Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hobbes, Descartes, Voltaire

Hobbes.  Living to the ripe old age of 91, Hobbes had witnessed a bloody century of warfare in his country and on the continent. To make sense of the tumultuous times in which he lived, and basing his insights upon an exhaustive study of antiquity, he hoped to offer a scientific approach to politics and history with the same systematic rigor and airtight logic as a scientific treatise. One can read Leviathan as a justification for an absolutist monarchy, but it’s more broadly a theory about governance based on the reality of human nature, at least his understanding of human nature. A key concept is the "social contract" by which subjects subscribe to the dictates of a ruler in return for security. Subsequent writers like John Locke would argue that the people can renegotiate the contract should a wicked abuse and violate the terms, but Hobbes, living through the English Civil War and conflict-ridden Interregnum, was hesitant to put such constraints on absolute power.

I agree with Hobbes' assessment of human nature, more or less, and that's a matter of opinion. My problem is the political conclusion he draws. If everyone left to their own devices are self-centered and wicked, why give absolute power to one person? Is not the king subject to these vices as well? I am reminded of Winston Churchill's words about democracy: "It's been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Democracy has flaws, and theorists back in the early modern era feared its potential for anarchy and chaos; but I'd rather err on the democratic side rather than on the monarchical or authoritarian side. I understand what Hobbes is doing. He thinks a strong ruler is the only one who can maintain stability. But again, this monarch is just as flawed and sinful as the rest of us. Granted, as an American living in the 21st century I'm not exactly predisposed to kings and queens ruling over me.

Descartes. The intellectual climate of the seventeenth century included a renewed interest in skepticism. René Descartes was concerned that belief in God and the certitude of Western knowledge would falter under the skeptics’ razor. Resolving to take them on by fighting fire with fire, Descartes doubted everything and in the process found that he could arrive at some fundamental truths.

The French philosopher and mathematician attempted to rebuild an edifice of knowledge in wake of the skeptic's assault. He made assumptions and, frankly, some leaps of faith--all in his efforts to preserve the basis of Western knowledge and, more importantly, the existence of God on whom the assurance of our knowledge of the world rests. Somewhat ironically, earlier theorists considered him to be a radical thinker, but in fact he was quite conservative in terms of his efforts to safeguard tradition. To be sure, his work in mathematics was new and important. His "proof" of God's existence is only a twist on Anselm's ontological argument for God's existence. God would not deceive us, for God is inherently good, according to our understanding. Therefore, our knowledge of the world must be based on reality, for God would not deceive. This is faulty thinking. And Descartes never truly overcomes the "malicious demon" argument that he makes elsewhere. Imagine that an evil demon controls our perceptions. What we take for reality, is a dream or deception. Like Plato and others, he rightly emphasizes the problem with ascertaining knowledge through the scientific method--or empirical method. The senses can deceive us. But in the end how can we ever get around the senses? When one starts speaking of inherent truths in our intellect that one needs to draw out through proper training in philosophy, one comes close to mystical and religious thinking. Skepticism was the current fashion in some of the French universities at the time (17th century). The reason for this in part was the Renaissance. Scholars discovered and had access to ancient skeptical texts from antiquity that they had no knowledge of beforehand. Two schools emerged more or less: Academic skeptics (so named from Plato's Academy in Athens) and Pyrrhonist skepticism (named after an ancient Greek thinker). Academic skeptics say: "We can't know anything." But Pyrrhonist skeptics are more far-reaching and not so dogmatic. They say: "I don't know if I know anything. Maybe I do. I just don't know."

Like most thinkers and critics, Descartes was better at deconstructing than constructing a system. His method of doubt (dispensing with those beliefs of which he could not be certain) showed that things that we take to be true and unassailable are in fact not so. However, after employing doubt, Descartes wanted to reconstruct a new edifice based on basic truths that remained after his assault. He ended up using some of the assumptions that he had destroyed in his earlier method of doubt. He did not prove the existence of God. He made some leaps in his constructive phase.

I used to frown on Voltaire, for I saw him as a God-hating dandy who loves the limelight; but I've come to appreciate him, and Candide, perhaps his most popular work, is the main reason. Voltaire experienced hardship and injustice in his life, and he strove to fight against injustice, quite courageously at times.  J-J Rousseau, his younger contemporary and perhaps the second greatest author of the eighteenth century, experienced a degree of trials and tribulations too, but he was largely a winer. It's easy (and understandable) when someone complains about their suffering and wears his/her heart on the sleeve. But I admire those who take the road less travelled, those who hide their pain for the sake of others, or who at least do not dwell on their own victimhood. I think Voltaire was one of these types, for the most part. I've heard him described as the "laughing philosopher." He liked to enjoy life. But rather than see him as a shallow, sanguine person, I look upon him as someone who triumphed over adversity in a positive way; that's harder to do, less natural perhaps, than being Mr. or Mrs. glum. Voltaire's conclusion about the problem of evil, as stated at the end of Candide, is simply to "tend ones garden." There are certain things we'll never understand. Let's just focus on our own sphere of influence.

With Candide Voltaire is using an outlandish story to take on the problem of evil, and along the way he’s poking fun at social customs and political figures of his day. A few decades earlier the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz sought to solve this problem: How can we reconcile belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and providential God with a world of pain and suffering? Leibniz argued that the world we live in, warts and all, is the “best of all possible worlds.” Pain and suffering, when seen in a larger perspective, is part of a divine plan and is ultimately for the good, though we might not always understand this bigger perspective from our limited vantage point. Voltaire thought that this view, or at least a popular application of this view, was callous and too apt to downplay the awful things that people suffer. His character, Dr. Pangloss, is a caricature of the Leibnizian view. An earthquake in Lisbon killing thousands of people as they worshiped in church on All Saints’ Day is also in the backdrop of Voltaire’s satire. It occurred a few years before Voltaire wrote Candide.