I frequently think about the following bit of sass from a letter that Voltaire wrote in response to Leibniz’s rebuttal to his argument that our world was the best possible world.
What is this, YouTube? Anyway in Voltaire’s response to Liebniz’s response to his response, he says the following:
I just think this is such a fantastically pithy response to a LITERAL ENTIRE BOOK that Liebniz wrote about Voltaire’s arguments against him. Imagine writing an entire book arguing against someone who disagrees with you, only to receive THIS as a response. It just… it delights me, so I think of it often.
Anyway it also highlights something about philosophy that I find both irritating and kind of beautiful, which is this: often, philosophers spend SO MUCH TIME hashing out the minutiae of their theories and arguments, splitting hairs and giving precise definitions, refining those definitions upon further investigation, then returning to the original definition having learned something new about where we started, and so on.
There is a lot of ink spilt in the name of “rigorous philosophical argument,” is what I’m trying to say. But quite often, when it comes down to it, it would actually take far fewer words to express the same argument in a way that was not only less pedantic and tiring, but also more grounded in reality. So what Voltaire does here is take the pages of Liebniz’s argument, which I’m sure had redeeming structural and rhetorical qualities, as most philosophical argument does, and level it all out with a single blow, grounded absolutely in the actual world of lived human experience.
When you have shown, in verse or otherwise, why so many men cut their throats in the best of all possible worlds, I shall be exceedingly obliged to you. He could have picked anything, but he chose his example perfectly, because it contains within it all the other evils of the world, supposing the primary reason people kill themselves is that they find the world to be inhospitable.
But I also like the line “I assure you from the bottom of my heart that neither of us knows anything about the matter,” because this cuts to core of what makes long, academic arguments like Leibniz’s seem so… silly. To be fair, I haven’t read his arguments, and I think his philosophy was probably quite compelling in ways that Voltaire doesn’t admit, here. But so much of what philosophers do – actually, forget philosophers – so much of what PEOPLE spend their time talking about ENDLESSLY, is just… pointless.
Voltaire’s point, to me, seems to be… okay, Leibniz. Let’s suppose this is the best of all possible worlds. So what? What’s next? We kick up our feet and write a few more books about it while people outside of the academic tower continue to suffer? Who gives a good goddam if God included evil in the world intentionally when GOD isn’t the one down here trying to make the world he created better?
That, to me, is the fatal flaw of a lot of philosophy. It’s all well and good, I think, to speculate about where values come from and wonder how to define exactly what a “good life” looks like, but if you’re going to dedicate your life to talking about values, you’d better also live them. If you’re going to write several books about the problem of evil and argue that the world is perfect the way it is, and God wanted people to suffer and for evil to exist, you’d better also do your damnedest to reduce that suffering and combat the evil that causes it. Otherwise, your arguments are worse than meaningless.
Philosophy isn’t just about filling pages for the sake of cutting down more trees and selling more copies and getting recognition from whatever authority (in Leibniz’s case, the French monarchy) – you can’t measure the value of an argument by its word count. And that, I think, is the brilliance of this response. In a sentence, Voltaire evaporated Leibniz’s illusions about the importance of his own work. And that, my friends, is how to use your words like a loaded fucking pistol.