course, maybe it’s not so much reason, Eve uses, as rationalization. “Rationalization” is when we appear or even pretend to use reason to justify an act that is based on some other motivation, lust for example. But is that really the case here? What prompts Eve to break the commandment as depicted by Milton? Is it simple lust for godhead? Or has her reason betrayed her as Adam warned?

I’d suggest the latter, that what Milton’s poem seems to be saying is that, ultimately, we can’t trust reason. And, in that sense, the failure of reason accounts for the failure of the theodicy. Reason has its limits. It cannot save us from sin; it cannot bring us to God.

In this sense, the poem seems to take arms against Descartes who looked to reason and reason alone as the ultimate arbiter. Milton seems to be pointing out that, just as we cannot trust our senses, which can, of course, be fooled, we also cannot trust reason, since that is as imperfect as eyesight or hearing.  And yet, even after the Fall, Milton refers to the operation in man of “sovereign reason” (9.1130), according it a kind of kingship in the soul of man.

It’s classic ambivalence, but, again, must be distinguished from Descartes in whom, I would argue, there is no ambivalence with regard to reason. Descartes puts all his hope and faith and belief in rationality; Milton seems to say reason is all well and good, but, in the end, it is as likely to betray you as anything else in our fallen world.


[1] I was under the impression that Freud originated this concept, but, apparently, it was a contemporary of his, Eugen Bleuler, who first articulated this idea of ambivalence. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambivalence.

Advertisements

There’s so much to say about Paradise Lost that I never get to half of what I’d like to address in class, and I doubt it will be any different online. I am tempted to journal on what is the most interesting part of the poem, the depictions of God and Satan, but I’m going to leave that for you all to discuss in the forum. I’ll just ask you to think about this famous observation about Paradise Lost by the poet William Blake. He said of Milton, with regard to the epic poem, that

he was a True Poet and [so] was of the devil’s party without knowing it.

(“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”)

Now that raises some interesting issues both about Paradise Lost and about poets you might think about.[1].

But what I thought I’d spend the most time on today was a different sort of religious issue, namely the pagan elements of Milton’s poem. Maybe some of you have wondered why a Christian poem contains so many references to Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other pagan mythologies? Of course, in some sense, Milton is doing nothing new here. In fact, he’s following the lead of Dante, who likewise incorporates pagan myth into an ostensibly Christian epic poem—and for many of the same reasons. But Milton does something somewhat different, in emphasis if not altogether in method.

Now, why would either Milton or Dante incorporate so much pagan mythology? One answer is simple: because they are writing in the epic tradition, and the greatest practitioners of that tradition, whom they were emulating—Homer and Virgil—were pagans, and infused their poems with tales of gods, goddesses, and monsters. For poets like Dante and Milton, who are trying not only to imitate, but to outdo their predecessors, they need to demonstrate that they have as great a command of the mythological pantheon as any pagan poem, indeed, maybe a better one. It’s a way of demonstrating that they have the “chops” for the job. It may also be that as readers of pagan literature, they shared a certain love of these old pagan tales and wanted to, in some way, include them.

But it may also have been necessary, theologically speaking. Both Dante and Milton were aware, as were all the great Christian thinkers, that other religions preceded their own, that once the world was dominated by religious notions and deities quite different from the Christian and even Jewish ones. If the Judeo-Christian religion is the true one, how does one account not only for the existence, but for the predominance of these other religions?

Dante paved the way in The Divine Comedy by suggesting that these pagan “gods” were in fact demons, though he is inconsistent in doing so, sometimes referring to God as “Jove.” And, at least as far as I remember, he doesn’t explain how these demons came to be thought of as gods. He simply absorbs some of the pagan gods and monsters into his infernal system, so that, for example, Minos, who is the judge of the underworld in Homer and Virgil is also the judge in The Inferno and Cerberus the three-headed-dog guards the infernal circle of the gluttons in Dante’s poem, a slightly more specialized role than he plays as guard-dog to Hades in the pagan poets. But he doesn’t explain how Cerberus came to be.

Milton takes it a step further. The pagan gods, as Milton depicts them, were, in fact, fallen angels, demons, pretending to be gods, furthering the seduction and corruption of mankind by posing as deities. We know them as Moloch or Belial or Jove, Isis, or Osiris, but these are names “the sons of Eve” gave them when

By falsities and lies the greatest part

Of mankind they corrupted to forsake

God their creator.  (I. 364-9)

They are devils adored as deities (I.373). It’s a clever move that explains how a race of gods could precede the Judeo-Christian one. But it’s also a common one that cultures often use to account for—or appropriate—religious systems that precede their own. They take the preceding system and demonize it.

There is even evidence in the Ancient Greek mythology that the gods we know, Zeus, Hera, Athena, were preceded by a previous system of deities that were later discredited. These are known as the Titans. In the Ancient Greek system they are evil, but some people speculate these villains of the Greek system were once themselves worshipped as gods by a culture that was overtaken by the Greek culture. That cultural change is rewritten to be a war against the evil Titans, teaching us something not only about the evolution of religions but also about how history works.

Milton is especially clever in how he constructs this narrative retcon.[2] Take, for example, the minor character Mulciber, the demon architect of Book 1. Milton explains how he was “fabled” to have been “thrown by angry Jove / Sheer o’er the crystal battlements” of Mount Olympus (I.741-2) but the Greeks who told his story were “Erring; for he with this rebellious rout /Fell long before” (I.747-8). The story Milton is referring to is more commonly known as that of Hephaestus (or Vulcan) the misshapen artisan-god whom Zeus hurled from Mount Olympus “in drunken rage” (Kastan, footnote, 37). Milton would have us believe that this story was a distortion of the real one, the expulsion of the rebellious angels from Heaven by God.

We see an even bolder example of such a retcon with the birth of Sin. In book 2, she explains her birth to Satan, telling him that, when once he began to plot in his mind against God, she

shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed

Out of thy head . . . sprung. (757-8)

What is this but a retconning of the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus? And what does such retconnning achieve?

One, it discredits the old religion, showing that what was meant to be a heroic birth of a goddess was in fact the degraded and degrading conception of Sin in the mind of Satan. Two, it allows Milton to retain and turn to his own philosophical and aesthetic devices, a powerful image from the pagan pantheon. He is at once both discrediting the Greeks and Romans and paying homage to them.

This may also be also be an example of what the literary critic Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence.” Bloom argued that writers are plagued by the anxiety that everything worth saying has already been said by greater and earlier writers. There is nothing left for them to say. So what must they do? They must assert their creative power by intentionally misconstruing their predecessor’s work. They, essentially, write new work by rewriting the old, claiming their masters “got it wrong,” so they can get it right. This is particularly interesting for Milton because he, himself, was to cast a powerful shadow over generations of writers to come after him. In fact, Bloom argued that Blake’s reading of Milton—he was of the devil’s party without knowing it—was just such a “misreading” motivated by the anxiety of influence. Bloom, himself, was influenced in this theory by his great predecessor, Freud, whom we’ll study later in the semester. So you see, it all hangs together. . . .


[1] Blake, by the way, was a Romantic poet and he will crop up over and over again as a counter-weight to the Enlightenment—though Romanticism is also a product of the Enlightenment. We may get a chance to read him later in the semester.

[2] “Retcon,” short for “retroactive continuity” is a term used in the comic book world and elsewhere to describe a method in which new writers rewrite older versions of a hero’s biography to fit in with present day realities. For example, in the Marvel Universe, Iron Man, who originally was a product of the Viet Nam war is “retconned” to have come out of the Gulf War, so that he is more a product of the current generation of readers. Sometimes these retcons are used to explain an otherwise unexplainable contradiction in a character’s ongoing story; perhaps there are two different versions of the hero’s origins. Eventually, some writer figures out a way to make them work together, and voila, he’s been retconned.  D.C. comics retconnned Superman by explaining that the Superman of the 1930s was a product of an alternate universe to the Superman of the 1980s (see the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retroactive_continuity). Comics usually retcon for commercial reasons, but there can be ideological ones as well.

Rational Optimism and Lame Proofs

Posted: September 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

Part I: Descartes and rational optimism

I don’t know if “rational optimism” is common phrase in philosophy. A quick Google shows me the term exists, but not in the sense that I mean it. Writer Frank Robinson, author of a book by that name, suggests that “humans are fundamentally cooperative, the world is becoming increasingly peaceful, and the causes for it are growing ever stronger.”[1] Now that just seems silly to me and not at all what I mean—though to be fair I haven’t read his book.

No, what I mean is an optimism about rationality itself, a belief that reason—aided perhaps by science—can uncover all mysteries if not solve all problems. It is the philosophical or intellectual version of the Disney motto “All dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”) Maybe I should call it optimistic rationality?[2]

Anyway, this sort of optimism is very much in evidence in Descartes, and it’s one of the things I took especial note of in re-reading Discourse. In Part 2, for example, Descartes maintains that if he sticks closely to his method for investigating truth, “there cannot be anything so remote that it cannot eventually be reached nor anything so hidden that it cannot be uncovered” (16). Likewise, in Part 6, his conclusion, he writes about the possibilities of advancing medicine through research, perhaps even of curing old age, and that he would “infallibly find such knowledge if it were not impeded by the brevity of life or by a lack of experiences” (44-5) (in other words, if he could just live long enough, he could stop aging).

This is a kind of faith in reason and science essential to Descartes’s thought experiment, and one that is still very much with us today, though it has come under fire in the postmodern world.  You might think of this idea as the Detective Formula. If you read detective fiction or watch detective films—at least traditional ones, like, say, Sherlock Homes or “The Purloined Letter”—you see in the writer and his or her protagonist and unflinching faith that all mysteries can be solved if you use the proper method (“simple deduction, elementary my dear Watson”). As a culture, we tend to believe this about nearly all physical, if not metaphysical, phenomenon. Whether it’s unlocking the mysteries of the atom or curing cancer, we, Western Culture that is, have an abiding faith that given enough time and resources any such investigations will be rewarded with answers. Or at least we used to.

We have been able to maintain such faith because we have believed, even in the absence of religious belief, that answers exists, that two plus two always equals four even if an individual doesn’t yet know how to add. Descartes, thus, points out that

since there is only one truth about each thing [ and] whoever discovers it knows as much as it is possible to know about it, and that, for example, a child who has been taught arithmetic and has done an addition in accordance with its rules, can be sure of having found everything that the human mind could find about the sum in question. (17-8)

Once a child has added two plus two she knows as much about it as Einstein. Right?

Ah, it must have been nice to have lived in the seventeenth century. You might not have had indoor plumbing but you had the possibility of certainty. It was possible then to imagine things might be “clear and distinct.” It’s not always so simple for us today.

There are, for example, alternative math systems. Now I’m no mathematician, and I can’t tell you if some of those systems allow two plus two to equal five, but I know in some mathematical systems parallel lines meet. So that we can no longer say there is only one thing to know about parallel lines (that they never intersect). Modern observations about the nature of light are another example. We now know that light is both a particle and a wave. There is not simply one thing to know about light.

Descartes repeatedly uses the terms “clear and distinct” to refer to truths he discovers, but nothing is clear and distinct in the postmodern world. Ever hear of the Heisenberg Principle? It maintains that any object we observe is affected by our observation, so that it’s impossible to conduct a neutral experiment. Now, Heisenberg, himself, was talking about measuring the speed of electrons and was pointing out that to measure an electron’s speed you must interfere with its progress, and hence, you can never be fully certain of what it’s real speed was without interference. But his principle, rightly or wrongly, has been extended beyond physics to nearly every realm of thought in the postmodern world, so that I find as I reread Discourse I am nostalgic for the pure Enlightenment faith in certainty—that truth, one truth, exists even if we cannot discover it, but that we probably can discover it if we employ the right methods and give ourselves enough time.

Many of us still believe that. I certainly used to. I’m not so sure anymore. I’m sometimes afraid if I were to engage in Descartes’ thought experiment, I would become like one of those folks he says would lose their path and “remain lost all their lives” (14). Indeed, I sometimes think that’s exactly what’s happened to our society. It has embraced Descartes’ thought experiment, cast everything—God, religion, politics, even math and physics—into radical doubt; but unlike Descartes it has not imposed on itself strict rules for advancing truth or conducting itself during the period of reconstruction following the demolition of old truths and values. Kind of feels sometimes like we’ve been left out in the cold.

Part II: Lame Proofs

I always meet Part IV of discourse with admiration and disappointment. Admiration for the simplicity and self-evident truth of “the cogito.” Descartes’ success of discovering at least one thing that cannot be disputed in this world is not to be taken lightly. Though it has its limitations—it proves to me that I exist, but not that you do—I don’t think anyone yet has been able to disprove Descartes here. He has demonstrated that at least something is clear and distinct, something I think even postmodernists can’t dispute. And that’s a relief.

But he follows this piece of brilliant simplicity with one of the most obscure/obtuse passages in the book:

I knew from this that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which was to think and which, in order to exist, has no need of any place and does not depend on anything material. Thus the self—that is, the soul by which I am what what I am—is completely distinct from the body and is even easer to know than it, and even if the body did not exist the soul would still be everything that it is. (25)

Huh? How does Descartes go from very reasonably proving (to himself) that he exists to proving that he is “a substance the whole essence or nature of which [is] to think” and which “has no need of any place and does not depend on anything material?” I understand Descartes must have known relatively little about the operations of the brain, but still, by what leap of the imagination did he arrive at the notion that the mind is independent of the body? Where is the mathematics here? What is the logical train of thought? He doesn’t spell it out, even a little.

Of course, I can’t help but read all this through the lens of modern science, which tells me, for example, that personality traits can be radically altered by modifications to the brain. (see the famous case of Phineas Gage http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage).[3] And even so, I don’t necessarily agree with a friend of mind who has studied brain chemistry and consciousness who tells me that every thought we have, every feeling, every emotion is reducible to an electro-chemical reaction. But if I were to follow strict logic, strict mathematics, it seems to me much more sensible to suggest that the body can exist without the mind than vice-versa (as in ants, say).

Don’t get me wrong, part of me agrees with Descartes that there is something distinct from the body (call it a soul if you like, like he does). But I can’t prove it, and it seems to me he can’t either, or at least doesn’t explicitly do so. It’s a startling misstep, but not quite as serious a flaw as his “proof” of God.

Some people speculate he inserted these (lame) “proofs” of the soul and God’s existence to satisfy the Catholic Church, which had punished Galileo for undermining religion. But I don’t get that sense here. What I sense is a kind of desperate urgency to prove what would be too frightening to live without, a need so strong to hold onto these two pillars of existence—God and the soul—that Descartes (unconsciously) overrode his own investigative principles.[4] That’s understandable, but, again, disappointing coming so shortly, immediately really, after the cogito.

Then again, maybe there’s just something here I’m not getting?[5]


[1] Robinson, Frank S. “The Case for Rational Optimism.” Web. 17 January 2011. http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm.

[2] A more recent version of this optimistic view of reason, especially with regard to technology, may be seen in the memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. There William Kamkwamba, who hopes to improve life in his native Malawi by building windmills to provide electrical power, says, “In science we invent and create. . . We make new things that can benefit our situation” (pg249) and latter, echoing Disney,  opines about “all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart” (280).)

[3] Actually, Descartes does realize this on some level. In Part 6, he writes: “even the mind depends so much on the temperament and the disposition of one’s bodily organs that, if it is possible to find a way to make people generally more wise and more skilful than they have been in the past, I believe we should look for it in medicine” (44)

[4]Kind of like Dr. Zaius overriding Cornelius’ archeological discoveries, only this time Dr. Zaius is “internalized.” Dr.  Z is the part of Descartes’ unconscious that simply can’t tolerate the inconsistencies between science and religion–Freud, as we will see later in the course, would have something to say about all this.

[5] Descartes does say that he explains in another (until then) unpublished work how “the rational soul . . . could not in any way be drawn from the potentiality of matter . . . .but that it has to be specially created” (42). The book in question, as our notes point out, is The World. Maybe someone out there wants to read it and report back as to whether Descartes satisfactorily explains there the mind/body split?

In a novel of strange episodes—philosophers being dissected alive, young women making love to monkeys, six deposed kings sitting to dinner in Venice—perhaps the most unaccountable is the hero Candide’s visit to the mythical city of Eldorado, a land where gold is as common as clay and peace and universal brotherhood reign. According to our text, Eldorado was a “fabled but literal[1] land laying between the Orinoco and the Amazon” (Cuffe 139). It was the eighteenth-century’s answer to Utopia and was sought by the Spanish conquistadors for its legendary gold, from which it takes its name (Cuffe 139).

But why does Voltaire, who otherwise restricts his novel to real places, often to real historical events (the Lisbon earthquake of 1755), and whose characters, though exaggerated, are never magical or in any way supernatural, resort to this mythic city? After all, the novel is so relentlessly dark, so insistent on man’s misery, the awful forces of nature, the innate rapacity of humans (remember Martin’s comparisons of humans to hawks), the indifference of God, why include such a happy, peaceful, prosperous country?

One answer, of course, is that Eldorado provides yet another sphere for satire. For like the utopias of other writers such as Sir Thomas Moore (Utopia 1516), Jonathan Swift (the Land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels 1726), or Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Herland 1915), Voltaire’s legendary city offers an opportunity to condemn by comparison our real world with an ideal one. Take, for example, the Eldoradean’s attitude toward their “pebbles” and “mud”—the diamonds and gold that litter their land. One of their old men contrasts their attitude toward these pretty, largely useless objects against “the European states, with their irrational lust for the pebbles and mud of our land, for whose sake they would kill every last one of us” (46). (In this sense, Voltaire takes a route complementary, but in the opposite direction, to Milton who tried to expose the irrationality of human lust for gold and rare gems by loading Hell with great quantities of the stuff.)

Likewise, the Eldoradean’s attitude toward religion may be contrasted with the European one. When Cacambo asks the old man “what was the religion of Eldorado?” the old man responds, “Can there be more than one religion?” and then points out that theirs is a unified religion of gratitude toward God and nothing else in which all men are priests and no formal institution whatsoever exists (47). Clearly Voltaire had in mind to shame his European readers for the sort of religious intolerance and institutional power struggles that had lead to phenomenon such as the Thirty Years War—a bloody religious battle in Europe which was “one of the most destructive conflicts in European history”[2] (Wikipedia, “Thirty Years War”). These are all typical maneuvers by utopian writers. The reasonableness of their utopian peoples throw into relief the irrationality of whatever real peoples the writer is taking aim at.

But utopian writers usually set their entire novels within their utopia (though it’s only ¼ of the novel in the case of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels), and their characters usually only leave such places reluctantly. Yet Eldorado is a relatively brief, if central, episode in Candide, and, in this case, the characters leave willingly. What’s going on here?

Well, let’s look at Candide’s reasons for leaving. There is, of course, Cunégonde, but, Candide also explains, “If we remain here, we shall be just like everyone else, but if we return to the old world with only a dozen sheep loaded with Eldoradean pebbles, we shall be richer than all the kings put together. . . .” (49). Candide has been landed in a perfect country where the maxim “all men are created equal,” which will ignite revolutionary fervor some forty years later in America, is already in practice. But he doesn’t want to be equal; he longs for superiority, even our simple, naïve, lovable Candide. His wise servant Cacambo concurs because “so pleasant is it to be on the move, to get ourselves noticed back home, and to boast of what we have seen in our travels” (49). Life is too simple for them in Eldorado. They don’t get the recognition or the sense of adventure they crave.

This all reveals something, perhaps, less about Europeans than about humans in general. We make our own discontent. Even when given everything one could want, we grow complacent, and our ambitions stir us to seek novelties, adventure, challenges, and, yes, some measure of superiority over others. Compare Candide’s decision, for example, with the speech of the old woman toward the end of the novel when she complains of their relatively peaceful life in Turkey that “simply sit[ting] here and do[ing] nothing” is, perhaps, worse than being raped by pirates, having one’s buttock cut off, being dissected or hung in auto-da-fé (91). It’s not just God or nature or rapacious men who make the world a hard place to live in, it’s our own proclivity toward discontent, our restlessness, our endless seeking after more.

When I think of Candide’s decision to leave Eldorado, I’m reminded—are you surprised?—of an episode from Star Trek. In “This Side of Paradise,” Captain Kirk rescues his men from a colony where everyone is healthy and happy.

Afterwards, the ship’s physician, Bones, remarks, “Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise.”

“No, no,” says Kirk. “This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through –struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.”

Okay, well maybe that’s all a little more Darwinian than Voltaire, and Voltaire probably didn’t share Kirk’s martial attraction to the beat of drums (as evidenced by the Bulgarian episodes). But the point is similar in the notion that humans are not happy simply to be happy. They require some challenge—or at least work. “Work,” a wise Turk tells Candide, “keeps at bay the three great evils: boredom, vice, and necessity” (92). And, indeed, this is the one piece of advice that Candide not only takes to heart but which seems to offer him true comfort, so that, at the end of the novel, when Pangloss is spouting off yet again about necessary chains of events, Candide can famously say to his old master, “That is all well said. . . but we must cultivate our garden” (94).

It reminds me of yet another writer, Thomas Carlyle, who in England some 150 years later (than Voltaire) would point out that “The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was, happiness enough to get his work done. Not “I can’t eat!” but “I can’t work!” that was the burden of all wise complaining among men. It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man. . . . (Chapter 4, Past and Present). Like Candide, the hero of another work by Carlyle, Diogenes Teufelsdrockh of Sartor Resartus, realizes that is only through work that he can achieve happiness, which reminds me of another Victorian writer, John Stuart Mill, who said in his autobiography that the moment you ask yourself if your happy, you cease to be so. And, of course, this is all not so far from Descartes who’s third maxim stated that he would adjust his expectations to his reality and who’s fourth maxim was the determination to apply himself to the best work possible.

All these great thinkers from Captain Kirk to Carlyle to Descartes share in the belief that humans, fallen or otherwise, are best served when they spend less time seeking to be happy and more time simply applying themselves to some rigorous task. I suppose that’s a version of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic,” but Descartes was Catholic and Voltaire a deist, and who knows about Captain Kirk. . . . No, I think it’s more than  a protestant value system, it’s a vein of pragmatism that runs at least from the Enlightenment (though probably much farther, even from the Stoics of Athens) down to our own time expressed, among other places, through philosophy, fiction, and film. Pragmatism isn’t terribly exciting or mysterious or lofty, but it is, well, pragmatic, and, in the end, what more can you ask of a philosophy?


[1] I suppose Cuffe means that, geographically speaking, such land existed, even if it wasn’t called Eldorado.

[2] And that’s saying a lot. . . .