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Voltaire wrote, Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien, which is usually translated as, The better/best/perfect is the enemy of the good. I've always understood this to mean that looking for the best solution often prevents us from accepting a good enough solution, and have applied this philosophy in my professional life as a programmer. Alternatively, I've heard some people interpret it to mean that settling for a good enough solution often precludes us from finding a better solution. Using a literal meaning of the word enemy, both intepretations sound reasonable to me.

First, does context (here's a source, but I don't know French) make the meaning any more precise?

Secondly, would the reader-response criticism that the quote means what you think it means be appropriate in this philosophical context, or does down that road madness lie?

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    I would think the second version is wrong. "The best is the enemy of the good" doesn't necessarily imply that "the good is the enemy of the best". – Matthew Read Jun 8 '11 at 17:12
  • @Matthew Read: Point taken. I was assuming that enemy is symmetric. I.e., if a is an enemy of b, then b is an enemy of a. That's not necessarily true, I suppose. – Ben Hocking Jun 8 '11 at 17:21
  • Yeah, I would assume that even in French something like "The good and the best are enemies" would be used for symmetry. – Matthew Read Jun 8 '11 at 17:52
  • thank you for these outstanding answers. i have been looking for something like this. As for the phrase, i don't think that better is the "enemy" of good. "Enemy" is too harsh a word. M no one to question anyone's opinion, nor i am any expert. but can't the word "enemy" be replaced by something less severe? Anyway, thank you all for your answers. My college project will be easier.:) – user20766 May 25 '16 at 4:32
  • This discussion is really interesting. I should admit I didn't ever think of it quite seriously. However there's something rather missing from all the posts hereon. Has anyone considered that there can't be better unless there's good. In otherwords, better can only be better because of the discovery of good. You can't move from nothing to better. Am not in anyway an expert in this field but i'm thinking that this fact can change some of the ways in which better becomes the enemy of good or vice versa for that case – user23959 Oct 30 '16 at 8:57
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[Edited:] Voltaire meant it the way you have interpreted it: you shouldn't always be looking for something better if you have something good; it's hard enough to keep what you have.

Here are the relevant lines from the poem, with my translation à l'improviste:

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien [In his writings, an Italian sage]

Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien ; [Says that the better is the enemy of the good;]

Non qu’on ne puisse augmenter en prudence, [Not that we cannot grow in wisdom,]

En bonté d’âme, en talents, en science ; [In the goodness of our soul, in talents, in knowledge/science;]

Cherchons le mieux sur ces chapitres-là ; [We should search the better in those fields;]

Partout ailleurs évitons la chimère. [Everywhere else, we should avoid that chimera.]

Dans son état, heureux qui peut se plaire, [In his state, that man is happy who is content with himself,]

Vivre à sa place, et garder ce qu’il a ! [Knows his place (live at his place), and protects what he has!]

Voltaire based this on the Italian proverb, Il meglio è l’inimico del bene, which means exactly the same. The origin of the proverb appears to be unknown.

He uses the Italian phrase himself in his Art dramatique. First he describes how the work of Lulli is misinterpreted by a certain encyclopaedia of art; then he "proves" how wrong it is (if I understand the text correctly), and ends with the proverb. I don't think it could be read otherwise than Lulli being the good, and the all-too artificial encyclopaedia being the "better".

Incidentally, I ask, how did Voltaire learn this proverb? He must have heard someone else use it. And either that person must have used it the same way Voltaire uses it, or Voltaire must have misunderstood. Is the latter likely? I imagine this person used it in a context that let Voltaire interpret it this way; it seems possible, but unlikely, that he misinterpreted it.

Suppose there were two women, Cleopatra and Xanthippe. Suppose Cleopatra were the enemy of Xanthippe. Who would you say was more aggressive? I say we know that Cleopatra is probably aggressive, but Xanthippe might be either aggressive or merely fearful of Cleopatra. Being someone's enemy is often reciprocal, but not necessarily so. In any case, if one party is called an "enemy", emphasis lies on that party's ill will.

Analogously, the better harms the good, but we aren't told whether the good harms the better as well. It seems clear that it is the harmful effect of the better that has focus, not the other way around. Moreover, the main statement is dans son état, heureux qui peut se plaire; the phrase non qu'on ne puisse augmenter en prudence etc. ("not that...") is an exception he makes. The main statement is reinforced by the evocative word chimère. What comes before non que... belongs to the main statement.

Any text can be interpreted in various ways, many of which would be the opposite of what the author meant. If an author inspires you to contemplate something you know he didn't intend, that is of course fine and well—as long as you don't try and read it into his other lines. We are not Voltaire's servants: if we should like the wordplay of this expression's meaning "the good is the enemy of the better", we are free to do so.

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    As I understand it (I'm no expert!), reader-response criticism holds that the reader's interpretation of a passage is as valuable (or more valuable) than the author's intent. That's not meant to encourage contradicting the author, but rather to discourage over-analysis of authorial intent. As to your last point, introspection is often better when given a germ of a good idea that when begun ab vacuo. Thanks for the context and translation! – Ben Hocking Jun 9 '11 at 18:49
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    @BenHocking: Okay, I agree in so far that the author's intent isn't the only thing that could be of interest to the reader. But in most cases it is quite important to him: as writing is a form of communication, the reader will usually want to know what a text is supposed to communicate. Knowing that, he can then do with the text what he likes, including developing ideas contrary to the author's intent. That is indeed not so rare with poetry. I also agree that sometimes people over-analyse the author's intent. – Cerberus Jun 9 '11 at 19:08
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    Excellent! Thank you for doing so much work on this answer. I couldn't have answered properly myself without it. (And I really enjoyed answering. ;-) – Jon Ericson Jun 10 '11 at 23:42
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    @JonEricson: I like your answer as well! I've edited mine in reply. It can in fact be interesting to use the expression your way, and it's probably not incompatible with Voltaire's views. – Cerberus Jun 11 '11 at 1:29
  • Well done. Your edits have certainly improved your answer. On a side note translating poetry is a particularly daunting task. It's too bad that clarifying the meaning necessarily harms the art of the poem. But getting the meaning right seems more important than getting the aesthetics right in this context. Thanks again. – Jon Ericson Jun 13 '11 at 16:37
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As someone who has heard, approved and used the phrase in the second sense, I'll take a stab at justifying myself.

First, I'm grateful to Cerberus' answer, which besides saving me a lot of time, is exceptionally good. In addition, it includes the context which shows that Voltaire himself borrowed the idea from an even more removed source. Now it seems to me that Voltaire is either expanding on the sentiment expressed by the Italian sage, or reinterpreting it. (I don't think we can tell which unless we find the original.) In either case, what we read here is in itself a form of reader-response criticism.

If I read it correctly, the poem seems to set wisdom, morality1, talents and knowledge2 apart from other pursuits when it comes to selecting the "better" or the "good". In turn that would mean that the good in those fields might prevent us from striving for the better, but the hope of the better in other areas of life might prevent us from enjoying the good. Could it not therefore be taken in either sense depending on where it is applied?

In terms of the propriety of reader-response criticism and if it will lead to madness, I think it depends on whether you've first taken seriously the task of understanding the author's original intent. Madness would result from using the reader's interpretation as a shortcut to skip the step of really understanding a text. Ignoring the reader and their response to at text is a different form of madness.


Footnotes:

  1. Is this what is meant by "the goodness of the soul"?

  2. Is "science" a false cognate with modern English?

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    Excellent point about how reader-response criticism applies to Voltaire's interpretation of the words of "an Italian sage". There's much meat in that, I think. It exemplifies how, even without access to the context that Voltaire is supposedly borrowing from (I say supposedly because for all we know the Italian sage is a literary invention), we are still capable of considering what Voltaire understood from that borrowed text. – Ben Hocking Jun 10 '11 at 23:08
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    +1 What a courteous and thoughtful answer! See my new edit. // I agree "the good may impair the better in morality etc." is not incompatible with what Voltaire says. However, it doesn't necessarily follow from it either: we are permitted to seek the better in those fields, but not necessarily encouraged to do so. Moreover, if he should encourage us to seek the better, the good might merely be harmless there. Frankly I don't think he meant it all so seriously; he would probably agree that the good can be the enemy of the better as well—but that's just not how he used the expression there. – Cerberus Jun 11 '11 at 1:26
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I always interpreted it this way: You may find a good solution to a problem that didn't have any good known solution yet, and everyone is happy with it. You become famous, you make lots of money selling your good solution... until someone comes up with a better solution. The better solution is the enemy of your good solution. It takes away your fame, and your money, as far as it came from your good solution. Good things will go away when we find better things.

There is the Nirvana fallacy (the search for something better is the enemy of the good - where people refuse to accept a good solution to a problem because it isn't perfect and rather live with no solution at all, which may be a lot worse), but I'd say that is something different and not covered by this saying.

Some people may have a tendency to rest on their laurels - saying that if they have something good, they don't want to look for something better. Sometimes this is correct. If all the railway tracks in your country have a certain width, then a different width may be better, but the cost of the change would outweigh any benefit. Finding a good solution might effectively prevent you from finding a better one. But that would be the opposite of the saying: It would mean that the good is the enemy of the better.

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I am not very educated but in my personal life I have heard the quote "the best (or Perfect) is the enemy of good" simply meant, every time i 'm doing my best, i would become comfortable with that and I should restrict myself of doing better? Does that make any sense?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_is_the_enemy_of_good

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