“It is demonstrated,” he said, “that things cannot be otherwise: for, since everything was made for a purpose, everything is necessarily for the best purpose. Note that noses were made to wear spectacles; we therefore have spectacles. Legs were clearly devised to wear breeches, and we have breeches. Stones were created to be hewn and made into castles; His Lordship therefore has a very beautiful castle: the greatest baron in the province must have the finest residence. And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round. Therefore, those that have maintained that all is well have been talking nonsense: they should have maintained that all is for the best.”
Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide
Voltaire’s story Candide is an examination of the belief held by many that all is for the best and that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This philosophy is propounded by a professor—whom Voltaire describes as a teacher of metaphysico-theologo-cosmonigology—named Pangloss and is taught to the naïve protagonist of the tale, Candide. Throughout the story, Candide is the victim and witness of numerous atrocities and yet still attempts to maintain that his dear Professor Pangloss was correct that all is truly for the best.
The idea that all is for the best brings to mind the concept of predestination. Predestination in theology can be defined as “the act of God foreordaining all things gone before and to come.”1 In modern western religions, this concept doesn’t seem terribly outrageous as God is viewed as a beneficent, merciful father figure. Surely if God is all powerful and all knowing then everything that exists and all events that occur must be for the best. However, when one considers some of the ugliest tragedies in history, the holocaust or acts of terrorism for instance, it is hard to believe that God as a merciful and all powerful being would permit something like that to happen. This has doubtless led many to forsake a belief in the Divine in order to pursue the practice of atheism; if man has no creator then it is easier to understand how mankind can commit great acts of evil. Still, many religious people in society blame Satan, Lucifer, or some other being that exists in opposition to God in order to come to terms with such events.
In Islamic countries, Insha’Allah is a term that is commonly used to give the probability of a future event. It means “God willing” or “if it is God’s will.”2 This term takes a step back from much of the modern thought on religion as it does not express any idea that God wills events for the benefit of mankind to happen, but that he will permit those events to occur that he has chosen, good or bad. This hearkens back to the Hebrew traditions where God was often a wrathful, jealous, and manipulating character. Exodus says that God hardened Pharoah’s heart when Moses tried to convince him to release the Israelites from the bonds of slavery.3 Was this hardening of Pharoah’s heart intended to allow God to inflict the plagues upon Egypt and therefore satisfy his anger with them? Or did God wish to bring hardship to his chosen people to prove to them that without their God, the Hebrews were but a meek group of humans?
These concepts, whether it be the idea that all is for the best, the doctrine of predestination, or the idea of Insha’Allah, have doubtless led to complacency in the human race. If all is for the best or happens at the will and pleasure of the Divine, then how are we to speed up the advancement of our society? One can only wonder how different our world would be if women had only been allowed to receive equal wages for equal work when God willed it or if the genocide of Muslims in the Balkans was all for the best. Yet, society has come to accept sin as a natural part of the world as a consequence of the fall of man.
The Gnostic gospel of Mary Magdelene gives an unorthodox view of sin in the world. Chapter 4 of the partial scripture reads: “The Savior said there is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called sin.”4 Therefore, sin is not inevitable, but is made by a man’s own act of free will. While it is easy for a society to proclaim the Panglossian dogma, it is a flawed philosophy. Man has the right to do what is moral and right in every situation. He chooses to sin and he chooses to cause the suffering of others. That suffering is certainly not for the best.
Today, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. There is pain to be alleviated and justice to be delivered. Free will requires the greatest responsibility from those that practice it. It is important to keep in mind the repercussions of our personal actions at all times and endeavor to act rightly in all situations. As the more experienced Candide tells Pangloss at the end of his travels, “we must cultivate our garden.”
3. Exodus 10:20
4. Gospel According to Mary Magdelene 4:26