Rod has a couple of posts related to pessimism, declinism and gloominess. Commenting on my post on conservative Democrats, he asks rhetorically, “Who says Daniel Larison is a pessimist?” He titled the post “The case for conservative optimism.” I know what he means, but this is exactly what it isn’t. Finding some good in an otherwise dark picture is what pessimists are more skilled at doing, because for the pessimist every picture in this world is dimmed by the recognition that all things end, everything is finite and our time is limited. It is the people who tend to see the dark clouds who are also most keenly aware of the silver lining; those who skip about merrily in the fantastical world in which there is only sunshine become terribly disconsolate when a stom moves in, because they mistake normal changes for an approaching doom.
Roger Kimball is right that disappointed utopians (i.e., optimists) tend to be very gloomy. Everyone who believes in some myth of progress will become very gloomy when the myth is broken on the rocks of reality. This is why conservatives should typically be philosophical pessimists, indeed normally will be philosophical pessimists, which has nothing to do with a mood or temperament (pessimists are not gloomy, just sober), but has to do with an acknowledgement of our mortality, finitude and (in a Christian pessimist view) our createdness and sinfulness. Our nature has limits, and if we seek to go beyond them we invite a disastrous reckoning. Optimism is the mental illness of the hubristic; pessimism is the beginning of humility. The problem that many modern conservatives have had in recent years is that they have been taught to be optimistic, and so they have fallen into many of the old traps of optimists–trying to remake the world, force-feeding “progress” to other societies and always, always ignoring the likely consequences of their actions because they have learned the false lesson that things will always get better. Pessimists know that things will tend to get worse insofar as they know that all things in this world eventually decline, fall apart and die. To have framed the distinction between them in terms of “better” and “worse” is to bias us against pessimism already, as if there were something wrong with acknowledging the reality of entropy and the significance of death. Christians have the least cause for optimism of the sort offered by modern ideologies, because they have the best and most sure hope of all. Nothing is more misleading or confusing than to abuse the word hope by linking it to an optimistic mentality.
Declinism can be gloomy, but only if it becomes alarmist and excessive. Usually, when it is done properly and wisely, it does not need to raise an alarm, because it takes the process of decline to be part of the way of things. Think of it this way: the alarmist shouts, “We’re all going to die!!!” and the sober declinist says, “We are all going to die.” They are saying the same thing, and yet they are obviously making two very different kinds of statements. Sober declinism is descriptive, perhaps combined with a natural human lament for what is passing away, but it does not become hysterical. Those who raise an alarm still share an optimistic expectation that things that are rooted in the structures of our nature are “problems” that can still be solved, when the pessimist assumes that there are no enduring solutions to the fundamental limitations of our existence.