In today’s culture, ideas surrounding optimism are praised as a virtue for each of us to hold. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, optimism is, “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”
Such a mindset is often praised – especially, when it produces desirable outcomes. For example, an optimistic mindset may lead to a career one has always desired. Or, being optimistic may allow a man to develop a relationship with a woman he’s been infatuated with for a period of time.
When we think of optimism, we only have good thoughts. But what if ideas surrounding optimism were actually hurting us more than they were helping?
This is the central question around Voltaire’s famous novel Candide. While his response was written back in 1759, it may still hold significance in modern optimisms.
What is the Theory of Optimism?
It’s hard to identify exactly what optimism is as we each hold our own opinion on the matter. However, for the sake of our argument, we’re going to observe Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophy behind it.
In 1686, Leibniz emphasized that optimism was the role of a benevolent creator. That indivisible and simple entities are responsible for the components of the universe. While many differentiating beliefs on this definition, we’ll leave the characteristics up to your own personal convictions and simply refer to them as monads.
Leibniz argued that monads are connected to one another through a complex connection of cause and effect. He further contended that these connections were all generated into a particular order by a Creator. In turn, the universe was spawned.
This Creator only set out to create the best of all words. Therefore, everything that happens around us is for the sake of a greater plan – in other words, is for the sake of the best.
Leibniz believed that the reason we as individual humans find so much of the world to be evil is because we have a limited perception. Not to mention, he believed that humans had the incapability of appreciating said evil.
Through this theory, everything happens for a reason that’s back by the benevolent Creator. In turn, this became the theory of optimism.
When Leibniz publicized this theory of optimism, it became extremely popular among a variety of religions as it answered the one question all of mankind had been struggling with in terms of their fate:
If God is benevolent, then why is there so much evil in the world?
Admittedly, Leibniz’s answer is an easy way out of the deeper question at hand. To say our perceptions are too limited to see why everything is for the best is almost to say that you’re too stupid to truly understand what’s actually happening.
And if you find that statement insulting, you are the only one. Voltaire had a lot to say about optimism and it’s ridiculous theory.
What Did Voltaire Oppose About Optimism?
Voltaire’s opposition to optimism is simple – he believed this was not the best of all words. He held the conviction that disasters, whether natural or man-made, were proof that this world wasn’t the best. And, finally, that bad things don’t happen for the sake of a greater good.
These beliefs came to Voltaire after witnessing a number of disasters. Most notably, the Lisbon earthquake. So, then, how did Voltaire seek to answer the question optimism presented?
To begin, it’s important to understand his religious beliefs. Voltaire did believe in God, but he did not think God had a plan for us. Rather, he felt that God created the world and then took a step back, leaving life to its own devices.
This belief can be observed towards the end of Candide through the line, “What does it matter whether there’s good or evil? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry whether the mice on board are comfortable or not?”
Voltaire believed we were the mice. That “his highness” (God) doesn’t give a damn what we experience. Least of all, whether we’re comfortable or not.
Is There Any Hope for Optimism?
Voltaire had deep emotions for the human conditions. Some have observed these as pessimistic ideals while others have found the philosopher to have a despairing sense on the fragility of human life. More notably, human insignificance.
Purely from his writings, we know Voltaire was awe-struck by the fact that life can end at any random moment due to something quite out of our control, such as an earthquake.
Yet, Voltaire was also struck by the fact that many disasters can be avoided. More particularly, human-caused disasters. If people just weren’t so power-hungry, greedy, and foolish, our lives could be interlinked in harmony in ways we can hardly perceive.
One revelation many who read Voltaire come to is the fact that not much has changed since his time. While forces of nature may be beyond our control, human-caused misery is still just as prevalent. And, more often than not, we find ourselves as the perpetrators.
Juan Pablo Carillo of Faena Aleph begs the questions: “How much better are we at dealing with our neighbors and with the world in general? How much have we been able to consciously change our own natures such that we’re more compassionate, more honest, more conciliatory, etc.? The answers to these questions may seem far from encouraging.”
The Purpose of Voltaire’s Optimism
While Voltaire may have been very critical of Leibniz’s theory of optimism, he still believed there was something to it. To put it simply, that optimism was something which needs to be cultivated.
By ignoring our role in this world and accepting everything as a part of the greater good – as Leibniz insists – we are being disingenuous to optimism. However, by taking the responsibility of optimism and playing our part (no matter how big or small) in making the world a better place, we can remain optimistic.
Furthermore, optimism is not something that can simply be reflected on. It’s something that requires energy and action. Even more so, it requires bravery and decision-making.
Voltaire’s message was optimism can be obtained by anyone. But only those who work for its virtue.