Early Modern Philosophy
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Who was Dr. Pangloss?
The brilliant French satiric essayist François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778) pilloried Leibniz’s philosophical optimism with the character of Dr. Pangloss in his novel Candide. The character Candide is the illegitimate nephew of a baron who starts out life in luxury, with Dr. Pangloss as his teacher. (“pan” is Greek for “all” and “gloss” means “tongue, speech, and words,” so that Dr. Pangloss translates as “Dr. Alltalk.”)
Dr. Pangloss teaches the “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology” to Candide. This teaching is a caricature of Leibniz’s and the poet Alexander Pope’s philosophical optimism, which Voltaire found very difficult to reconcile with real human suffering, such as the devastation caused by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the oppression of the ancien régime in pre-revolutionary France.
The view of philosophical optimism held that because God is good, everything in the world must be good, as well. It is, in fact, the best world it could be, and everything in it, including what appear as evil to us, is, in the grand scheme of things, inevitable and for the best. Here’s a sample of Voltaire’s satire in which Dr. Pangloss expresses his belief:
“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.