Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Better is the Enemy of the Good

According to Voltaire, an ‘Italian sage’ once claimed that ‘the better is the enemy of the good.’ This is often misunderstood as a call for constant improvement. It is taken to mean that nothing is so good that it cannot be improved upon, that the good is only just good enough and in the face of the better not good at all. However, this is not what Voltaire had in mind. Although he acknowledges that there is room for improvement with respect to the goodness of our hearts, our talents and our knowledge, he advises caution: let us not pursue pipe dreams, he says, for happy is he ‘who stays at his place and guards what he has got’. By guarding what we have got we show our appreciation and our gratitude for what has been given to us. The worth of what has been given to us is here acknowledged as an absolute value, that is, a value that allows for no comparison. It is not good merely in the absence of something better or in comparison with what is worse. Rather, it is good in itself, absolutely. The better is the enemy of the good in the sense that by constantly comparing the good with the ‘better’, the good changes its appearance and re-emerges as the ‘worse’. When we focus on the better that we might achieve, we tend to forget what is good about what we have. It is an act of conceptual devaluation. Optimism regarding the future has as its flipside pessimism regarding the present. This pessimism may or may not be justified. It all depends on whether we set our hopes on the future because the present actually is found deficient, or we judge it deficient merely because we envisage a (largely imaginary) future that is (in some unspecified sense) better. The latter is more common, and a sure recipe for misery.

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