Don Sanderson: The Best of All Possible Worlds


“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” — Voltaire

“Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalyzed words much too seriously. Paul’s words, Mohammed’s words, Marx’s words, Hitler’s words – people take them too seriously, and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history – sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending to the victims of their own church’s inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.” — Aldous Huxley, “Island”

Voltaire wrote his “Candide” in 1759, a book one reviewer has described as full of laughter, wisdom, comment, satire and bite, an attack on all rigid thinking, on all isms that is still worthwhile reading. In 1956, Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” adaptation was released on Broadway and flopped. He had taken Voltaire’s story and converted it into a musical, or so the public expected, but it was actually a deeply satirical comic opera, which they didn’t understand. Once they did get it, it has been successfully resurrected time after time, the last recently in the Hollywood Bowl. As Bernstein described it, “Voltaire’s satire is international. It throws light on all the dark places, whether European or American. Of course, it’s not an American book, but the matters with which it is concerned are as valid for us as any –  and sometimes I think they are especially valid for us in America. Puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitorial attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority – aren’t these all charges leveled against American society by our best thinkers? And they are also the charges made by Voltaire against his own society.”

In the musical, actors continually break out in celebratory song, some of which are named “Life Is Happiness Indeed,” “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” “Universal Good,” “Oh, Happy We,” “It Must Be So,” and “Glitter and Be Gay” while continually being abused by society. If the titles are insufficient for you to guess their content, I give you the ending of the second’s libretto. After a disagreement between the King of Hess and the Baron as to whether war or peace is better, professor Pangloss announces a compromise:

Attention!  Don’t make a sound.
I’m going to expound.
My friends, both war and peace are sweet.
In sweetness all extremes do meet.
There’s black and white and day and night
In happy alteration.
Delights one’s contemplation.
This world was meant for our content.
It was not made at random,
And all bad things are truly good
When they are rightly understood
By those who understand ’em.
Quod erat demonstradum.

ALL (in a round)
Quod erat demonstradum.

ALL (together)
In this best of all possible, possible, possible worlds.
Quod erat demonstradum.

As you old mathematicians remember, “quod erat demonstradum” is Latin for “it has been proven.”

Voltaire was eighteenth century France’s bête noir. Over a long life extending through much of the eighteenth century, he was a bold crusader against tyranny, bigotry, and cruelty. His writings were characteristic of the French mind – a critical faculty, wit, and satire – which often got him in trouble. Shortly after the beginning to that century, the Sun King and strictly Catholic Louis XIV died and was replaced by the regencies and subsequent reign of his great grandson Louis XV, who was much more open minded and enjoyed a good time and wealthy friends, both nobles and financiers, many of the latter of whom built huge fortunes by making loans to the government and supplying the military. France was continually at war throughout Voltaire’s long lifetime and after. Half of the state budget was typically devoted to the military and was balanced only once during the entire period. Commoners provided most of the tax revenues and the wealthy paid little or none. Social spending consisted largely in providing free bread to the poor, which the state increasingly failed to deliver as the century progressed. Does that sound familiar. Not surprisingly, then, as Bernstein noted, much of what Voltaire had to say applies to our situation as well. As you recall, that century ended with the storming of the Bastille and the doffing of noble and wealthy heads.

The “best of all possible worlds” theme should strike a recognition spark. Isn’t this what corporate advertisers and politicians are constantly luring us with? This reminds me of another more recent prophet, Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s “Brave New World” described a time when most were lulled to sleep by the drug soma, something like a super valium, marijuana, new electronic gismo, or a credit card fueled shopping spree. Shades of what some now appear to be considering, each individual was cloned for their predetermined life niche. In 1946, when this was first published, the U.S. was just beginning to recover from WWII rationing and the preceding great depression. The soma of that time was mostly a matter of hope for and dreams of a wealthier future.

Three years after “Brave New World: was published, George Orwell delivered “1984,” which almost might be said to be the sequel to the other. Orwell described a world constantly at war, a Patriot Act become primary rule of the land, with everyone’s life constantly monitored and the least hint of wavering belief corrected. Huxley saw some escaping to form a brave new world; Orwell didn’t. This reminds me of East Germany and the Stazi’s acres of file cabinets filled with reports about the behaviors of each of its citizens, mostly likely unverified rumors. It also reminds me of the Catholic Church’s inquisition where heretics were judged and burned based on a random selection of a handful of sentences extracted from their writings regardless of contexts. In each case, it wasn’t sufficient that one seemed to act properly; one was expected to be a proactive believer, to act according to these beliefs unconsciously, habitually, without a shred of doubt that theirs was the best of all possible worlds, Q.E.D.. It appears Orwell’s predictions are now beginning hit the nail on the head.

A year before his “Brave New World,” Huxley wrote his “The Perennial Philosophy,” about possible escapes from traps such as he and Orwell described. The idea of a perennial philosophy (PP) at the heart of all religions has been recognized, so named, and discussed since at least the Renaissance with much more skill than Huxley’s, but his book caught the popular attention in the sixties as alternative approaches to spirituality began to be more widely explored. The PP is not about wordy concepts, even if academic savants and religious dogmatists often make it so, but about practices and experiences. It is centered on resolving “who in fact we are,” given “the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know.” Paul Burnton proposed that “What am I?” would be more appropriate, while according to an old Korean tale the sixth Chan (Zen) patriarch Hui Neng asked “What is this?”, which I find more to the point – “I” is loaded with a lot of garbage.

From earliest age, we learn by observation and injunction how to think and behave in order to exist in society and the world in general with minimum problems. These ways of thought or beliefs and behaviors usually become unconscious habits. Usually without our noticing, we are constantly thinking, in effect associatively checking not only what is occurring around us but projecting the future and modifying our behaviors as our unconscious programming dictates to avoid what seem to be likely difficulties. When a new situation is encountered, we automatically attempt to “make sense” of it by relating it to what we know, again mostly beneath awareness –anything that “doesn’t compute” is usually automatically ignored. One’s ego is this package of ingrained beliefs and habitual behaviors enmeshed by the brain and expressed by thoughts, the thing denoted by “I”. This is all about survival and it demonstrably works, so ego very stubbornly resists change and will even insist one kill and die for one’s conscious beliefs, which probably have deep unconscious roots. We naturally seldom if ever question the way our egos work, if we even notice. Yet, as marketing specialists, politicians, and preachers know too well, there are ways to manipulate it. We could say that the ego is the answer to “What is this?” but there is a lot of evidence to the contrary, that the true answer is incomparably deeper, which is what the PP is all about.

The PP has been the darling of New Agers. Surely hundreds, likely thousands of books have been written in the last fifty years even outstripping fundamentalist Christian offerings describing a seemingly endless collection of practices taught by a similarly endless group of self-acclaimed gurus in workshops and retreats. These tread the pathways laid down by other multitudes stretching into the dim past. A seemingly endless number of us are certain we alone understand the truth and must tell the world over and over and over again. I only point out the immense Buddhist libraries stretching back over two thousand years to which hundreds of titles are still added yearly. It would seem impossible to wade through this swamp without being overwhelmed by quicksand. One reason for this surfeit apparently is that it is impossible to capture the experiences envisioned by the PP with words — think of attempting to define “beauty” — but people keep trying and making pretty good livings doing so. Bottom line: it’s a way you have to traverse on your own. But, why am I bothering to write these words? Yah, this is old stuff you’ve read and heard many times surely. Still, maybe you’ve forgotten.

Surely not unexpectedly, most of the old sages (e.g. the Buddha, Jesus, …) were in much agreement with the PP, that the path is remarkably simple: to cut through the egoistic morass and explore the light within, which also happens to be without. This isn’t rocket science; there are only a handful of practices and any selection will apparently suffice. But, it does mean as a prerequisite hogtying of that noisy monkey mind and all its presumptions and dropping your insecure grasping neediness – which requires faith that you have the power to do so, since you yourself is the one over whom you are attempting to gain control – oh, no! What if I told you that you are much more, infinitely more than your body and that you will never truly die. Would that help? How about if I told you that you were inseparable not only from all other humans, but from all other beings where this term is interpretable in at least as wide a sense as you can imagine? Surely you remember? How, then, could you be other than compassionate?

Curiously, those who traverse these ways have not infrequently stated in so many words that, indeed, this is the best of all possible worlds, that the natural world is wondrous, miraculous beyond conception. Consider, for example, the amazing complexity of your own body, trillions of cells, most living for only short periods before being replaced, interacting to preserve your heart beat, your breath, your body temperature, the structure of your tissues, to sense your world and imagine and dream other worlds, to digest your food and transport nutrients throughout, to move your vast number of muscle fibers in concert, and to protect you from the many viruses and bacteria that you are continually encountering. If you will be quietly sensitive to the natural world about and within your body and mind, you can not fail notice the most marvelous happenings continually occurring clothed in immense beauty, yet but waves in an wondrous ocean stretching to depths unimaginable.

Those who have traversed those realms speak of incomparable beauty, bliss, knowing, and love that ignite the heart of those of us who are open enough to hear and who often have previous glimpses of depths that somehow seem to be remembered. These experiences are ego blowing. Here, some say, is lies the future evolution of humankind, if there is to be any, which feels right to me. Somehow or another, we’ve got to cut through those damned beliefs and return to the heart.

Of course, there is still the ego problem. Ancient Chinese Chan teachers taught that three items are required of us to surmount it: faith that we can break through, determination to do so, and great doubt. The problem we are faced with is that the ego is remarkably skilled in rationalizing any effort we undertake and any experience we may have, thus reducing them to same old same old. To break this grip, those sages proposed presenting the mind with puzzles, köans, that it can’t solve, that doubt would pre-empt all such efforts until finally the ego crumples in exhaustion and gives up. The puzzles were indeed soluble, but only from a much more aware perspective. Indeed, versions of this approach were employed by PP practitioners around the world. I’ll give you a more modern approach. Advanced meditators, those who have had near-death experiences, healers, those studying psychic anomalies, those taking hallucinogenics or practicing self-hypnotism, and scientists on several frontiers including consciousness, complexity, and quantum mechanics are reporting events that are certifiably happening but which can’t be explained within the world context as we think it to be. They are finding reality to actually be exceedingly strange indeed; as one has said, it is not only queerer than you know, it is queerer than you can ever conceive. Here are the altered, trans-personal states of consciousness central to the PP that the ego can’t grasp, so it often just pretends they are imaginative nonsense; in fact, non-sense they are. Or, it may give up and permit the game to proceed. A puzzle for you: why am I here?

But, you say, what does this pontification have to do with the impending collapse of the modern world? One possibility: A few years ago, after tests with several cities around the world Transcendental Meditation researchers reportedly found that if one percent of an urban population regularly meditated, the crime rate would be significantly reduced. This and discoveries by other psi researchers suggested that if enough of us intend global warming will be controlled, poverty and hunger will be conquered, peace will break out all over, and so forth, these will just occur. Thus, Lynne McTaggart’s “The Intention Experiment.” Quite a few are attempting such revolutions in various ways, but I’ve yet to see any positive results on any national or global scale. Perhaps too many others are intending otherwise to more effect?

In 1995, after twenty years of successful operation, the U.S. Army’s far viewing unit was terminated. Far viewing is the capability to sense distance happenings as they are occurring, a skill which may be learned by almost anyone with some effort. How far the distance may be doesn’t seem to matter. An officer who once worked in that unit believes that the operation was moved under deep CIA cover. While talking with Russian far viewers, some Americans learned that Russia was fruitfully experimenting with far hypnotism, inducing targeted individuals to act according to another’s will at a distance without their awareness this was taking place. While it is funded by the U.S. government, it is often reported that the CIA is actually a function of Big Brother, though who or what that may be we have no more information than did the characters in “1984” about their own cruder version. A thought: “our” president and representatives appear determined to act in ways counter to the best interests of the mass of the U.S. populace. Can it be that they are being covertly programmed?

Still, understanding what is happening in a larger sense is little more than a, b, c. We know from studies of evolution and population dynamics that when a population of any specific nature becomes too successful, it will exhaust its resources and collapse. The territorial imperative, so well exemplified by our egos, is also well understood as is the urge to form hierarchies. We humans just happen to be the central characters in the current drama, which is actually blossoming in only a moment in time and on an exceedingly insignificant planet. The central problem is that there are too many of us and any solution seemingly will require a great reduction. Almost every species that ever lived is now extinct; why not us?

Still, is this only a mindless accident slowly crumbling the world or are there deeper issues? As those wise sages have said, the depth beneath this universe is not mindless. There are reasons we each find ourselves here and now – you’ll have to find yours for yourself – but it appears to me to be a time of great PP-related learning. Is it possible for us to move beyond these natural constraints, to drop our neediness and encounter the world with great empathy and knowing? Can it be that we, at least some of us, may be involved in creating a new Earth, or the old one redeemed by some strenuous weeding, and an evolved human species? If so, those damned egos need to be tamed and all the spurious beliefs they so zealously protect need to be shoved out of the way.