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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Candide

Candide
Voltaire

Candide
The best of all possible worlds. It’s a phrase that gets repeated over and over again in Candide. All that happens is ultimately for the best. Voltaire writes Candide in response to Leibniz, but the idea is much older. It goes back at least to Aquinas (and therefore, by extension, probably to Aristotle). The argument, in coarse terms, is as follows:
The world in which we live is the best of all possible worlds, and everything that happens in it could be no other way. We know this to be true because the world was created by a perfect God, who admits no error. (The argument for the perfection of God is of course a separate discussion; there are multiple courses by which we may arrive at the premise. See Descartes, et al.) A perfect god could not have created an imperfect world — everything He does is perfect by definition. But what of those things which seem to us such obvious flaws? What of wars, disease, insanity, infant death, etc.? Again, there are multiple avenues by which to solve the problem. Human-created disasters (war, murder, greed-induced famine, etc.) are the result of human free will. Human free will is a necessary part of God’s divine plan. In order for salvation to be perfect, humans must choose it, not have it assigned to them. The failures of war, murder, famine, etc. are human failures resulting from their perfect free will, not divine failures.
Voltaire
Fair enough, says the skeptic. But what of natural disasters? What of disease, insanity, and infant death? Surely these can’t be failings of man, and must therefore be failings of God, who either doesn’t exist or created an imperfect world. Not so fast, says Leibniz. How do you know that disease doesn’t contribute toward a more perfect world? How many people have been brought closer to God as a result of disease and suffering? What better opportunity for the righteous to demonstrate Christian charity than to assist those in need, which presupposes that need must exist? Each apparent tragedy must necessarily be a blessing in disguise. After all, God is (by definition) perfect and can admit no error. Our perception of God’s failure to create a perfect world is in fact a failure of perception, not a perception of failure. For the intellect of Man, while also necessarily perfect in type, is nonetheless limited in scope. Our failure to understand the holistic perfection of the Divine Plan is not the fault of the Divine Plan, it is the fault of our willingness to understand it. The finite intellect of individual humans may fail to penetrate the perfect mysteries of the divine will. End of discussion.
Candide makes no attempt to engage with the question philosophically. Voltaire instead resorts to a simpler tactic — base mockery. The story of Candide is a story of human suffering taken to absurdity, and of Candide’s steadfast effort to maintain in the face of that absurdity that he does indeed live in the best of all possible worlds. (Somewhat ironically, it calls to mind another familiar tale. Job, his family slaughtered, his land destroyed, covered in lice, dressed in sackcloth and sitting on a dungheap, finally has the nerve to ask God, “Um, what’s the deal?” God’s reply: “Where were you when I created the world?” Who are you to question the perfect mysteries of the divine will?) On first blush, we may be tempted to chide Voltaire for simply poking fun instead of engaging in discourse. My own reflex, captive to my meager philosophical training, is such. As I’ve told so many students, conviction is no substitute for lucid argumentation.
Or so says the philosophical training. But Voltaire was certainly no stranger to the philosophical argumentation. On the contrary, he was so familiar with philosophy and wrote so much about it that his writings were complied into a Philosophical Dictionary. The philosophical arguments against Leibniz’s perfect world were well known. But I think Voltaire also knew something that liberals today often forget: fundamentalism isn’t comprised of philosophical arguments. That’s precisely what makes it fundamentalism. It is instead comprised of fundamental principles (God is perfect and the world is part of God’s perfect plan), and any rational argumentation is subordinate to and consequent from those principles — not the other way around. If the rules of logic determine the fundamental principle to be absurd, it is the logician that must be in error, not the principle. At which point the shrewd fundamentalist will argue that philosophy and rationality themselves are a form of fundamentalism, but with rules of logic instead of principles of theology as its fundamental tenets, and aren’t our rules of logic just Articles of Faith? At that point we can hand our fundamentalist a copy of Russell’s Principia, but by then the core of the argument has already passed us by. Once Faith has entered into the discussion, we’re lost. Faith, by definition, stands in the face of reason. If it were reasonable, we wouldn’t need faith.
All of which means to say that you can’t argue with fundamentalism. The wit of Candide is that it takes the theological argument of one the most stringent of logicians — one of only two Western contenders for the invention of calculus, at that — and simply sticks out its tongue at it. It’s both juvenile and amusing. It does for theology what Jonathan Swift does for politics. I find it curious that such a simple story would be so well-remembered, but it makes for an entertaining read nonetheless.

One Hundred Years of Solitutde

One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude
Nothing should be easier than telling our dreams from our waking life, but in practice it’s not always so simple. We live at least some of our lives not able or not willing to tell the difference between the two. This is most obvious when we’re children — our daydreams are at least as real as our trips to the dentist, and our nightmares are by no means dissipated by something so concrete as a peek under the bed. Even once we become “rational adults”, the boundaries are flexible. We’re told that if you die in your dreams, you’ll die in real life, too. (Apparently false: I’ve been killed in at least one dream — shot in the throat by a firing squad sporting candy-colored pistols. The sensation of the impact of the bullet just between the collarbones, and then of blacking out in the dream to awake in my bed, was certainly a peculiar and very tangible sensory train. For quite some time I was convinced that I actually knew what a bullet wound felt like.) Most of our dream experiences are more mundane. I’m at the grocery store. Did she ask me to buy orange juice, or did I dream that she asked me to buy orange juice? She was at the kitchen table at the time, I remember that. I search for something out of place in the scene to give me a clue — something the wrong color, an object on the table that shouldn’t be there, a familiar name assigned to an unfamiliar face or thing. I can’t find anything wrong. I buy the juice.
We already have juice.
One Hundred Years of Solitude achieves a similar effect. The story starts at the turn of the last century with a man in the tropics of South America taken to see an extraordinary object kept in a box in a traveling carnival. It’s square and clear like a diamond, but cold and wet to the touch. Touching it, even for a moment, draws the heat from the hand itself. Completely strange, completely unreal, and yet completely there, the humble block of ice is something at once mundane and extraordinary. In obverse contrast, a woman taken up into the heavens before the eyes of the town and a man beset by constant swarms of yellow butterflies are treated as commonplace events. It’s not that the dreams and the reality are treated seamlessly; it’s that the seams have been shuffled about nearly at random. The effect is a story of non-sequiters that nonetheless follow necessarily from their predecessors, and a patchwork of images and events that holds a logic and beauty entirely its own.
All of which is really just a fancy excuse to come home with yet another carton of orange juice.