On Optimism – and cultivating one’s garden

Summer always offers plenty of opportunities for reading. One of the most interesting new books I came across this time was a little tome, freely available on the internet, written a long time ago and almost from the moment of its first publication in 1759 part of the canon of European literature: Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism.

This is a text everyone who ever went to school in France has probably read then; although I wonder if an adolescent can appreciate it as much as an adult with a bit more experience of the ways of the world. Since I had not read it before it was a pleasure to discover its wit this summer.

Classics can be read in myriad different ways. I read Candide while thinking about the economic and social future of the Western Balkans. I feel impatience with complacent assumptions that it is somehow a given that countries of the region will develop and catch up before long (because they remove trade barriers; because they have a European perspective; because they rise in the Ease of Doing Business tables; etc …). There is little sign for it at the moment and no reason to assume that they will unless a lot changes. On the other hand, it seems clear that there are also no simple and obvious policy prescriptions to be applied with no new intellectual effort, certainly not without taking into account the specific realities, legacies and potentials of these societies.

I read Candide while preparing project applications for ESI to work more on economic development in Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo in the coming months. And as I looked up from this little book one thought struck me:  unless policies, mentalities and public debates in Balkan societies change a lot, and fast, it is perfectly possible and indeed likely that in ten years the main economic activities will still be what they have been ten years ago, and are now: construction of private houses (some of them never to be inhabited), fuelled by remittances; the organisation of sumptious weddings, funded from money earned abroad; the purchasing of gold bracelets for brides for thousands of Euros, with little left for investments in education, new skills, or technologies to bring about development; misallocating scarce resources, one household at a time.

There is no need here to further interpret Voltaire’s 18th century master piece; this has been done before by tens of thousands of impressed readers, many much more qualified than I am. Candide is one of the most biting and witty attacks ever written against superstition and optimistic determinism, authoritarian rule and religious extremism, scholarly arrogance and brutal traditionalism. However, I do want to  whet your appetite if you happen to belong to the small group of people coming here and not having read it yet. I simply defer to the wisdom and genius of Voltaire and quote three short excerpts (The whole book is online.)

Candidate is, above all else, an unrivalled attack against complacency, as presented by the German teacher of the ingénue Candide, Professor Pangloss:

“Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause … “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.”

Candide, after erring around the world, like a naive and hapless 18th century Ulysees, from France to Constantinople and across the world, discovers in the end that looking for ultimate answers to the biggest questions may well be in vain.

“In the neighbourhood there lived a very famous Dervish who was esteemed the best philosopher in all Turkey, and they went to consult him. Pangloss was the speaker.

“Master,” said he, “we come to beg you to tell why so strange an animal as man was made.”

“With what meddlest thou?” said the Dervish; “is it thy business?”

“But, reverend father,” said Candide, “there is horrible evil in this world.”

“What signifies it,” said the Dervish, “whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he trouble his head whether the mice on board are at their ease or not?”

“What, then, must we do?” said Pangloss.

“Hold your tongue,” answered the Dervish.

“I was in hopes,” said Pangloss, “that I should reason with you a little about causes and effects, about the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and the pre-established harmony.”

At these words, the Dervish shut the door in their faces.”

So what is the conclusion of this tale, the distilled wisdom Candide arrives at … after travelling the four corners of the world? It is a lesson of startling simplicity: let everyone cultivate their gardens. The good life, and the good philosophy, is practical, like that of a gardener … sweating while working to help along things which can grow, aware that all good things are the result of patience as much as effort.

“”Grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is extremely dangerous according to the testimony of philosophers. For, in short, Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Ehud; Absalom was hung by his hair, and pierced with three darts; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baasa; King Ela by Zimri; Ahaziah by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity. You know how perished Croesus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Cæsar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II. of England, Edward II., Henry VI., Richard III., Mary Stuart, Charles I., the three Henrys of France, the Emperor Henry IV.! You know—-”

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.” “Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“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.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

I just returned from Albania. There I came across a strong sense of new optimism in this late August; a can-do-spirit accompanying the arrival of a new government.  Now I just hope that Candide’s final motto will become the guiding idea for reformers, there and across the Balkans, in coming years: let them all be like good gardeners!

Committed, hard working, confident. Better harvests are possible. Panglossian philosophies are dangerous. All good things take time and patience. And politics is either a succession of rulers, one replacing the other, in an almost meaningless carousel of vanity (at least today this no longer involves bloodshed in the Balkans) … or, at its best, the noble art of helping society cultivate its talents: producing crops, embroidery, citrons and pistachios.

Can this be all? And how does this argument relate to other current debates, like those on international interventions – from Afghanistan to Egypt? Is this really an argument for wise restraint or an excuse for selfish navel gazing?

What you make of it depends on you, of course. And yet it is always worth hearing this call for humbleness, this appeal in favour of practical, concrete and modest activism. Voltaire seems to say: do not pretend to change things you do not understand … but do change those you can, and make every effort then.


PS: If you want to read Candide you find the whole text here: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/19942/pg19942.txt

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