The Panglossian Position

A frame of mind for leaving the European Union.

Candide, Voltaire’s novella published in 1759, is about the eponymous young man and all of the adventures and entanglements he gets himself into. It is a satire, and all satire is a lesson. In Voltaire’s Candide, the underlying lesson is the fallacy of the theoretical optimist.

A ‘panglossian’ is someone who remains naively optimistic regardless of circumstance. The word originates in Professor Panglos, Candide’s tutor, who believes, a priori, in all things bright and beautiful…

“It has been proved,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than they are; for, everything being made for a certain end, the end for which everything is made is necessarily the best end. Observe how noses were made to carry spectacles, and spectacles we have accordingly. Our legs are clearly intended for shoes and stockings, so we have them. Stone has been formed to be hewn and dressed for building castles, so my lord has a very fine one, for it is meet that the greatest baron in the province should have the best accommodation. Pigs were made to be eaten, and we eat pork all the year round. Consequently those who have asserted that all is well have said what is silly; they should have said of everything that is, that it is the best that could possibly be.”

Over the course of the novella, Candide gradually becomes disillusioned with theoretical optimism and the ludicrous deductions as they are so made above. A comically slow learner, it is only after endless encounters with poverty, torture, rape, mutilation, shipwreck, flagellation, murder, slavery, and erupted volcanos, that Candide finally comes to realise that he cannot but dispense with this “all is for the best” mantra.

If the next thirty chapters in British history are anything like the thirty chapters of Voltaire’s Candide, then we are in for a bit of a shitstorm. The initial impetus to vote Brexit was not ‘panglossian’ in the most original sense of the word. How could it be? – if everything was as it should be, then there would be no impetus to vote for change. However, the subsequent justifications for having voted Brexit might be said to have become naively optimistic. Like Trump supporters, Brexit supporters have dug their boots into the mud after the fact, and will not budge from their positive outlook on Brexit regardless of what transpires. This is an intellectual failure, because one does not need to be intransigent in order to maintain the purity of one’s political position (in fact, intellectual integrity works in quite the opposite way). David Davis recently said that, we “absolutely will deliver the outcome we want”, “and deliver on the referendum result (while) maintaining standards.” Why not simply acknowledge the obvious truth: that things are not as certain as that, and that there might be serious pitfalls ahead? Instead, serious pitfalls are rejected outright so that they can be reasoned away at a later date. In Candide, the human tendency to do this is shown when Candide thinks that he’s killed his would-be brother-in-law. While this is never an ideal occurrence, it later turns out that Candide can use it to his advantage, (he is captured by Oreillon savages who want to roast and eat him for, amongst other things, being a Jesuit), because him having killing his brother proves that he cannot be the savages’ enemy, as he himself killed a Jesuit. Useful, for sure, but if he hadn’t stabbed his brother through the chest he probably wouldn’t have ended up being captured by savages in the first place. Denying the inconvenience of a matter after the fact, is basically to apply the mantra that everything happens for a reason. In Brexit terms: standards might slip, but everything happens for a reason, and it’s all part of a bigger, more meaningful picture, so what of it?

But does Voltaire, in his scolding criticism of Professor Panglos’ outlook on life, get it entirely right? Might there not be something beneficial to naivety? Naivety allows for a get-up-and-go attitude that refuses to dwell on setbacks. After all, naive optimism certainly helped Candide through quite the ordeal. He overcomes stupefying odds, and is eventually reunited with his love, Miss. Cunegund, at a fleet at Cadiz, where they aim to sail away together into the sunset…

“We are now going into another world, and surely it must be there that everything is for the best; for I must confess that we have had some little reason to complain of what passes in ours, both as to the physical and moral part. Though I have a sincere love for you,” said Miss Cunegund, “yet I still shudder at the reflection of what I have seen and experienced.”
“All will be well,” replied Candide, “the sea of this new world is already better than our European seas: it is smoother, and the winds blow more regularly.”
“God grant it,” said Cunegund, “but I have met with such terrible treatment in this world that I have almost lost all hopes of a better one.”
“What murmuring and complaining is here indeed!” cried the old woman. “If you had suffered half what I have, there might be some reason for it.”
Miss Cunegund could scarce refrain from laughing at the good old woman, and thought it droll enough to pretend to a greater share of misfortunes than her own.

The first sentence here is not logical; it does not follow that, now they are going into another world, everything will be for the best. And, similarly, it does not follow that whatever the outcome of Brexit, it will be for the best. This said, there might be something to stoicism as advocated by the old woman, a stoicism through which naive optimism might be reconciled.

Satire is a lesson. The lesson one could take away from this text with regards to Brexit is that, whatever happens, it is not going to be the end of the world. But this outlook seems to clash with what we know about Brexiteers… head behind the parapet, draw up the drawbridge, slacken your slacks… surely this cannot be The Panglossian Position, for where is the optimism in any of that?

Well, as Stephen Pinker points out, Prof. Panglos, and any true panglossian, are actually pessimists on a technicality. Why? Because they do not think that the world can get any better than it already is. In this sense, then, The Panglossian Position is held by voters who believed that the EU could not be reformed, and who therefore wanted to wash their hands and be done with it. However, I would argue that is only proto-panglossian. In its fully fledged form, The Panglossian Position acknowledges that the EU could not be reformed, but holds out hope that in a post-Brexit world, some of its essence may yet be saved.

Imagine, briefly, that Britain did not vote to leave the EU.

This counterfactual is an interesting one because it mirrors exactly a US election counterfactual that the historian Niall Ferguson put forth on a podcast with Sam Harris. Ferguson posited that, if Hillary had won the election, the situation today would be just as bad if not worse than things are currently. The Trump phenomenon would never have been put to the test; the anger of middle America would never have had an outlet; and nobody who voted for Trump would have had the opportunity to become disillusioned with him (as opinion polls now seem to be showing). And of course the conspiracy theorists would be unstoppable! Hillary would have rigged it! And Bannon would have become a martyr.

Imagine, now, that we did not vote to leave the EU. Reform would have been off the table. Possibly Le Pen would have won in France, possibly not, but if Macron still took the victory, it remains probable that the impetus for reform would not have been at the forefront of Macron’s thinking. So, The Panglossian Position is to recognise that exercising a democratic right is a cathartic act which releases forces of change. And this was surely needed; the current international order is one in which both climate change and the migration crisis go largely unattended.

Hence, The Panglossian Position on Brexit as I understand it reverts back to the theoretical optimism which Voltaire personified through Professor Panglos. I talk, of course, about the Brexiteer who has an optimistic, even an idealised view, of internationalism. David Davis said that we will not “be plunged into a Mad-Max style world borrowed from dystopian fiction.” The Panglossian Position is not really concerned with so parochial a concern. We will be fine either way. The Panglossian Position is more about upholding higher standards of internationalism than those set by the European Commission, and a panglossian is someone who naively hopes, despite the tremours in Italy, for the rebirth of Europe.

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