Cultivating Our Garden

By | September 10, 2006

Candide, amazed, terrified, confounded, astonished, all bloody, and
trembling from head to foot, said to himself, "If this is the best
of all possible worlds, what are the others?"

Candide, Chapter

Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire

Via El Jef, a quote from Lileks that sums it all up, really:

We can argue about all manner of strategies now, but there’s one division that counts more than any other, and it’s fundamental and pervasive. Pessimism or optimism.One’s very satisfying. The other’s hard. I’d say we don’t have any choice, but we do, and that choice may undo us yet.

May, I said. I’m naturally pessimistic, and I hate it, and fight it. Cautious optimism: methadone for cynics.

As Lileks points out, optimism has an image problem — it’s not cool. Those who adopt an optimistic outlook get to be smeared with all kinds of epithets: naive, lazy, nonserious, delusional. To be sure, we have dubbed the brand of optimism that we peddle from this particular bandwagon “serious optimism.” Picking up on the Candide quote from above, here’s how I defined the term three years ago:

Voltaire’s revulsion for philosophical
was a palpable thing. He dragged poor Candide and friends through
hundreds of pages of battles, plagues, torture, and other horrors, always to
Dr. Pangloss’ absurd refrain that this is, indeed, the "best of all possible
worlds." We might think that a short story would have made the point as
well as a novel, but it doesn’t seem that Voltaire wanted merely to dispute
what he considered a shallow and utterly facile system of thought. He wanted
to destroy it.

I would have to second that impulse.

The Lisbon earthquake that inspired Voltaire to write his novel
was, in a sense, the 9/11 of its day. It was obviously not an act of terrorism,
but it was a huge, unexpected catastrophe which raised many questions about
the meaning of life and our place in the universe. Imagine anyone (other than
an outright terrorist psychopath) having the gall to suggest that 9/11 was not
only a good thing, but that it was the best thing that could happen, and a key
ingredient in making this world the best place it could possibly be. When we
consider that it was this attitude that Voltaire challenged with his novel,
we might go so far as to suggest that he should have written a few hundred more

Voltaire’s rejection of philosphical optimism is a lynchpin
of Enlightenment thinking that remains with us to this day. Unfortunately, that
well-placed mistrust has spread, diffusing itself into a sort of vague cynicism
towards all hopeful modes of thought. Those who turn up their nose at superficial
"best of all possible worlds" scenarios will sometimes hastily shun
any sort of optimism. And that’s a mistake.

There is a kind of optimism that is not informed by wishful
thinking nor driven by a desire to make everything seem (no matter what) to
come out "right," but that is grounded in science and driven by realistic
extrapolation of current capabilities. This is the optimism that talks not just
about benefits, but about risks and downsides and the need for better understanding.
Ironically, it is this kind of optimism that tends to gives us our most vivid
and positive glimpses into the future. After all, who is really the more optimistic:
the philospher who tries to paint a happy face on a tragedy, or the seismologist
who works on developing warning systems, and the engineer and the architect
who work to design buildings that can withstand the next quake? One takes an
image of what we know to be bad and tells us that it’s good; the others create
an image of good things that can be.

It’s easy to draw the hell-in-a-handbasket scenarios. The media, thriving on bad news and extremes of any sort, always push for this sort of thing. Plus, our political culture is — any more — pretty much predicated on making the case that the other guys are going to destroy the world if we allow them to have / continue to have power (depending on which angle the argument is being made from.) But this is all art-student angst. It can’t quite ring true today from the media or the political establishment any more than it could a few years ago when some of my classmates — healthy kids whose parents had given them a four-year ticket to do whatever they wanted — announced that life was a pile of crap.

Voltaire’s novel ends with our hero more or less happily settled down with his love interest, who becomes, unfortunately, kind of persnickety and not much to look at as the years go by, but a talented pastry chef nonetheless. In the final lines, Candide has forgone the highfalutin ideal of everything working for the best in the best of all possible worlds in favor of a much more modest approach to life:

“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”

That’s interesting. After sparing no rhetorical flourish in his demolition of philosphical optimism, Voltaire ends on a jarringly uncynical note. At the risk of coming off sounding like Chauncey Gardener, tending one’s garden is an inherently optimistic endeavor. It’s all about working diligently and lovingly towards an expected future benefit.
So as our friend from Jasperwood puts it so eloquently, we have a choice. We can sneer that we’re working a particularly lifeless patch of ground, or possibly that the wrong people are calling the gardening shots, or we can go to work. Serious optimism is all about going to work.

This is the 997th blog post at We’re counting down to number 1000!

  • Michael Anissimov

    The probability that the human race will destroy itself in the next few decades is greater than 95%.

    Peacefully tending a garden, to me, doesn’t seem to be the appropriate metaphor. The appropriate metaphor is a gardener forced to build a 5-gigawatt laser, to deflect a 100-ft asteroid headed directly for his plants.

  • Phil Bowermaster

    Michael –

    I don’t dispute that we face serious risks. However, I imagine that Vegas can give more reliable odds on next week’s college football schedule than we can formulate about humanity’s future over the next few decades And even then, it’s just gambling — a gambler is as likely to lose his shirt as he is to clean up.

    So forgive me if I take the “doomsday is 95% certain” scenario with a grain of salt. There are an awful lot of variables in this particular game, not least of which are what people want and expect to happen.

    What were the odds in 1957 that Russia would beat the US to the Moon? 50-50? Maybe with Sputnik, we would give Russia a slight edge.

    How about in 1961, when Gagarin made his first flight? Possibly 75-25 in Russia’s favor.

    How about in 1968 when Jim Lovell and crew flew within a few hundred miles of the surface of the moon? Maybe by then it was 90-10 in favor of the US.

    Of course, the stakes are much higher when we start talking about human survival. The variables are much more complex. But the odds are rapidly shifting, then as now.

    The appropriate metaphor is a gardener forced to build a 5-gigawatt laser, to deflect a 100-ft asteroid headed directly for his plants.

    Hey, I said we need to tend our gardens; I didn’t say it needs to be low-tech. ;-)

    I think we have to go to work to ensure that humanity will survive and that life will (continue to) improve. I don’t think it happens automatically. However, if I were a betting man, I’d say that the odds favor a positive future for humanity.

  • Bruce G Charlton

    Excellent posting. And deeply true!

    I have worked in both humanities and sciences – and in humanities pessimism is absolutely the norm. But intellectuals are more prone to it than most, and it leads to a kind of ‘defeatism’ which Orwell analyzed brilliantly during the 39-45 war.

    You can see this intellectual’s defeatism in action now, big time. It probably stems from pessimism.

    I find semi pessimism worse than the genuine article. Eg 9/11 conspiracy theorists who _say_ they believe the US govt slaughtered thousands of its citizens in a planned campaign – yet stay put in the USA and lead completely normal lives! Their actions betray their insincerity IMO.

    I guess this is sophomoric pessimism – fashionable angst combined with a mainstream lifestyle.