Attributed to Voltaire. "The best is the enemy of the good." The idea is that one should not allow the pursuit of an unattainable perfection to impede progress toward an attainable goal which, while not perfect, is better than the outcome that is likely to result if one seeks the unattainable.
Here is another formulation, not as accurate, but pithier and replete with trademark MavPhil alliteration: Permit not the pursuit of the perfect to preempt the possible.
Meditation on this truth may help conservatives contain their revulsion at their lousy choices. Barack Obama, who has proven to be a disaster for the country and for the world, was elected in 2008 in part because of conservatives who could not abide John McCain. And he was re-elected in 2012 in part because of disgusted conservatives who fail to heed Voltaire's principle and refused to vote for the milquetoast conservative, Mitt Romney. But surely it is obvious in hindsight that the milquetoast would have been preferable to the radical?
And now we face another ugly choice, this time between the vulgarian Trump and the hard-leftist Hillary. Some will vote for neither or throw away their vote on a third-party candidate. If you are a liberal, I warmly recommend that you vote for Jill Stein.
But if you are a conservative, you must vote for Trump. What is the force of the 'must'? It is at least prudential, if not moral. It is surely not legal. You are not legally obliged to vote in these United States. This is the way it should be.
Politics is a practical business conducted in a far from perfect world. While it is not always about the lesser of evils, in most situations it is, including the one before us. But perhaps we should avoid the word 'evil,' which I have found confuses people. Let's just say that in the real world political choices are not between the good and the bad, but between the better and the worse. Real-world politics is not about being ideologically pure. It is about accomplishing something in a concrete situation in which holding out for the best is tantamount to acquiescing in the bad. Political choices are forced options in roughly William James' sense: he who abstains chooses nolens volens, willy-nilly. Not choosing the better amounts to a choice of the worse.
Now maybe that is too strong a way of putting it if precision is at a premium. After all, if you refuse to vote for Trump, that is not a vote for Hillary since you may vote for neither. But by not voting for Trump, you aid Hillary inasmuch as you fail to do something that you can very easily do that will have the admittedly tiny effect of impeding her in her Obaminable quest to "fundamentally transform America."
I am of course assuming that Trump is better than Hillary. That is easily shown by the SCOTUS argument which has been elaborated by any number of distiguished commentators including William J. Bennett, Dennis Prager, and Hugh Hewitt, not to mention your humble correspondent. The responses to the SCOTUS argument that I have seen are breathtakingly lame. I am not in the mood to go over this ground again. In any case it is time for lunch.
Don't be a fool. Don't let the best or the better become the enemy of the good. Try to achieve something achievable. Don't pine after the unattainable. Impossible dreams are for liberals, not reality-anchored conservatives. It did not surprise me when I learned that Ted Kennedy's favorite song was The Impossible Dream. Figures!
The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham, Chicago, The Swallow Press, 1971.
Here lies my wife. Eternal peace Be to us both with her decease.
I married in my youth a wife. She was my own, my very first. She gave the best years of her life. I hope nobody gets the worst.
J. V. Cunningham is the model for John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner. An underappreciated and unfortunately titled masterpiece, it is about one William Stoner, an obscure professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia. At its publication in '65 it pretty much fell still-born from the press, but the years have been kind to it and it is now valued as the great novel that it is. Unfortunately, Williams, who died in 1994, did not live to see its success.
(4.) John Williams, Stoner (1965). Based on the life of J. V. Cunningham and especially his disastrous marriage to Barbara Gibbs. Easily the best novel ever written about the determined renunciations and quiet joys of the scholarly life. Stoner suffers reversal after reversal—a bad marriage, persecution at the hands of his department chair, the forced breakup of a brief and fulfilling love affair with a younger scholar—but he endures because of two things: his love for his daughter, who wants nothing more than to spend time with her father while he writes his scholarship, and his work on the English Renaissance. His end is tragic, but Stoner does not experience it that way. A genuinely unforgettable reading experience.
"Genuinely unforgettable" sounds like hype, but this is one novel I, for one, will not forget. For more by Myers on Stoner, see here.
My copy of the novel sports a blurb by Myers: "It will remind you of why you started reading novels: to get inside the mystery of other people's lives." Yes.
A merton is a person who doesn't distinguish between studying a subject and writing a book about it.
Cf. The Journals of Thomas Merton, vol. III, 136: "Thought of writing a book on Columbia under Spain . . ..") In his short life Merton published some 60 books, some of them good, some of them but attempts to work his way into a subject.
I borrow this fine line from Dennis Prager. (I just now heard him say something that I would put as follows: a Jew can no more lose his Jewishness by the assimilation consequent upon bearing a name such as 'Dennis' than a Chomsky can preserve his Jewishness by bearing the name 'Noam.')
But I digress. The MavPhil obverse of 'Happy wife, happy life' is Wife's a bitch, life's a bitch.
As it stands, a maxim, and true as far as it goes. But in need of qualification which, when added, makes it a maxim no longer. Brevity is essential to the maxim as it is to the aphorism and the epigram.
Closer to the truth is the following. Teaching, we learn; but only up to a point beyond which studying without having to teach is much to be preferred if the goal is an advance in understanding and erudition.
I never knew logic so well as after having taught it for a couple of years. But then the maxim lost its truth.
4. Note the poetically pleasing addition by the author of his name to the title of his collection.
5. My copy of Cunningham's collection, a well-made hard bound, acquired via Amazon, is a Mount Mary College (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) library discard. There is no evidence that it is a second copy. How naive of me to think that libraries ought to be permanent repositories of high culture. But the folly of reliably liberal librarians redounds to the benefit of the bookman.
If you lack identity, you are a nonentity. Quine's slogan ought to be emblazoned over every polling place in the land, and tattooed onto the forearm of every dumbass liberal by a method both Kafkaesque and painful.
The quotation below is genuine. I just checked. One can find it at the top of p. 116, first full paragraph, of Word and Object (MIT Press, 1960, eighth printing, February 1973). I slogged through the whole of it in 1974. Quine is no Aquinas. At his door one receives, not bread, but a stone.
Suppose a feminist argues that men have no right to an opinion about the morality of abortion. Without a moment's hesitation, retort: Arguments don't have testicles!
Other applications are easily imagined.
We ought to be able to extend the idea to race. Suppose a left-wing black takes umbrage at a Bill O'Reilly-type pointing out of the causes of the problems in the black 'community.' Say: In my neck of the 'hood, arguments they ain't got no skin color. Hell, they ain't got no skin!
"Dont' hide your light under a bushel." "Don't cast your pearls before swine."
"Haste makes waste." "He who hesitates is lost."
Others escape me at the moment.
UPDATE (7 September). Jeff Hodges and Kid Nemesis come to my aid. Jeff contributes:
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
"Out of sight, out of mind."
Jeff adds, "According to some, the latter was translated into German to mean "blind and crazy"! That might be a joke, but I did hear a professional translator render "white male gaze" into German as "white male homosexuals."
Well, "Out of sight, out of mind" is rendered exactly by the German proverb Aus den Augen, aus den Sinn. Someone who didn't know German well could easily translated the latter as "blind and crazy" thinking that the German sentence means "out of eyes and out of mind."
'Distance makes the heart grow fonder' vs 'Out of sight, out of mind.'"
'Absence,' not 'distance.' But KN makes a good point: my second example and Jeff's are not injunctions. My post should have been titled, 'Dueling Maxims.' An injunction is an act of ordering or commanding or enjoining or admonishing or else the content of an act of ordering or commanding or enjoining or admonishing. Injunctions are broadly imperative as opposed to declarative. A maxim may or may not be imperative.
Dr. Edith Bone was another of those who early on looked to Communism for a solution, but by the end of her life had seen through its false promises. In 1956 she was was released from a Hungarian jail after seven years of political imprisonment.
Here lies Professor X. As he is buried here, his name is buried in the scholarly apparatus of the enduring, though rarely consulted, annals of scholarship. Indeed, he has already become a forgotten footnote to a debate itself teetering on the brink of oblivion. And yet it can be said that he made a contribution, however minor, to the transmission of high culture during a time of decline. More importantly, he had the wisdom to appreciate that his playing of this role was enough.
The epitaph on Frank Sinatra's tombstone reads, "The best is yet to come." That may well be, but it won't be booze and broads, glitz and glamour, and the satisfaction of worldly ambitions that were frustrated this side of the grave. So the believer must sincerely ask himself: would I really want eternal life?
At funerals one hears pious claptrap about the dearly departed going off to be with the Lord. In many cases, this provokes a smile. Why should one who has spent his whole life on the make be eager to meet his Maker? Why the sudden interest in the Lord when, in the bloom of life, one gave him no thought? If you have loved the things of this world as if they were ultimate realities, then perhaps you ought to hope that death is annihilation.
I have honestly never eaten a Chick-Fil-A sandwich. So tomorrow I am going to try one. This is in keeping with my maxim, 'No day without political incorrectness.' Each day you must engage in one or more politically incorrect acts. Some suggestions:
Smoke a cigar
Use standard English
Practice with a firearm
Read the Bible
Enunciate uncomfortable truths inconsistent with the liberal Weltanschauung
Read Maverick Philosopher
Think for yourself
Give your baby baby formula
Read the Constitution
Cancel your subscription to The New York Times
Find more examples of politically incorrect things to do
Is the way you interpret Voltaire's saying the way it was originally intended? I'm probably wrong here, but I always took the saying to mean this: a willingness to settle for what is "better" makes it likely that one won't acquire what is "good".
Good, better, best. Positive, comparative, superlative. "The best/better is the enemy of the good" means that oftentimes, not always, the pursuit of the best/better will prevent one from attaining the good. The point is that if one is not, oftentimes, willing to settle for what is merely good, one won't get anything of value. So I suggest that my reader has not understood Monsieur Voltaire's aperçu.
Example.It will come down to Romney versus Obama. If libertarians and conservatives fail to vote for Romney, on account of his manifold defects, then they run the risk of four more years of the worthless Obama. Those libertarians and conservatives will have let the better/best become the enemy of the good. They will have shown a failure to understand the human predicament and the politics pertaining to it. He who holds out for perfection in an imperfect world may end up with nothing.
You give the example of a spouse: try to hold out for a perfect wife, and you'll never marry at all. An example that would fit my reading would be, if one settles for a wife who's merely better than most of the available options, then one's apt to settle for a wife who isn't good. Sometimes it's better to refuse all the available options.
I agree that it is sometimes better to refuse all the available options. If the choice is between Hitler and Stalin, then one ought to abstain!
Maybe a better example would be, imagine I need to install plumbing in my house. Crappy plumbing is almost always going to be better than no plumbing. But should I (say, out of laziness) really settle for that, on the grounds that 'well, it's better than the nothing I had'?
Of course not. Voltaire's point is not that one should settle for what is inferior when something better is available. The point is that one should not allow the pursuit of unattainable perfection to prevent the attainment of something good but within reach. Suppose someone were to say: I won't have any faucets or fixtures in my house unless they are all made of solid gold! You will agree that such an attitude would be eminently unreasonable.
The Voltairean principle as I read it is exceedingly important in both personal life and in politics.
Perhaps you know some perfectionists. These types never accomplish anything because they are stymied by the conceit that anything less than perfection is worthless. I knew a guy in graduate school who thought that a dissertation had to be a magnum opus. He never finished and dropped out of sight.
In politics there are 'all or nothing' types who demand the whole enchilada or none. Some years back, when it looked as if it would be Giuliani versus Hillary, some conservative extremists said they would withhold their support from the former on the ground that he is soft on abortion. But that makes no bloody sense given that under Hillary things would have been worse.
The 'all or nothing' mentality is typical of adolescents of all ages. "We want the world and we want it . . NOW!"
"We consider nothing philosophical to be foreign to us." This is the motto Hector-Neri Castañeda chose to place on the masthead of the philosophical journal he founded in 1966, Noûs. When Hector died too young a death at age 66 in the fall of '91, the editorship passed to others who removed the Latin phrase. There are people who find classical allusions pretentious. I understand, but do not share, their sentiment.
Perhaps I should import Hector's motto into my own masthead. For it certainly expresses my attitude and would be a nice, if inadequate, way of honoring the man.
Hector's motto is modelled on Terentius: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. "I am a human being; I consider nothing human to be foreign to me." One also sees the thought expressed in this form: Nihil humanum a me alienum puto. Hector's motto is modeled on this variant.
Money in my pocket, food in my belly, clothes on my back, a roof over my head, physical and mental health. What does it say about us that the possession of things like these is not success enough? Aim high! Try high! Forget Bukowski.
Visitors do not like being snubbed. If a good thought deigns to make an appearance before the portal of your mind, write it down. Snubbed, it may never come again. But even if it does, will it come clothed in the same felicitous finery of formulation?
"Here is Rhodes, jump here." From Aesop's Fables #209, "The Boastful Athlete." A man who had been off in foreign lands, returns home. He brags of his exploits. He claims that in Rhodes he made a long jump the likes of which had never been seen. A skeptical bystander calls him on his boast: Here's your Rhodes, jump here!
The moral? Put your money where your mouth is. Don't talk about it, do it!
This post is a stub. Perhaps an erudite classicist such as Mike Gilleland could complete it. He would have to do at least the following: dig up all the ancient sources in Greek and Latin; trace the saying in Erasmus and Goethe; comment on Hegel's variation on the saying in the Vorrede zur Philosophie des Rechts, explaining why he has saltus for salta; find and comment on Marx's comment on Hegel's employment of the saying.
Finally, if Alan Rhoda were to rename his cleverly titled weblog Alanyzer -- and I'm not saying he should -- he might consider Hic Rhoda, Hic Salta. He is a very tall man; I'm 6' 1'' and had to look up to see his face when I met him in Las Vegas some years back. To jump over him would be quite a feat.