What would Pangloss say?

In his famous and influential mid-18th century book “Candide” the French satirist Voltaire rips into the ruling classes of his society and the commonly held beliefs of the time by following the title character around the globe on an extraordinarily gruesome and fantastical roller-coaster ride.  The naive Candide blunders from one disaster to the next in the most far fetched adventure that could be imagined.  Along the way his overriding sense of optimism is sorely tested time and again.  When things begin to look up, some disastrous turn of events or terrible rogue comes along and knocks Candide and his companions back down to new lows.

The eternal optimism which the eponymous character possesses has been instilled in him by his mentor, Dr. Pangloss who holds to the mantra ‘All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’.  Now, without wishing to sound like some deep-thinking philosopher, I have always had a sneaking admiration for this naive “panglossian’ optimism.  Of course it’s a hugely fatalistic view and implies that every action and reaction is pre-determined and that whatever we as humans do makes no real odds in the end.  But the sheer spirit of looking for the positive in all things is, in my mind, a powerful belief to maintain, and far better than the alternative. 

So, what would Pangloss make of our current predicament with the world in lockdown, thousands of people tragically succumbing to a new and deadly virus and the global economy in an unprecedented nose dive?  He could, of course, point to some positives; the environmental benefits, the time to appreciate those things around us which we are normally too busy to notice, a sense of community spirit and families coming together, a hugely heightened appreciation of the importance of the role played in our society by the frontline workers in our hospitals, care homes and more broadly in our normal daily lives. 

But surely even Pangloss would not be able to argue plausibly that Coronavirus is ultimately a good thing, would he?   The purpose of Voltaire’s satire was to aim squarely at the idiotic optimists (as he saw them) and to debunk any such naive belief that everything is for the best and everything will work out well in the long run. His own pessimism might not seem attractive but, right now it’s hard not to feel gloomy about the future when the whole impact of the virus is taken into account.

The story ends with the main protagonists coming together in a kind of communal living arrangement.  After all his trials and tribulations, Candide has eventually cast aside his optimism and turned to something more akin to realism.  His last utterances in the book are that perhaps we should accept our fate and attend to cultivating our garden, or in other words, just work on controlling and appreciating those things around us.

It’s an interesting metaphor for today’s predicament; certainly our garden in Shropshire has enjoyed or endured more cultivating these past few weeks than ever before.  And we do derive more pleasure from it as a result – it’s possible to see the fruits of our labour. 

If nothing else, it’s an enjoyable book which takes me back to my school days.  It’s not too long but it’s certainly thought provoking.  Personally, I am positive about the future.  Good things will return, but we will need to seek them out rather than wait for them to arrive.

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