Pessimism, however, is the most un-American of philosophies. This nation was built on the values of reason and progress, not to mention the “pursuit of happiness.” Pessimism as philosophy is skeptical of the idea of progress. Pursuing happiness is a fool’s errand. ~Adam Cohen, The New York Times
What thinking person isn’t skeptical of the idea of progress? Look at the 20th century and tell me with a straight face that there is real progress, if you can. Americans retain their optimism because they were spared most of the disasters of that century, and because most sections of the United States do not retain–or never possessed–the tragic sense that is vital to a more realistic appraisal of the world. Southerners have historically possessed this tragic sense in greater abundance because they have experienced complete defeat, an experience that is–fortunately for us–completely alien to all other sections and largely alien to the whole of modern America.
Pity the nation that is “built on reason and progress.” Envy the nation that grows according to sentiment and tradition. Both may err badly, but the latter remains closer to the ground, to the fullness of human existence because the tradition has not allowed them to forget the intangible aspects of the human predicament. The latter has a much better chance of correcting its course and deriving some new wisdom from its traditions. The rational and progressive nation blunders blindly on its path of self-improvement.
Reason will lead you to think that you can solve the human predicament through better techniques, faster mechanisms, more efficient methods, and on some technical level you will even begin to see progress of a kind. But this is the lure that traps you in the inextricable web of progressive fantasies, because with each advance your become less and less satisfied as your realise ever greater capacities to afford yourself material satisfaction. The cult of progress neglects the cultivation of restraint and the limitation of desire, which makes the quest for real satisfaction hopeless; boundless optimism is the surest cause of despair in any man. Nourishing and overindulging this dimension of man’s existence, the progressive races onward faster and faster, becoming more deeply entangled in the web, increasingly unaware of and indifferent to the loss of all those things that nourish a humane, full and good life. They advance so far in solving the predicament of man’s material existence that they no longer really remember that there is any other kind of predicament or, if they remember, they no longer have the slightest clue what to do about it. When they hear the phrase, Man does not live by bread alone, they ask, “Why not?” and begin working on trying to build a better man, a new man.
But Mr. Cohen is wrong when he says that pessimists believe pursuing happiness is a fool’s errand. Pursuing happiness is the errand of man, pure and simple. The wise and the foolish alike will try to seek it. Only the fool believes that he will necessarily find it or that he has a sure-fire method to procure it without pain or effort or loss, but both he and the wise man pursue happiness. They will, of course, not define it in the same way, which is why the fool almost never finds what he is looking for, while the wise man already possesses some part of it before he begins and has a reasonable chance of finding the rest by the end.
Pursuing happiness is part of who we are. But what the pessimist does say–and I think I can speak for the pessimists here–is that happiness must have its limits if it is to be possessed, it will be fleeting, as all things are in this world, and it will come at some price, be it a price in discipline, loss, suffering, regret or even the abandonment of some principle or high ideal. It is, above all, often overrated. In saying this, the pessimist is not trying to be gloomy or bitter, but simply honest in assessing the nature of things. Pessimism is a reasonable position not because bad things keep happening–that wouldn’t be much of a basis for a philosophical view–but because man is a finite, flawed, created being who cannot overcome the structures inherent in his existence. If one learns to live within these structures and accepts them as basically unchangeable, then he will know a measure of peace and happiness as he pursues his good desires within reason. In pessimism there is hope, wisdom and, yes, even a measure of happiness. So what are you waiting for? Expect the worst, and be glad when you are wrong!