The good Brahmin

Lovely asked:

If the old woman lives affluently do you think the Brahmin will not want the life of the old woman?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Voltaire’s story of the Good Brahmin raises a deeper, and to me more interesting question than John Stuart Mill’s ‘Why is it better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied?’ (from Utilitarianism 1861).

The Brahmin has been seeking all his life for the joy that the old lady gets from her religion — a joy for whose loss no material comforts can compensate. He has sought, as philosophers do, the way of understanding. Yet as philosophers know well, the search for understanding brings dissatisfaction and pain.

So we are not comparing human happiness or pleasure with that of a non-human animal. These are two paradigmatically human lives. (See Gideon Smith-Jones’ answer to Canton Not all pleasures are the same.)

On my interpretation, the Brahmin has set his heart on ‘finding the answer’, and now, too late, he realizes his all-too-human limitations. (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry would have something to say about that.) And yet he would not trade places with the old woman.


You have to know why a person would choose to pursue a life in philosophy. This is something I have been explaining to my Pathways students for over two decades. They have not chosen the ‘life of a philosopher,’ but merely to study the subject for pleasure or the other rewards that study brings. Yet they understand.

The way of philosophy does not promise enlightenment. That wasn’t part of the deal. There is nothing in this or any other world that is worth trading for the understanding a philosopher seeks. That’s what you believe. To survive disappointments, battle scarred, and still press on is your badge of honour.

‘My pain is mine: I will not give it up.’

Something must also be said about Voltaire’s jaundiced view of philosophy — the same Voltaire who satirized the philosopher Leibniz in his novel Candide. Voltaire was a brilliant writer but a great philosopher he was not. I would hazard a guess (only a guess) that the pain he describes is his own secret pain. Not good enough to reach the heights of philosophy, he settled for ‘brilliant writing’ instead.

He would have been better off with a yacht and a Lamborghini and pad in St Tropez.

Whom would you prefer to be: Leibniz or Voltaire? or take the money?!

It’s a question I ask myself on occasion.

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