Impotent Philosophy

Candide (1759)
by Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)  (1694-1778)

No group of scholars or seekers of wisdom set their sights as high as do philosophers. Dictionary definitions of philosophy indicate the scope of their inquiry: 1) Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means; 2) The investigation of causes and laws underlying reality; 3) Inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods; 4) The critique and analysis of fundamental beliefs as they come to be conceptualized and formulated; 5) The synthesis of all learning; 6) The science comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology; 7) A system of motivating concepts or principles: the philosophy of a culture; 8) The system of values by which one lives: his philosophy of life; 9) The calmness, equanimity, and detachment thought to befit a philosopher. Alas, the discipline has failed humanity and there is no more interesting way to waste one’s time in college than to pursue a PhD in philosophy. 

Why do we say all of this? First, wisdom in not acquired by intellectual means but by non-intellectual intuition or insight. The intellect is indeed, along with religion, among the most formidable obstacles to wisdom. The investigation of laws underlying reality is a laudable goal, but our philosophers have always been influenced by a paradigm that cannot contain a profound understanding of reality. In short the very definition of reality itself is contradicted by humanity’s beliefs, attitudes and values. As to logical reasoning vs. empirical methods, Buddha decided that controversy 2,500 years ago when he discovered the causes of human suffering to be craving and aversion. And he did so by the empirical method of direct observation. Logical reasoning has yet to answer any of the questions relating to reality as profoundly as he did.

Again, the worldview or paradigm that dominates the global village today negates the value of what humanity has learned to date on this planet. If philosophy is the synthesis of all learning, then an algebraic expression of this accomplishment would be 0+0+0=0. If all of our so-called learning cannot stem the self-destruction raging abroad in the human community, what does it add up to?

Philosophers have fallen prey to the trap of reductionism that has plagued physicists for so many years. The “philosophy of a culture” is another way of saying the story that contains a culture or again its worldview. This worldview not only contains the culture, it also drives the “reality” of the behavior of the people contained therein. In short, the worldview provides the answers to such questions as: What is the nature of reality? What is my identity? and Why am I here? Our inability to give profound responses to such questions reveal not only the failure of our philosophers but of humanity as a whole, both individually and collectively. In other words, no individual nor civilization nor nation state has been able to awaken to the nature of reality. Collectively humanity is and has always been profoundly unconscious.

What then would a conscious human being be like? The qualities of presence, calmness, equanimity and detachment would reveal an awakened human being. The problem with modern human beings is that no one knows what these words mean. The true meaning of these very profound words can only be understood within the context of a new story for humanity, and we appear to be a long way from shifting to such a new and liberating narrative.

Like Buddha, Voltaire tried to respond to human suffering. His reaction to the human condition was for a philosopher, a conventional one, that is to say, an intellectual one. Although his life and writings were not profound, he was courageous in his criticism of powerful individuals and institutions. He was relentless in his attacks on the church, European monarchs and the aristocracy and one of the key philosophers trying, at that time, to effect a paradigm shift during the so-called Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment began in the 17th century and its crowning achievement, produced toward the end of the 18th century, was said to be the French Revolution (1789). One could say that the American Revolution a few years earlier (1776) was a more successful embodiment of Enlightenment principles. Be that as it may, there was no true awakening of humanity in either France or America.

The weakness of the Enlightenment was precisely what was thought to be its strength. “The primary feature of Enlightenment philosophy is a profound faith in the power of reason and rational thought to lead human beings to a better social structure. The political ideology of Enlightenment philosophy is characterized by a spirit of social reform. The champions of the Enlightenment called for rebellion against superstition, fear, and prejudice.”[i]  Seemingly wonderful goals but these behaviors are symptoms of human suffering not the causes.

Voltaire’s genius was that he saw the chief flaw in the Enlightenment. “[Candide] attacks the school of optimism that contends that rational thought can curtail the evils perpetuated by human beings.”[ii]  He came close to understanding that the church and aristocracy were symptoms of the deeper human dysfunction not the cause of humanity’s suffering. Human suffering has its genesis in human nature itself.  “Enlightenment philosophy’s propagation of reason as a social antidote did not bring a halt to the ravages of superstition and fear.”[iii]  Superstition and fear grow out of a misunderstanding of the nature of reality itself.

Let’s continue our critique of philosophy with a respected philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz who subscribed to a school of thought called theodicy. Theodicy attempts to explain the existence of evil in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent God. A world created by such a perfectly “good” God would have to be perfect. In which case, those of us who see any evil or imperfection in the world have only our own imperfect perception of reality to blame. “According to these philosophers, people perceive imperfections in the world only because they do not understand God’s grand plan.”[iv]  Actually, this is a very profound philosophy and if “fleshed out” in detail would provide humanity with a much better context than P-B. No philosopher has yet succeeded in doing this.

Of course, if the world is a perfect Creation that would include human beings. Voltaire was not a mystic so he could not intuit the perfect Essence within each human being. One of Voltaire’s rivals during the French Enlightenment was Jean Jacques Rousseau who held that man was naturally good and that “only the institutions of human civilization, such as property and commerce, corrupt man’s innate goodness. He was interested in the figure of the natural man, whom he called the ‘noble savage.’”[v]  Voltaire probably considered this kind of thinking nonsense and not supported by human behavior, but Rousseau was on to something even if he could not quite grasp what that something was.

First, he was correct in that human beings are innately or essentially good—in fact they are perfect. Secondly, he was wrong thinking that human institutions or the culture corrupted humanity when it was exactly the reverse. Humanity’s unconscious false self corrupts the institutions. Or, in other words, human institutions are the product or creation of humanity and reflect the expression of the universal false-self survival strategy, the true cause of human suffering.

“Rousseau held that, in a state of nature without the trappings of civilization, human beings would be ignorant of all vice.”[vi]  Rousseau without the knowledge of modern psychology is guilty of romanticizing about the nature of human beings when we now know that in a sense humanity is “hard wired” for “vice.” Our reptilian brain or natural instinct requires that we construct a survival strategy based on our basic human biological drives or energy centers. This does not mean, however, that we have to stay at that level of unconscious behavior.

Looking at what we know about the structure of human consciousness today, we can see that Enlightenment philosophers were too ignorant of reality to understand the causes of human behavior. Every person in order to survive infancy and function successfully in any cultural milieu must construct a survival strategy which meets the three basic human needs of security (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), sensation (pleasure, affection, self-esteem, etc.) and power (control over other people and circumstances). These so-called centers of energy drive most human behavior both individually and collectively. These energy centers along with the shadow, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious round out the human false self and no philosophy will be profound or even correct that fails to take this into consideration.

How do these energy centers show up in Candide? Rousseau would have seen the character Cunegonde as a heroine corrupted by her environment. Voltaire, on the other hand, portrays the hero Candide worshipping the lovely Cunegonde and refusing to see that she is driven by her power energy center with her calculating, self-serving decision to marry the Don, her wealthy lover. Cunegonde uses her beauty and sexuality to manipulate men, which is probably for her a highly reasonable way of behaving in a world in which sexuality is one of the few assets women were allowed to possess in those days. In short, Cunegonde is just trying to survive. Notice in the following description how two of the energy centers play a role in the story of Candide. “Candide travels the world and meets with a wide variety of misfortunes, all the while pursuing security and following Cunegonde, the woman he loves.”[vii]    

The character Pangloss in Candide embodies the philosophy of Leibniz; Voltaire  reveals throughout the story that he does not share Leibniz’ philosophy which he considers naïve and simplistic. The philosophical optimism of Leibniz is true but not for the reasons he imagines. It is not the benevolence of the Creator that humanity can count on for liberation from suffering but on our own self-reliance. We can learn to depend on our own inherent wisdom which will lead us to understanding the perfection of Creation which, of course, includes our own perfection. Then the illusion that is the foundation of P-B will begin to fade much as does the fog when kissed by the morning sun.

What Voltaire does understand and portrays in Candide is that human beings create their own suffering. He understands the illusory nature of the false-self behaviors which never ultimately deliver satisfaction or fulfillment. “Through the count, who only takes pleasure in constant criticism of everything, Voltaire perhaps means to suggest that human beings are incapable of satisfaction.”[viii]  Voltaire has unwittingly created characters that embody each of the false-self energy centers. Brother Giroflée, a monk and friend of Candide “does not get any happier after Candide gives him a large sum of money.”[ix]  As terrible as the oppression and poverty that plague the poor and powerless may be, it is clear that money—and the power that goes with it—creates at least as many problems as it solves.

The sensation energy center is interesting in that it often seeks sensation through suffering. Even when Candide and Cacambo find themselves in a kind of paradise they are too bored to remain. “The boredom seems to result not from an absence of happiness but an absence of suffering.”[x]  The irony comes not from a desire for suffering but an absence of authentic happiness which the bulk of humanity has yet to experience. In other words humanity cannot appreciate paradise until it wakes up.

Candide’s name is derived from the Latin candidus which means “white” and connotes innocence. “Candide begins the novel as a perfect innocent—wide-eyed in his worship of his tutor Pangloss’s wrong-headed optimistic philosophy, and completely unfamiliar with the ways of the world.”[xi]  Loss of innocence is often depicted in literature as a process of learning about the “real” world. It is closer to the truth that we begin with a natural, intuitive understanding of the perfection of Creation and of the good, the true and the beautiful that can be experienced in life if we can learn to live in the present moment. If we cannot awaken we tend to move more deeply into the false-self behaviors which seem to offer refuge from our suffering but in reality only intensify that suffering. We could instead turn within to the realm of the heart, the NOW, which is the only true refuge and begin living an authentic story—one which offers happiness unheard of in the narrative of the human mind.

The intellect, even in the most brilliant of philosophers, fails humanity by not enabling them to leap across the chasm between the P-B and P-A. “In the chaotic world of the novel [Candide], philosophical speculation repeatedly proves to be useless and even destructive.”[xii]  Only true wisdom can enable the paradigm shift to a truly profound narrative for humanity.

Impotent Philosophy

[i]     Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet). Candide. New York: Spark Publishing, 2002, page 3. 

[ii]     Ibid.  

[iii]    Ibid.  

[iv]    Ibid., page 17. 

[v]     Ibid., page 36.  

[vi]    Ibid

[vii]   Ibid., page 9.  

[viii]   Ibid., pages 44-45.  

[ix]    Ibid., page 11.  

[x]     Ibid., page 54.  

[xi]    Ibid., page 13.  

[xii]   Ibid., page 18.  


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry. 


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