Explained: Who was Panglossian?

A portrait of Voltaire by Nicolas de Largilli re, c. 1724. (Source: Wikipedia)

Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das on Monday stressed the importance of mood and sentiment when talking about the Indian economy. Despite the reports of job losses and deepening slowdown in many sectors, a mood of doom and gloom is not going to help anyone , Das said.

I am not saying we maintain a Panglossian countenance and smile away every difficulty, Das said, addressing the Ficci-Indian Banks Association banking summit in Mumbai.

But in any real economy, the mood is very important. There are several opportunities amid the challenges we face today and together with the financial sector, the business community, the policymakers and the regulators, we should address the challenges and look ahead with greater confidence.

So, who was Pangloss, and why did his countenance find its way into the Governor s address?

In less esoteric terms, a Panglossian way of life is one of extreme optimism, in which you are convinced whatever happens is for the best, and hence make no effort to change it.

The expression refers to Professor Pangloss, a character in Candide, ou l Optimisme (translated into English as Candide: Optimism), a satirical novella published by the French Enlightenment philosopher Fran ois-Marie Arouet a.k.a. Voltaire in 1759. Pangloss was convinced that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds , an idea that he also taught his young student, Candide.

While this philosophy was easy to believe in while Candide and his tutor lived a sheltered life in a baron s castle in Westphalia, Pangloss refused to part with his optimism even after contracting syphilis, becoming a beggar (after the castle was attacked and many inmates were killed before his eyes), surviving an earthquake, a fire, and a tsunami, and being almost hanged, among other hardships.

Nor was Pangloss s optimism limited to his outlook on his own affairs. At one point in the story, Jacques, who had helped Pangloss in many ways, including curing his syphilis, is drowning. While Candide tries to save him, Pangloss lets him die because, in his philosophy, whatever happened was for the best, and one should not make any effort to change it.

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Voltaire created the exaggerated character of Pangloss to mock the extreme optimism advocated by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German philosopher a few years his senior. (Leibniz also designed a calculating machine that was the predecessor of the modern calculator.)

Leibniz s theory was that a benevolent God created this world, the best possible one that He could have created. Voltaire on the other hand, believed that if this were indeed the case, earthquakes, famines and other non-benevolent things wouldn t occur with the regularity that they did.

He, thus, placed more importance on human effort and intent, something Candide finally tells Pangloss that the world may be what it is, but we must cultivate our garden .