It’s Hard to Find Virtue and Truth in “the best of all possible worlds”

Voltaire, always ready with a contrary perspective

Voltaire, always ready with a contrary perspective

b. traven

In this brave new world filled with a plethora of digital information there is little use for the real meat of knowledge. There has been a slow dismantling of that love of learning, of examining ourselves and our world and seeking truth, the Socratic tradition of always questioning that fosters humility.

Fortunately, when I was younger, before my eyes tired so easily, I read many books and among them many Great Books. Indeed, at one time, in addition to earning a living, I became a “Leader” in bringing the Great Books program to small groups of adults in the communities where I lived. Here, in a rich atmosphere of inquiry and mind development, I gained many insights that have helped me to see the world as it really is.

These insights also happen to be consonant with the title of our blog. By questioning a premise “contrary” to current popular modes of looking at the world, we gain new perspective.  The current popular mode of thinking is more like that of Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, the idea that Everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  Such naïve optimism is no truer today than it was in Voltaire’s world of pre-revolutionary France in the 18th century.

One delicious insight came to me from the works of the French writer and philosopher Diderot in his spicy The Indiscreet Jewels. He wrote:

If we look through the eyes of experience, we learn that nature placed the soul in man’s body as if in a vast palace, in which it does not occupy the finest chambers.

The head and the heart are the principal destinations intended for it, as the center of virtue and the site of truth, but more often it stops along the way, preferring a hovel, or a miserable inn, where it goes to sleep in perpetual torpor. 

As I look closely at our society today, I see too many politicians, religious figures, and some wealthy and not so wealthy folks, whose virtue and truth have not even found a place in a hovel but rather in the bowels of a dank and rat-infested cellar.

Two millennia ago the philosopher Epictetus wrote that No man knowingly does evil.  There are several insights to be learned from this. We have heard George “Dubya” Bush divide the world into good and evil but he felt he was doing great “good” by his evil. That’s it in a nutshell. Stalin, Hitler, and, yes, the whole pack of politicians that are running our country’s perpetual wars don’t see themselves as evil because they believe they are doing “good.”

Combining the insights of Diderot and Epictetus, we learn that virtue and truth, or the soul if you follow Diderot, of too many men reside in hovels, or even lower in that rat-infested cellar of which I spoke.  Confined to that cellar, these men nevertheless believe they are doing good even as they pursue courses of action that are evil.

The lesson is simple yet powerful: You can’t just explain virtue and truth to evil doers whose souls are in the cellar.  Your arguments will not dissuade them.  They see no need for critical self-examination.  They may even claim, like Pangloss, to be fashioning the best of all possible worlds.

Epictetus and Diderot, Voltaire, and many others consigned to history have valuable insights to bring to the empty rhetoric of Obama, Clinton, and a host of Republican wannabee leaders of our once great nation.  Ambition guided by bald ambition does not produce the best of all possible worlds.  Voltaire knew this; so too did Diderot and Epictetus.  We need to relearn their lessons.

9 thoughts on “It’s Hard to Find Virtue and Truth in “the best of all possible worlds”

  1. Darn it, “traven,” you’re out to make me feel guilty! “The Portable Voltaire” (Viking Press paperback) has been hovering near the top of my stack of “books-to-be-read-next, really, honest!” for ages now. But I’m still acquiring new tomes faster than I can read ’em! I read “Candide” back in high school, but that was a few years ago (ahem). But of course Voltaire was poking fun at Dr. Pangloss, rather than endorsing his “Pollyanna-esque” philosophy. The quotation you cite from Diderot is quite delicious; if I live long enough perhaps I’ll get around to exploring his works.

    Ethics, morality, mores. Tricky, tricky business. It is said that we owe our moral guidance to religion, but of course that is stuff and nonsense. Humans had to work out a basic code of conduct long, long before the idea of monotheism, or any developed concept of theism, occurred to the mind of Man. If there are any lawyers reading this, doubtless you’re already on your feet shouting about “the Rule of Law” as society’s savior. The problem with The Law, of course, is that it’s enforced by thoroughly corrupt government officials (and often usurped by trigger-happy “peace officers”). The law of the land in a capitalist society is designed to protect the privileged few from the masses of underdogs, and of course the privileged few often conveniently wriggle off the hook when they get caught with their fingers in the cookie jar (metaphorically speaking). Is something “right” because a large majority of the population says it’s right? Was Dubya’s war against Iraq right, though based on bald-faced lies, because so many Americans started flying flags from their car radio antennae and displaying magnetic yellow ribbons emblazoned with the slogan “Support Our Troops”?

    Do we have to wait for history to judge the fundamental rightness or wrongness of these wars of choice and the never-ending “War On Terror” with its FBI manipulations suckering the naive into hatching “terrorist plots”? My answer is absolutely not. I see it as my moral, ethical, call it what you will, IMPERATIVE to declare on the spot my opposition to anything that strikes me as patently false and, yes, evil. I don’t give a damn if I’m a minority of one or if my views lead me to imprisonment (which they did during the war against Vietnam). I am that character in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” who, with stones being piled on his chest by the local Inquisition, threatening to drive the last bit of air from his lungs, when given one last chance to confess to imaginary crimes replies: “More weight.” I am sorry if this all sounds boastful. It’s just the way I’m “wired.” Do I have a Martyr Complex? I think not. I think I am simply a seeker and proclaimer of Truth, as I have determined it to the best of my ability. Despite what Big Brother says, 2 + 2 still equals 4 and Ignorance is NOT Strength.

      • Thank you, sir. I should have added that our own Sam Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) was well versed in Voltaire, and Diderot to boot I’m sure, and spared no ammo in trying to deflate Man’s vastly-overinflated view of his importance in the grand scheme of things….And if I may digress slightly, on the subject of Big Brother: I’m sure all of you who travel by air are feeling wonderful at the news that TSA personnel at US airports had a 95 (NINETY-FIVE!) percent failure rate in internal probes of their efficacy in detecting concealed weapons!! This is what we get for our tax dollars plowed into the monstrous “security” apparatus erected in the wake of 9/11. Oh, boy.

  2. I don’t entirely agree with Epictetus. Consider the Iago character in Verdi’s version of Otello. Now there was a man who knowingly did evil and who reveled in it. There are people like this, people consumed by “the dark side,” if you will. Fortunately, I think they are fairly rare.

    Stalin, Hitler: I think they knew they were doing evil but believed that their murderous agendas had purpose that in their minds justified the horrific means. Certainly, Hitler believed that by wiping out “inferiors,” he was cleansing the world for the “master race.” And when that “master race” proved unworthy in his mind, he was prepared to let Germany be destroyed; indeed, he ordered it to be destroyed. I am not as familiar with Stalin, but I think he saw himself as the defender of the revolution even as he betrayed it.

    So, I fear those who do evil while not knowing it, even as I fear those who do evil while knowing it. Evil is still evil, and innocents still burn, regardless of whether the evil-doer knows himself.

    • “No one does evil quite so cheerfully and completely as when he does it from religious conviction.” — Blaise Pascal

      “Religion, n. A goodly tree, in which all the foul birds of the air have made their nests.” — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

      “The very beasts associate the ideas of things that are like each other or that have been found together in their experience; and they could hardly survive for a day if they ceased to do so. But who attributes to the animals a belief that the phenomena of nature are worked by a multitude of invisible animals or by one enormous and prodigiously strong animal behind the scenes? It is probably no injustice to the brutes to assume that the honor of devising a theory of this latter sort must be reserved for human reason.” Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion

      Dog Bless America. Woof! Woof!

    • Thirty years ago, when I was starting out as a writer here in Okeefenokee West, aka the City of Lost Angles, I had the rare privilege of getting chosen to be a friend for lunches twice a month with a famous/legendary Polish-Jewish film director noted for his cynicism whose name I won’t drop, but among his work was a movie titled “Ace in the Hole” which you should watch because he described today perfectly, 60 years ago. Anyway, there I was, the only person he knew who he thought might “get” him (I suspect in hindsight I was the only person in that category who hadn’t heard his stories 50,000 times), dining on pastrami sandwiches from the deli down the street from his office, keeping my mouth shut and listening. Among the many nuggets of artistic truth he dropped on me that have become map coordinates for my own writing was this:”The Villain is NEVER The Villain. The Villain is The Hero, at least to him. He has the very best reasons for doing anything he does. If you write The Villain doing anything for the sake of his inherent villainy, you do a disservice because your audience will not be able to recognize him the next time they see him.”

      BTW – you’ve got a great blog here. To use a famous line from a good movie, “I’ll be back.”

      • I had always understood Billy W*ld*r (there, I’m sure I didn’t give anything away!!) to have been a GERMAN emigrant to Hollywood. Of course, that doesn’t rule out having come from Polish stock originally. I only got to see “Ace In The Hole” after it finally became available for home video. I’d say you were very fortunate indeed to have had such a lunch partner!

  3. What I learned is that one must “fear those who do evil without knowing it ” . They are the ones who are most dangerous. We have a president today who is so self convinced of his righteousness that not only has he accepted the Noble prize for Peace but is proud of it in spite of waging horrible wars and lying about them. He is most dangerous because his self deception convinces his followers that he really wants to do good and only expediency interferes with his otherwise good intentions.

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