Monday, March 29, 2010

Optimism, Progress, and Lunacy

It's usually wise to walk past lunatics, avoiding eye contact or any form of direct engagement. As illustration, consider Vox Day (VD), who stands on a virtual street corner barking of the Enlightenment's embrace of a heedless optimism that declares progress inevitable -- progress toward something that VD professes he can't locate:

Precisely what that something will be is never explained in any degree of detail, but we are given to understand that it will involve some level of societal secularism, sexual and racial equality, and as little physical labor as possible ... the first Enlightenment having rather notoriously failed to deliver any of the benefits once promised as progressive inevitabilities by the likes of Rousseau and Voltaire ...
This is truly odd barking. Did shoddy thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire promise benefits that history never delivered, or did their clumsy writings fail to define the benefits of history's "progressive inevitabilities"?

Shorter VD: the Enlightenment failed because it didn't deliver benefits it didn't define.

Backing up a step or two -- again, a good idea when dealing with corner screamers -- it's difficult to imagine a more fitting illustration of VD's brand of barking than Voltaire, whose most famous work, Candide, is a book-length mockery of the idea of easy optimism and "progressive inevitability" -- its subtitle is "or, Optimism." Here's a rather famous passage from the book's concluding chapter:
"I would be glad to know which is worst, to be ravished a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fe, to be dissected, to be chained to an oar in a galley; and, in short, to experience all the miseries through which every one of us hath passed, or to remain here doing nothing?"

"This," said Candide, "is a grand question."

This discourse gave birth to new reflections, and Martin especially concluded that man was born to live in the convulsions of disquiet, or in the lethargy of idleness. Though Candide did not absolutely agree to this, yet he did not determine anything on that head. Pangloss avowed that he had undergone dreadful sufferings; but having once maintained that everything went on as well as possible, he still maintained it, and at the same time believed nothing of it.
In an earlier chapter, after much hardship and many calamities, the title character addresses optimism explicitly:
"Alas!" replied Candide, "it is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst."
It requires an especially audacious form of insanity to accuse Voltaire of what has come to be called Panglossian thinking.

Tossing Rousseau into the mix hardly clarifies the picture; Rousseau and Voltaire sharply disagreed on most everything, but here again, whatever his gestures at optimism about the nature of human beings, Rousseau's most influential work in political economy, The Social Contract, arrived at a pretty long list of qualifications and limitations on the possibilities of a just social order -- for starters, he was skeptical that a decent society could emerge from anything larger than a city-state.

In this, at least, Rousseau shared a keen understanding with other Enlightenment thinkers -- Montesquieu, Locke, Jefferson (don't tell Texas!), Madison, et. al. -- of the principle that unchecked power will erase any progress and justify the grimmest pessimism.

As I said at the beginning, it's best to walk on past corner screamers.

(via Rust Belt Philosophy)

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