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The Enemy of Good

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This issue of Cityview, in part, is devoted to presenting the best of Knoxville, as voted on by our readers. It’s a great list—full of stores, services, performers, venues, and restaurants that you should get to know. In any “best” list, there is a first place, and we’re proud of our winners. But “best” can be elusive if it’s all you search for, especially if you have to pay for it.

By one metric, a best meal might be one you have at a highly-rated restaurant that features a trained chef preparing fresh, East Tennessee ingredients in innovative ways. Or it could be the simple, one-pot family meal you have at home on a November evening: chili with the kids and grandkids, say. In the second instance, the meal is best because it is good, not because it is voted upon. And its goodness isn’t simply a quality of the food but of the experience and the domestic atmosphere of the meal.

In his Philosophical Dictionary, the 18th-century writer Voltaire quotes an old Italian proverb: “the best is the enemy of good.” You can get pretty deep with that if you want to, but at its heart is the idea that in the pursuit of an extreme, you can miss what is desirable and has been staring you right in the face. It says that always attempting to be, or get, or achieve, or experience some kind of “best” may keep you from what is good. There is an ironic twist to it, of course, in that what is in front of you and good is often, at the end of the day, the best.

During our Top Chefs event the year before last, I asked each of the chefs about a favorite meal. They each answered with a dish that was “good” and evoked time with family and friends, not with a “best” they could buy.

Voltaire gets a little more involved with the idea in Candide, what I consider the best satire in Western literature. Voltaire satirizes a dominant philosophy at the time: optimism. It is a philosophical theory that was often reduced to the notion that everything happens for the best because a creator has made the best of all possible worlds. What Voltaire then tells is a tale of evil and disaster and war befalling the main character: hardly the best possible world.

By the end of the tale, the main character has realized that rather than constantly pursue the best, humankind should work to maintain the good. We should stay home and nurture what is simple and pure: “we must,” as he says, “cultivate our garden”—the pursuit of the domestic, the pusuit of the good.

Which is home, and family, and the patter of little feet, and the aroma of a home-cooked meal, and the smell of the hair of one you love, and the sound of your favorite music, and driving down the road with the chilly, late autumn wind whipping in the windows and the great sigh of the sun going down on the brittle brown November landscape, with a cloud of leaves airborne in your rearview mirror, scattered by your passing.

These scenes are heaven. They are ours for the taking. While I can enjoy what is “best,” it is far better to embrace the good things I find with those whom I love.

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