Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Best of Worlds

In his foul, ironic, philosophical comedy Candide, Voltaire puts ten mocking words into the mouth of his character Pangloss: “Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.” Roughly translated, “All things happen for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” An exaggeration (though only a slight one) of the philosophical maxim popularized by Leibniz and espoused by other pseudo-Christian humanists of the time, Pangloss’ assurance is reiterated multiple times in the course of Voltaire’s picaresque story, as one searing incident after another befalls its characters. By the end of the book the contrast between the events narrated and Pangloss’ cheery assertion has made it clear to all the characters (or to all but the incorrigible Pangloss) that the maintenance of such optimism in the face of the realities of human existence demands not mere stoicism or naïveté but sheer insanity.

Of course, the catalog of horrors through which Voltaire issues his poor benighted characters bears little resemblance to the real lives of most modern Americans. Very few of us will find ourselves and our nearest and dearest having “to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to row in the galleys” only to wind up with the worst fate of all: “hav[ing] nothing to do.” But in making his wild case against optimistic providentialism, Voltaire was only going to the extreme to illustrate a point. To put the problem still candidly, if in milder terms, how can this be the best of all possible worlds when my dog’s died, my best friend’s left town, and the price of stamps just rose? Or (more seriously but still realistically) can this really be the best of all possible worlds when the mother of four young children contracts breast cancer? or when a fireman dies in the line of duty? or when a father loses his livelihood?

I do not think that the questioning of God’s providence in such cases necessarily betrays a lack of faith. Faith is an acceptance of the what of suffering and Divine Love. Faith says, “I know God loves me, no matter what happens.” The faithful can still ask how. “How is this thing an example of God’s love?” It’s a reasonable question in the face of tragedy, but it still betrays a certain lack—not of faith, but of understanding.

Most complaints about suffering carry an implicit premise that the victim is a good person. Nobody gets seriously exercised over the fate of Adolph Hitler; we all tend to suppose that he “deserved” to die as he did (perhaps deserved a worse death than he got) and we consequently fail to be upset by his demise. The only reason similar and lesser sufferings distress us is because we feel they are undeserved. Recall Job’s defense of himself in the midst of his misfortunes: “My heart doth not reprehend me in all my life … Is not destruction to the wicked, and aversion to them that work iniquity? Doth not [God] consider my ways, and number all my steps? If I have walked in vanity, and my foot hath made haste to deceit: Let him weigh me in a just balance, and let God know my simplicity.”

Job is acting under the assumption under which most of us act—an assumption in his case explicitly asserted, by God himself no less—that we are “simple and upright … fearing God, and avoiding evil.” Yet if most of us (forgetting Job for the moment) stop and consider we find that the description does not apply to us, not completely. Until any of us can dare to stand up as Job does and assert our righteousness before God, we might do better to complain a little less and take our fair punishment—for that is what many sufferings are—a little more often.

“But what about Ipsalalia Smith!” a reader cries. “That lady in my parish who came down with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and M.S. simultaneously! The same one who taught CCD for twenty-five years while homeschooling her six children, who cooked for both the town’s homeless shelters in her free time, and buried her alcoholic husband last spring! She’s a saint! How can God let this happen to her?!”

I have known a few Ipsalalia Smiths myself—some of whom actually deserved their reputations. But the fact of the matter is that while all their friends are eagerly laying siege to heaven on their behalves, most real Ipsalalias are not at all distressed by their plights. A saint is of all people the least likely to imagine that she deserves special treatment in the form of freedom from earthly pain and distress, for a saint is of all people the most conscious of her own failings.

Deserved or not, suffering is far from being the worst of the world. It is, as even the pagan Socrates realized, better to suffer than to do evil; and suffering can be preventative as well as reparative. “Better for them that he had not been born”—we rarely stop to consider how often God does not say those words; how often he cuts short life, health, or pleasure in order to save us from a fate truly worse than death.

But these are gloomy reasons to smile at suffering—gloomy, though, I will insist, good ones. The third reason is not a rational one, but a promise: “All things work together for the good of those that love God.” Suffering is not merely the just punishment for sin, or the lesser evil by comparison with sin; it is a work for the good, a “refining fire.”

And so even with the greatest of sufferings, sin itself. For that is the only real suffering: to do the evil that we would not, and to not do the good that we would. But sins also “work for the good of those who love God’s;” sins, like our first father’s first sin, can be “happy”; sin is, in the word of Julian of Norwich, “behovable” in the sight of God. And if sin, so every suffering, be it as absurd and radical as Candide’s or as banal as the common cold.

“Oh happy fault!” we sing at Easter. I have always thought the line equally at place during Christmastide. In some mysterious way evil brings us good: not through any power that evil has but by the generosity of Goodness itself. It is an axiom in physics that any object, however paltry, running up against an infinite force will rebound for an infinite period. In the same way, any offense against infinite Love receives an infinitely generous response—not because of the nature of the offense, but because of the nature of Love.

I don’t know whether that makes the world as a whole the best it could possibly be, but it makes my world about as good as a world could get.


  1. I liked the physical analogy, although it assumes Newtonian principles I might question. ;)

    The philosophical/theological topic is also quite nice for a break from your more frequent literary and political ones. (Not that those aren't excellent too!)

  2. Heh. Yes, I thought I'd get back to my roots. ;)