The 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz famously argued that this world of ours is “the best of all possible worlds”, and in doing so founded the philosophical study that he named ‘theodicy’ – the attempt to answer the question of why we suffer in a world supposedly watched over be an all-powerful and benevolent God. The scenes of devastation created by the tsunami that recently hit the east coast of Japan make these kinds of proclamations hard to swallow to say the least. Some philosophers after Leibniz made a point of how blindly indulgent and insensitive such claims can seem in the face of these reminders of the relentless and destructive powers of nature. Voltaire’s famous literary lampoon Candide: Or, the Optimist mocked the academic sophistry of such arm-chair speculation about suffering, and fellow German Schopenhauer, philosophy’s eternal pessimist, was perhaps the most damning of them all, saying once that:
…I cannot here withhold the statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless talk of those who harbour nothing but words under their shallow foreheads, seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the unspeakable sufferings of mankind. Let no one imagine that the Christian teaching is favourable to optimism; on the contrary, in the Gospels world and evil are used as synonymous expressions.
…against the palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds, we may even oppose seriously and honestly that it is the worst of all possible worlds.
Characteristically put more strongly than some have been comfortable with, but this is an opinion that no-one could blame the Japanese citizens if they were to share it.
In the current day, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine Julian Baggini addresses a different aspect of the question following the tragedy in Japan. Even Schopenhauer is giving the world too much credit by equating it with evil, according to Baggini. It is more accurate to call it amoral; senseless and random in its destruction. But we are just as indulgent as Leibniz to merely sit and ruminate on the terrifying powers of nature; something must be said about what can be done about them. Is nature to be worked with, or to be worked against? Baggini has no qualms with developing and applying our best technologies in the fight against nature – in response to those who say that technological advances, and endless human meddling, do more harm than good. (In this he shares the opinions of American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, and opposes himself to, yet another German, Martin Heidegger. See here for more on these two on our treatment of nature and the environment).
But before we philosophers lose ourselves again in treating suffering as if it were just a theoretical problem – optimism and pessimism meaning little if in either case no action is taken – do what you can to help!
Volume 4, Issue 3, May 2009, Pages: 533–559, Luke Gelinas
Volume 4, Issue 3, May 2009, Pages: 560–574, Luke Gelinas
Volume 5, Issue 10, October 2010, Pages: 865–879, John Whipple