I made the generalization that the thinkers of the 18th century,
particularly those people we call the philosophes, turned to
reason for answers
to mankind's problems. They thought reason would end poverty,
war, injustice, help them create the ideal political and social system,
and give them the ultimate answers in religion.
Certainly some of the philosophes had great faith in reason: Diderot
and Condorcet are good examples of this. Rousseau is a somewhat
more ambiguous figure. Some of his work points toward the
Romantic movement with its emphasis on emotion and natural impulse
rather than reason. But he also had to an extent a great deal
of faith in reason--at least his own. He seems to have been
quite confident that the ideas in his "Social Contract" would form a
solid basis for creating a better political and social system.
Likewise, he seems to believe that his own religious ideas are superior
to traditional Christianity.
Like so many of the Philosophes, Rousseau drifts away from
Traditional Christianity toward a religious philosophy we call Deism.
The easiest way to think of Deism is as an attempt to create a
"religion of reason."
Now one might think that if one wanted a reasonable religion,
Christianity was the way to go. In the 17th century, writers like
Locke had certainly thought so. Locke's "Reasonableness of
Christianity," for instance, tried to show that Christian teaching
consisted mostly of things in accord with reason, i.e., that reason
itself would show to be true even without scriptural
confirmation. Locke argued that, while some aspects of
Christianity were "above reason," i.e., things that could not be proved
through reason alone, there was nothing at all in it that was contrary
The philosophes admired Locke, but many of them had trouble with the
parts of Christianity that were "above reason." They wanted a
religion that had things in accord with reason, but nothing at all
above reason let alone contrary to reason. The Deist philosophy
seemed to fit the bill.
Deism kept certain elements of traditional Christianity that seemed
reasonable. Belief in God seemed reasonable: supported by things
like the "first cause" argument and the "argument from design."
Christian morality seemed reasonable as well: do unto others as you
would have them do unto you makes logical sense.
But the Deists didn't like aspects of Christianity they considered
superstitious. The didn't believe in Satan or demons. They
didn't believe in miracles (which, by definition, are above
reason). They didn't like priests or religious rituals.
Thomas Jefferson is an excellent example of the Deist
philosophy. Jefferson came up with his own version of the New
Testament in which he kept the things that he liked and eliminated the
things he didn't. Things like the parables and the Sermon on the
Mount were things Jefferson loved. But the virgin birth, the
miracles of healing, the resurrection--all those things had to go.
Some Deists were confident that reason could do more than simply
give them a religious philosophy more to their own taste than
traditional Christianity. Some of them thought reason alone
could solve difficult philosophical problems, e.g., the problem of evil.
The "problem of evil" is essentially this: if the world is created
by an all powerful, all good, all loving God, how could there possibly
be evil in the world? Judaism and traditional Christianity had
some solid answers. The books of Job, Habakkuk, and Daniel, for
instance, all deal effectively with the problem of evil. But, to
a certain extent, the traditional answers posited the existence of an
evil force contrary to God: a devil at work.
The Deists didn't believe in the devil, so traditional answers to
the problem of evil didn't work so well for them. To solve the
problem of evil, many of them turned to a philosophy called Optimism.
Optimism was a religious philosophy developed by Gottfried Leibnitz
in the 17th century. Leibnitz himself was a brilliant
thinker. He was a master of many languages, and one of the
greatest mathematicians in history. He invented calculus (yes,
I know, I told you Newton invented calculus, but both men were
working along the same lines, and they both deserve credit).
In addressing the problem of evil, Leibnitz said to look first
at the composition of the world. All things in this world
are composed of what he called monads. All these monads
were together in one great harmonious whole guided by the Great Monad,
Now it's nice to feel one is part of a great harmonious whole.
"You are a child of the universe," said that old 60's song, "as much as
the trees and stars you have a right to be here." All well and
good. But it's obvious that we are *not* always working together
in one great harmonious whole. Things go wrong all the
What's happening? Is the Great Monad slipping up?
No, says Leibnitz. The Great Monad considered for us all
possible worlds. What kind of worlds could he have created?
Well, he might have created a world with lots of evil and no
good. He might have created a world with no evil, but only a
little bit of good. Or, he might have created a world with a
little bit of evil, but lots of good. Of all the possible
combinations, the Great Monad choose for us the best: the world that
does have a little bit of evil, but the world with lots of good.
We are living in the "best of all possible worlds," and that is
what the Optimist philosophy is, the idea that we live in the optimum
world, the best of all possible worlds.
But why did the Great Monad not give us a world with lots of good
and no evil? Because, says Leibnitz, that is not a possible
world. In order for there to be much good in the world, we have
to be something other than robots. We have to have free
will. But the possibility of free will meant that monads could
deviate from the general harmony set up by the Great Monad: there would
be evil in the world. And so to get the great good of free will
(for ust to be something other than programmed robots) it was necessary
to introduce a little bit of evil into the world.
For some of the Philosophes, this seemed very plausible. The
Optimist philosophy had successfully used reason to solve the problem
Not all the philosophes, however, were quite this confident. One example: Voltaire. Voltaire was in some ways one of the best reasoners of all the philosophes, and yet he was also the one who saw most clearly the limits of reason. Voltaire was especially critical of ideas of the Optimists, the people who thought they could use reason to address the problem of evil, i.e. to explain how, if the world was the creation of a good God, there could be evil and suffering in the world. Voltaire satirizes their ideas unmercifully in Candide.
Voltaire attacks first the ideas that this is the best of all possible worlds. Even in the beginning, all is not truly well (though Voltaire mockingly describes the castle where Candide grows up as the best of all possible castles in the best of all possible worlds). Note, for instance, that Candide's mother wouldn't marry his father. Why? Because dad could only trace his ancestry for 71 generations! Noble, but not noble enough. This kind of thing is absurd, certainly unnecessary in the best of all possible worlds. But, while even in the beginning not all is perfect, things go down hill from there. Candide is kicked out of the castle and forced into the army. Cunegonde is raped, stabbed, left for dead. Pangloss ends up at the point of death from Syphilis. The book is filled with accounts of horrible things happening to people: women are raped and mutilated and men are tortured and killed for no reason at all. Earthquakes destroy thousands of people. Further, all this happens without any rhyme or reason. Good people die, while the evil prosper. James the Anabaptist, for instance, is drowned by the worthless sailor whose life he saves.
But is all this truly without rhyme or reason? Isn't all
evil necessary to bring some greater good? Voltaire considers
argument (p. 26).
"O my dear Candide, you must remember Pacquette, that pretty wench, who waited on our noble Baroness; in her arms I tasted the pleasures of Paradise, which produced these Hell torments with which you see me devoured. She was infected with an ailment, and perhaps has since died of it; she received this present of a learned Franciscan, who derived it from the fountainhead; he was indebted for it to an old countess, who had it of a captain of horse, who had it of a marchioness, who had it of a page, the page had it of a Jesuit, who, during his novitiate, had it in a direct line from one of the fellow adventurers of Christopher Columbus; for my part I shall give it to nobody, I am a dying man."
"O sage Pangloss," cried Candide, "what a strange genealogy is this! Is not the devil the root of it?"
"Not at all," replied the great man, "it was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not caught in an island in America this disease, which contaminates the source of generation, and frequently impedes propagation itself, and is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should have had neither chocolate nor cochineal. It is also to be observed, that, even to the present time, in this continent of ours, this malady, like our religious controversies, is peculiar to ourselves. The Turks, the Indians, the Persians, the Chinese, the Siamese, and the Japanese are entirely unacquainted with it; but there is a sufficing reason for them to know it in a few centuries. In the meantime, it is making prodigious havoc among us, especially in those armies composed of well disciplined hirelings, who determine the fate of nations; for we may safely affirm, that, when an army of thirty thousand men engages another equal in size, there are about twenty thousand infected with syphilis on each side."
Syphilis is necessary so we can have chocolate! Now what about
this? Which is the best of all possible worlds? The world
with no syphilis but no chocolate, or the world that has syphilis but
*also* has chocolate? Only a true chocoholics would go for the
But note the shift here. The Optimists don't argue that the
greater good is chocolate. What happens to free will?
Voltaire makes it clear that
there's no such thing. Like John Locke, he thinks that "free" is an
adjective that can't be legitimately used to describe the will.
Would we talke about a "green" will or an "orange" will? "Free"
will makes no more sense than that.
And even if we say that the will is free, is it such a good thing to
have? Note the kind of choices we have in this world, e.g.,
Candide's choice between getting a bullet through
brain and running a gauntlet of 3000 men and getting beaten 36
times. Not so good!
Now Voltaire might buy the idea that this is best of all
worlds anyway despite all the evil. But what really shoots down
of all possible worlds argument is that nobody is happy. Candide
and Martin talk to person after person--a rich
a monk, a pretty girl--and none of them are happy. The rich man
is bored, the monk hates the monastery, and the girl--well, she's been
beaten and mistreated in every possible way: and to make matters worse,
she has to put on a happy face just to please the monk: Voltatire
suggesting to us that behind even the apparently happy faces is often
great sorrow and that one of the most painful parts of life is to have
to put up a good front while we are hurting inside.
Another reason for rejecting the "best of all possible worlds" argument is that it's so easy to imagine a world better than this one, e.g. El Dorado, a world of equality, simple religion, and no overemphasis on wealth.
At every turn, Voltaire holds up the Optimist position to ridicule. But what of Voltaire himself? Does he have a solution of his own. Sort of: one of the last lines in the book, and, perhaps the most famous line in Candide, "Cultivate your own garden." Work hard, mind your own business. This the best we can do. As for understanding the problem of evil, Voltaire would recommend we remain content with the legal abbreviation N.L. non liquet--it is not clear.
Many of you liked Candide, many probably didn't. In many ways, it's
a sad book, and an ugly book. Voltaire insists that the world is
place, and a sad place as well. Perhaps the saddest thing of all
the world is so unreasonable. If you are right, if you have
on your side, and you speak the truth--you end up imprisoned or dead
(see Voltaire's Philosophical
Dictionary entry on reason).
Perhaps the saddest passage of all in Voltaire's writing is a passage, not from Candide, but from his Philosophical Dictionary. (p. 194 of Viking portable Voltaire) Voltaire describes an imaginary visit to the realm of the dead. What he sees there appalls him. Body on body piled up, all killed in the name of religion, some killed by pagans, other by Jews, other by Moslems. But the biggest pile of bodies, those created by those who call themselves Christians. Voltaire converses with some that are killed, including Socrates. Then he passes on to one to whom he gives no name, but he describes him. He calls him a young man of perhaps 35, but with horrible wounds in his hands and feet. His side had been pierced with a spear, and his body covered with the lashes of a whip. Voltaire asks who had done this to him. Answer: hypocritical priests and judges. Why? Had he taught some new religion? No, he had simply told people to love God with all heart and to love others as themselves." Was he responsible for all the bodies piled up, those killed in his name. Reply: no, rather appalled by the murders. Did he approve of the wealth and ostentatious buildings and clothing of those who claimed to speak for him. No: he and his true followers had been poor, claiming nothing of this worlds riches. Did he not encourage people to be intolerant, dividing themselves up into hostile religious camps? No: he had made no difference, even between Jews and Samaritans.
Voltaire then says, "Well if that is so, I will take you for my only master." Voltaire says that then, "The vision disappeared, and a clear conscience stayed with me."
Well, perhaps Voltaire's story wouldn't have been so sad if he had followed up his decision here with any kind of resolution. He doesn't seem to have done so, often even mocking what seems to me maybe the best hope there could be for this unhappy world. In any case, Voltaire is clearly an unhappy camper. "Life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel," runs the cliche. But it's just not true here: Voltaire is an unhappy camper--like so many other funny men. It's an odd thing, but the combination of being extremely bright and extremely unhappy can often lead to some very funny stuff, as it does in Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, Richard Pryor, and so many other commedians.
Now if this were the best of all possible worlds, I'd end the lecture right here. But it's not, and so I'm going to take a stab at explaining to you one more philosopher, the German thinker Immanuel Kant.
Immanuel Kant was hardly the kind of man you imagine changing
Most of his life, he was on the brink of poverty. His life
was as boring and
uneventful as can be. He never traveled very far from town he was
born. He never married or even had a serious romantic
Early in his academic career, he established
a routine that never varied. Up in the morning.
One pipe. Lectures. Lunch. Conversation. A
Study. Bed. Day after day, year after year.
His books at first very little regarded. Understandably! Here's a typical passage.
"The idea of a moral world has, therefore, objective reality, not as referring to an object of intelligible intuition--for of such an object we can form no conception whatever--but to the world of sense--conceived, however, as an object of pure reason in its practical use--and to a corpus mysticum of rational beings in it, in so far as the liberum arbitrium of the individual is placed, under and by virtue of moral laws, in complete systematic unity both with itself, and with the freedom of all others."
One sentence. And some of you think my lectures are hard to understand! And some of you think, "Hey, I write like that, and my teachers give me bad grades." Well, so be it.
Why bother with Kant? It's because he is such a good example of both the philosophes faith in reason and their ideas on the possible limits of reason.
Kant's Critique of
Pure Reason and his Prolegomena
to any Future Metaphysics challenge all earlier
metaphysical ideas, especially the arguments of Aristotle, Anselm,
Descartes, etc., for the existence
of God. Pure reason, says Kant, can never give us true knowledge
of the world. What we know, says Kant is not
phenomena: our impressions of things, impressions colored by our
reason. Is there any bridge between a thing-in-itself and our
Yes! Now here's the tricky part of Kant's philosophy. The
bridge between the real world and the world of ideas, says Kant,
duty. Kant says that our reason is able to figure out certain
laws, among them the categorical imperative.
Kant suggests that, whenever we contemplate a course of actions, we ought to consider what the result would be if all people in similar circumstances were to follow that course. If we would approve of the result, then that's the thing we ought to do. If we don't approve, that's the thing we ought not to do. This is the "categorical imperative": in any type of action ("category") we can figure out what we should do (the "imperative."). Through the "categorical imperative," then, reason shows us how we ought to behave. Furthermore reason will show us we *can* do what we ought to do. By doing what we ought to do, we make what ought to be into actuallity--an actuality that we participate in and therefore know.
Now all this is difficult--but I can condense it for you
enough. Kant ultimately believes that reason can do quite a lot,
but only if coupled with morality (the basic Golden Rule principle).
It can lead to knowledge
of the world and even to a better understanding of the God who created
the world. And ultimately, Kant assures us, reason can make us
How? By telling us what our duty is, by showing us we *can* do we
we ought to do, and by assuring use we deserve to be happy if we do
what we ought to do. And, further, it will actually make us
happy:, because there is no greater happiness than knowing we have done
the very thing we ought to have done. Many people think happiness
consists of doing what you want to do. Kant insists it consists
of doing what you ought to do.
Well, is he right? How about it? You have done your duty
for today: listened to my lecture (or read it here online). You have
done your duty. And aren't you happy? I suspect that you
are at least happy that your duty is done.