Thursday, December 18, 2008

From One Gardener to Another

Voltaire and Abdu'l-Baha

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 18, 07 Masa'il 165 BE

I have taken a little vacation from reading, especially Baha'i reading, over the past few weeks, except that I have casually and very intermittently dipped into Voltaire. I just finished his two most popular works, Zadig and Candide.

I had read that Zadig was the original model of the modern detective novel and that for some time the novelette was required reading for medical students. That clever story got me started on Voltaire, in spite of the not-so-glowing remark of the Master that Voltaire's opinions about religion were the "play of children." Zadig proved so amusing that I read Candide after that. Another cute book. Candide is a fellow who tells it as it is, as his name "candid" implies. His foil is Pangloss, a caricature of the believer in God. Pangloss holds that this is the best of all possible worlds. Candide asks, if this is the best world, how terrible must be all the other worlds. Pangloss does not understand why there is all this evil in this world, but he is undeterred and holds to his faith to the end.

"Private misfortunes are public benefits; so that the more private misfortunes there are, the greater is the general good." (Pangloss, ch. IV)

I especially liked Voltaire's skewering of the "coolness" of the intellectual esthete. You find this sort of sophisticate in every circle in every age, the wealthy, learned, privileged fellow full of himself, so exquisitely proud of his ability to see things for himself that he fails to find any good in anything. This character is called Pococurante, and Candide meets him in Venice. He dismisses the greatest classics of art and literature each in turn,

"Ignorant readers are apt to judge a writer by his reputation. For my part, I read only to please myself. I like nothing but what makes for my purpose." (Candide, Ch. 25)

This surely is to confuse self centeredness with independent search for truth! Anyway, Pococurante then turns to a certain Latin author (the name varies with different translations of Candide, so I have no idea who it is), saying:

"I try causes enough myself. I had once some liking for his philosophical works; but when I found he doubted everything, I thought I knew as much as himself, and had no need of a guide to learn ignorance."

The irony is that this is just what Pococurante really is. He is the ultimate guide to ignorance for himself. He collects the artefacts of greatness, then discounts their real value and puts them down.

One translation says instead of the above, "I have no need of a tutor to learn ignorance." How close this is to the "cow philosophers" that the Master denounced in America. Materialist philosophers, He says, study all their lives only to arrive at the same conclusion that a cow does without any work at all.

If there is nothing beyond the senses, if God is an idle speculation without substance, what is the point of working and striving for anything? Nothing matters anyway, and life is just one painful contretemps after another. In that case it makes sense to conclude with Pococurante: "I am already a good tutor of my own ignorance, why do I need outside help?" Irony upon irony. Voltaire sums up the meaning of the visit with the subsequent reflections of the guests of Pococurante,

As soon as our two travelers had taken leave of His Excellency, Candide said to Martin, "Well, I hope you will own that this man is the happiest of all mortals, for he is above everything he possesses."

"But do not you see," answered Martin, "that he likewise dislikes everything he possesses? It was an observation of Plato, long since, that those are not the best stomachs that reject, without distinction, all sorts of aliments."

"True," said Candide, "but still there must certainly be a pleasure in criticising everything, and in perceiving faults where others think they see beauties."

"That is," replied Martin, "there is a pleasure in having no pleasure."

I am reminded of my nine year old, who looks down on things that seven and eight year olds know, complaining that he has known them forever and forever. The tiredness that suffuses his voice when he speaks of such tedium is so inexpressibly cute. Fair to say, if you can be cool about it, it is not eternal beauty.

Candide and his former tutor, Pangloss, go through many painful adventures full of death, escapes, loss, misfortune and suffering. Finally they buy a farm in Turkey just as funds run dry. They meet a local farmer who is happy to know nothing of the violent ups and downs of court. The high life and its lurid violence has no appeal for him. He is content to grow things.

"You must certainly have a vast estate," said Candide to the Turk.

"I have no more than twenty acres of ground," he replied, "the whole of which I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and our labor keeps off from us three great evils -- idleness, vice, and want." (Ch. 30)

Critics have noticed that Voltaire was a gardener, and that this novel goes from one garden to the next, from one fall from grace to the next. The only ultimate solution to the agony of life is, as the last sentence of the book says, to "take care of our garden."

"You are in the right," said Pangloss; "for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it: and this proves that man was not born to be idle." "Work then without disputing," said Martin; "it is the only way to render life supportable."

Here too we find common ground between faith and disbelief. Abdu'l-Baha was a gardener. When He was on His way to San Francisco He stopped at an agricultural fair to purchase seeds for the Holy Sites.

I believe that gardening is the hobby of the future. I believe that the whole human race should compete to make every spot on earth as beautiful as the Terraces on Mount Carmel. Everybody should get into the act; just cast aside our idle amusements and get gardening. Anyway, that is the solution that Candide and Pangloss arrive when all their agonizing misadventures are at an end.

"The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design; and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork; Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother Giroflie, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man."

Tend the garden, then, not only of earth but ourselves. Abdu'l-Baha was in perfect consonance with this conclusion. He said,

"Perfection of work is man's greatest reward. When a man sees his work perfected and this perfection is the result of incessant labor and application he is the happiest man in the world. Work is the source of human happiness." (SW, Vol. 13, p. 152)

As the Wiki article on this author points out, Voltaire worked on the Encyclopedia project and regarded it as an intellectual garden. Just like today's Wikipedia project, I would think. Thus the novel ends:

"Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide, There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not travelled over America on foot; had you not run the baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts. Excellently observed, answered Candide; but let us take care of our garden."

Again, there is irony here. I firmly believe that if gardening were the universal pastime that it should be, that the greater part of the evils that make life so unbearable would be, if not eliminated, then ameliorated. It seems that if you make any sort of effort to make your surroundings prettier, the amount of crime in the whole area goes down. For example, check out this finding reported lately in a science magazine's blog,

The Broken Windows Theory of Crime

"Its called the `broken windows' theory and it says that in a neighborhood where buildings have broken windows, people are more likely to engage in bad behavior. Maybe because they figure no one will care. Or there is little chance they will get caught. The idea has been embraced by people in law enforcement -- crack down on petty crime and you will also put a halt to more serious offenses. New York City, for example, used the logic to justify a zero tolerance approach to things like the squeegeeing of car windows. But the theory has been hard to prove. Crime did go down in New York, but was it directly related to the squeegee decline?"

"Now Dutch scientists say that there may be something to the whole broken windows thing, after all. For example, they found that cyclists who parked their bikes near a wall covered in graffiti were twice as likely to litter than people who parked near the same wall after it was painted clean. The results were published online by the journal Science on November 20th." <>

Imagine how much human nature would be improved if we became garden experts and put robots to work to make gardens everywhere we turn! I have always thought that industrial districts should not be the blight to the eye that they have become. If a process is not beautiful, why do it? If people thought that way from the start it is unlikely that pollution would be as prevalent as it is, and that depression and violence would be as endemic as they are.

John Taylor



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

beautiful thoughts, I agree 100%