The author, the philosopher and the public debater Christer Sturmark has written liner notes for the vinyl edition:
“We live in the best of all possible worlds!” exclaims Master Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. Is that really true? In the tale, Candide is forced out into the world, where he experiences one horror after another, each worse than the previous one: natural disasters, torture, war, murder, massacres, rapes, and betrayals. Voltaire’s novel is of course a satire on optimism, and a confrontation with the problem of theodicy: if there is a good, omniscient, and almighty God, how can there be so much suffering in the world?
Those of us who have a secular outlook on life do not need to grapple with the dilemma of theodicy. Instead, we ourselves take responsibility for our world and our existence in it with the help of the tools we have at hand: reason, creativity, curiosity, compassion, and the ability to reconsider. By so doing, we may even grow into more authentic versions of ourselves.
I see skies so blue and clouds so white,
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night —
And I think to myself, “What a wonderful world.”
Isabella Lundgren has collected ten songs that, in different ways, convey the feeling of existential vertigo and the happiness of existence, if only for a short time, in a world that becomes a better place for all of us with each passing century.
Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars.
Let me see what spring is like, on Jupiter and Mars.
As Isabella sings these words, we should remember humanity’s desire to discover worlds beyond our own; that’s the ultimate example of the fantastic joy of discovery we all carry within us.
Although 2020 and 2021 are years of a global pandemic, they are also years in which we are looking outward and reaching for our solar system. The United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates are all planning trips to Mars in 2021. It will be a while longer before humans travel to the red planet, but robots that study the planet’s surface will in the meantime provide much new knowledge. Perhaps David Bowie’s iconic Life on Mars will finally come true? Renewed human visits to the moon are also in the planning. Imagine what a wonderful experience it will be to observe such voyages from earth with today’s audiovisual technology!
It’s worth pointing out that global scientific cooperation in the effort to discover and produce effective vaccines against the pandemic is a magnificent testimony to the power of science. The discovery and development of various vaccines in the nineteenth century, and of penicillin in the early twentieth century, are estimated to have saved hundreds of millions of lives.
But what of war, populism, nationalism, and racism? Aren’t things just getting worse? Fresh in our memories are two devastating world wars as well as so many more recent wars, and today’s religious fundamentalism and terrorism hardly seem to be “the best of all possible worlds”. On the other hand, the risk of dying from violence today is lower than ever before in history. We live longer, we are healthier, more children are allowed to go to school, and fewer people are starving.
It is sometimes said that the Greek philosophers were the first to enjoy enough peace of mind to have the chance to ruminate on abstract ideas. Maybe that’s true; in any case, we today are heading ever more in that direction.
Someday we will build a home on a hilltop high, you and I. Shiny and new, a cottage that two can fill, and we’ll be pleased to be called “the folks who live on the hill.”
Someday we may be adding a wing or two — a thing or two. We will make changes as any family will. But we will always be called “the folks who live on the hill.”
Never before in human history have so many had the opportunity to acquire and enjoy the simple things in life, in tranquility and harmony. It’s easy to forget this when we read so much bad news every day, but happiness is nothing new. Kindness is nothing new. They are here.
If we take a bird’s-eye point of view, it’s fair to say that today we actually do live in the best of all possible worlds, or at least in the best of all eras of human history. In one’s own personal life, such optimism can seem dubious, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. But perhaps Isabella’s voice and choice of songs can serve as a reminder — a benevolent and beautiful reminder urging us to look up with hope, even when life is at its lowest.
Smile though your heart is aching.
Smile even though it’s breaking.
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by.
If you smile through your fear and sorrow,
smile — and maybe tomorrow,
you’ll see the sun come shining through for you.
A song is a miniature world that can guide us in our own larger world. The character Oscar, played by Allan Edwall in Ingmar Bergman’s movie Fanny and Alexander, describes this well:
Outside is the big world, and sometimes the small world manages for a moment to reflect the big world so that we understand it better.
—Christer Sturmark, author of “To Light the Flame of Reason”
Stockholm, January 2021