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Prime Time: The best of all possible worlds

Sometime in the late '70s, I was driving back to Bemidji from a meeting farther south, maybe at St. Cloud State. I was alone, and was listening to Minnesota Public Radio "on the drive home." It was probably a Sunday, because that's when MPR used to do "opera night."

Ordinarily, that might not have been much of a turn-on. As noted here in September 2000, Elaine was the opera fan, having listened to Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinées since the'30s. I care little for most grand (tragic) opera, but I like some comic operas and particularly relish Gilbert & Sullivan. Much foreign language opera is best left in the original language, judging by the weakness of many English translations. Also, I'm not fond of most mid-to-late 20th century operas that I've heard.

However, the operetta on MPR that Sunday was quite recent, an English version of a well-known 1759 French novella by François Marie Arouet, better known by his pen-name, Voltaire (1694-1778). I had read Voltaire's "Candide" (in English) for fun in Willard Straight Hall's browsing library at Cornell University in 1948-49, perhaps the only wildlife major to have done so.

Composer Leonard Bernstein had premiered "Candide" in 1956 in New York, with libretto by Lillian Hellman, but it bombed. It was revived successfully in 1974 with a libretto by Hugh Wheeler; presumably that was the LP version MPR was playing. I thought it was great, and understand it is now critically proclaimed. I don't think Bemidji State University has ever done it.

I much enjoyed the production, which seemed to follow the text as I remembered it from some 30 years earlier. Basically, "Candide" satirizes the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), especially his controversial idea that this universe is the best of all possible universes that God could have created. In both the novella and the opera, a naïve young couple, Candide and Cunégonde have a mentor, Dr. Pangloss, who is an obvious caricature of Leibniz. Despite a series of mishaps to the three of them and others that would make a cynic of almost anybody, Pangloss persists in his philosophy that "this is the best of all possible worlds." For more, see If you can find a translation of Voltaire's "Candide" in a library or borrow one from a friend, read it.

What brought this to mind (months ago now) was my favorite editor's blog, Molly Miron usually writes the blog herself, and I check it whenever a new entry shows up at the Pioneer's website, Last March 2, however, Molly's husband, Doug, wrote it. He knows 100 times more physics than I do, plus some history I didn't know.

Doug's blog is about Leibniz and Spinoza, and is a good read. Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher whose Jewish family had fled Portugal during the Inquisition, possibly along with my maternal grandfather's ancestors. (Grandpa was a non-practicing Jew who, in the 1860s, had come to Louisiana as young man from Curaçao, a Dutch island north of Venezuela. Grandma was an Irish Catholic, and all six children went to parochial school.)

You can find a lot about Leibniz, Spinoza and Voltaire on the Web. Although educated in Jewish schools, Spinoza's heretical views got him banned by his synagogue. Voltaire was Catholic, but both the Church and the state considered his liberal views dangerous and he spent time in the Bastille and some years in exile in England and elsewhere. He much admired the relative freedom of thought in Britain. Leibniz was a Lutheran who put a good deal of effort, unsuccessfully, in trying to reconcile theological differences between European Protestants and Catholics. Voltaire discussed Spinoza's philosophy some, but his target in "Candide" was Leibniz, whom he skewers skillfully. This came through well in the opera I heard on MPR, and I'd love to see it done in Bemidji.

Also, I knew that there was controversy, partly nationalistic, over who devised the calculus, the German Leibniz or the Englishman Isaac Newton. Most now agree that the two devised it independently, but we use the notation devised by Leibniz, not Newton. In the blog, Doug tells us why. "Leibniz discovered calculus 10 years after Newton, but he published before Newton, and our notation today is based on Leibniz' version." In science and math, and perhaps in other scholarly pursuits, priority of publication counts.

Evan Hazard, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month.