Should philosophers write novels? Vernon Bogdanor reads Steven Lukes's attempt to follow in the footsteps of Candide-and of Sophie's Worldby Vernon Bogdanor / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Nicholas Caritat, the hero of Steven Lukes’s philosophical satire The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat (Verso, 1995), is no doubt a close relation of the French Enlightenment philosopher, Condorcet (1743-94), whose middle names were Nicholas Caritat. Condorcet, the only Encyclopedist actually to participate in the French Revolution, was a Girondin and a believer in scientific advance and moral progress. He died in prison shortly after he was arrested by the Jacobins. His main work, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progr?s de l’esprit humain, was published posthumously in 1795.
The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat is in a sense an anti-Candide, an attempt to strengthen the now flimsy belief in human progress. Professor Caritat is engaged in a search for the best of all possible worlds, visiting Utilitaria, Communitaria, Proletaria, and Libertaria in turn. Unfortunately he is unable to visit Egalitaria because that state does not exist.
Each state visited by Professor Caritat lays stress on one aspect of the moral ideal to the exclusion of all others. Thus, Utilitaria proposes to introduce a new drug, “Frustricide,” into the water supply to create instant mass happiness. “Once born,” Caritat concedes, “Utilitarians would do all they could to inculcate in you a Utilitarian mentality. Worst of all, they might succeed and you would end up happy.”
As a state, Utilitaria knows nothing of rights, gratitude or resentment, of innocence or guilt, punishment or responsibility-these are concepts dependent for their meaning on a belief that what has happened in the past still has moral relevance in the present. Indeed, Utilitaria dissolves the very concept of the person, thereby following Derek Parfit, the Oxford philosopher, for whom persons are no more than collections of experiences. “The limits of their language,” Caritat remarks, in language reminiscent of Wittgenstein, “are the limits of their world.” Utilitaria teaches Caritat that “the past is a house in which to live and make improvements, rather than a set of ruins on which to build anew…”