Should philosophers write novels? Vernon Bogdanor reads Steven Lukes's attempt to follow in the footsteps of Candide-and of Sophie's Worldby / 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…”
Like the citizens of Utilitaria, Voltaire believed that man could study man scientifically, as we might study the movements of planets, by putting himself outside his own particular prejudices. The trouble is that the view from nowhere turned out to be very much a view from somewhere-indeed, from a particular culture which its proponents then tried to impose on everyone else. Progress (as Wittgenstein seemed at times to believe), is only a word to describe the dominance of one culture over another.
The state called Communitaria, by contrast, rejects “the illusions of the Enlightenment, … the dogma that there are standards which apply across cultures and… the nightmare vision of a cosmopolitan culture that would embrace the whole world.” The citizens of Communitaria seek to escape from such ethnocentrism. Their society, with its 34 ethnic communities and 17 religions, is multicultural, based upon “a patchwork quilt of communities, each claiming recognition for the peculiar value of its own specific way of life.” Communitaria’s motto is: “Love thy Neighbourhood as thy Self.”
Unfortunately, however, there are no communities for Independents, Cosmopolitans, Humanists, Misfits or Nonconformists. Moreover, while in Utilitaria the idea of human rights is unknown, in Communitaria it is banned. There can be no standard of human-universal-rights over and above the rights of particular communities-Communitaria is just as inhospitable to Caritat as Utilitaria was. “I see a home,” he declares, “as a place full of familiar people and things, within which a person can move freely, and from which one can depart and freely return. They seem to see a home as both an origin and a destination, something of overwhelming importance that determines one’s life-course, defining how one sees oneself and dictating all social and personal relations.”
Proletaria, the state founded on the precepts of Marx and Engels, is briefly sketched before Caritat visits his final destination, the state of Libertaria whose prime minister is Mrs Jugula Hildebrand. (This section is the weakest part of the book. Somehow Thatcherism remains impervious to all attempts at satire.)
Caritat’s conclusion, towards which he is helped by a conversation with the Owl of Minerva, is that since the Dream of Perfection leads to the Dictatorship of Virtue, the ideals he has visited should be combined together in fit proportions to produce a world in which people genuinely want to live. This is a distinctively liberal position of the kind Isaiah Berlin would endorse. In reaching it, Caritat finally understands the force of Condorcet’s observation that all human ideals are linked together in an indissoluble chain. Thus the best of all possible worlds is the world which avoids ideological extremes.
Steven Lukes is no Voltaire, and the satire does begin to wear a bit thin towards the end. The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat is perhaps less a Candide than a counterpart to Jostein Gaarder’s best-seller, Sophie’s World, for those who might be seeking an introduction to political theory. As such it deserves to have every success.