Saturday, October 17, 2009

How 'Ever the Optimist' Became a Derogatory Phrase

Though I'm the first to comment on this week's reading, I'm going to delve right into the fun, philosophical stuff.

While reading Candide, I was surprised to see how long Candide actually held out in his Optimism. Though he had doubts early on, he never actually gave up on Pangloss's teachings until at least half way through. I couldn't believe the resolve he had! Who in the real world actually puts up with that much crap and still believes that everything is for the greater good?

Here I'm going to use optimism in the general term, because you can essentially interpret it in two ways: optimism in life (small o), and Optimism in God (the philosophical stance). I felt like the question of God was almost on the back burner throughout Candide, especially since he never really doubted that God existed and was good, but just that the world was not "all" good. Optimism in life, on the other hand, investigates more the question of events, and whether or not each one is essentially for the "greater good."

I was at service learning last week, and I had to help the students complete a worksheet. I was working with a particularly troublesome group of boys in the class, about five or six of them, and though extremely bright (seriously, these kids are smart!) they didn't want to do their work. They started talking, and of course this escalated into teasing. I'm not going to say exactly what these children said to each other, but I will basically sum it up for you: one kid taunted another saying he was dumb and was going to end up "like his daddy," in jail.

Even more shocking, was that the kid agreed with him, and stared downcast at his paper for a good ten seconds.

So I, being one of those people who hates showing emotion, just kept pushing on with the assignment. Later on, however, I couldn't forget what I had heard. Even worse, I was remembering things that had escaped my memory (or things I just didn't want to remember hearing)-- a girl in the class had, one day, forgotten her lunch and called her mother to see if she would bring it to school for her. After a few minutes on the phone, the girl said, "She won't come. She can't even get her butt off the couch to get a job." The girl had said this to herself more than I, so naturally I pretended not to hear her.

What do these experiences have to say about optimism in general? The first one with the boys is quite obvious, though the second one is a bit more complex. The boy being taunted clearly wasn't very optimistic about his own future; he let the jabs of the other boy get to him, and actually agreed that his fate was already sealed. The little girl, on the other hand, was so convinced of her mother's ways that there wasn't even a chance it could be differently.

This makes me wonder if the modern era has gotten rid of optimism in all forms: 'prepare for the worst', 'what goes around comes around', 'This would happen to me' are all catch phrases that are heard frequently. Candide would obviously agree that optimism, in this sense as well as in the traditional sense, is ridiculous and should be discarded as a philosophical ideal. However, I think there might be something that could redeem us all from this anti-"best possible world," and Candide reveals it at the end of its story.

Doing in itself, taking action, being productive can lead to differing events in history, which could potentially help the true 'greater good'. In Candide, if Pangloss hadn't held him back, Candide could have probably saved "Honest" James from his watery death in the storm at sea. By going ahead and taking this class, I am getting one step closer to my English degree. By cultivating his garden, Candide is taking action in the events of his own life.

Hopefully that boy, who was once challenged in his optimism, will continue to take action in his studies, and take the wheel in his own life. Our concern, then, should be with those who don't take action, like the mother on the couch. What else, then, could happen to her other than "misfortune"? I think Candide doesn't rule out good things happening by chance (or seemingly by chance), but it does emphasize that the only way to make life "tolerable" is by not being idle.

And that is something I should probably think about the next time I'm sitting in front of the TV.

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