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Progressing Towards Pessimism

James has a very interesting and valuable post on optimism.  We agree part of the way, in that we both seem sure that optimism is undesirable, misleading and potentially dangerous.  James goes on to say:

Optimism, in fact, is an attitude, an emotional orientation, a psychological posture, a feeling — a meta-feeling, even, a feeling about feelings, the feeling that we should  feel as if failure is impossible.

I agree that there is such an attitude, or orientation, or posture, or feeling, but I would say that this attitude is the product of an optimistic worldview, rather than the substance of optimism itself.  Just as I insist that we all recognise that pessimism is more than, and indeed quite different from, feeling gloomy and misanthropic, it is important that we understand optimism as a kind of philosophical thought.  Optimism of the kind I am describing, and which I reject utterly, is not simply unsettling cheerfulness and irrepressible giddiness, bad as these may be, but a set of assumptions about the world, human nature and the direction (or non-direction) of history.      

One of my first forays against dread optimism was early last year, when I came across this outstanding Salisbury quote in a Gimson article in The Spectator.  Lord Salisbury said:

The optimist view of politics assumes that there must be some remedy for every political ill, and rather than not find it, will make two hardships to cure one. If all equitable remedies have failed, its votaries take it as proved without argument that the one-sided remedies, which alone are left, must needs succeed. But is not the other view barely possible? Is it not just conceivable that there is no remedy that we can apply for the Irish hatred of ourselves? …May it not, on the contrary, be our incessant doctoring and meddling, awaking the passions now of this party, now of that, raising at every step a fresh crop of resentments by the side of the old growth, that puts off the day when these feelings will decay quietly away and be forgotten?

Optimism is not simply an attitude or a feeling, but an assumption that all problems, in the end, have solutions and that we can know what they are and put them into effect.  It is an assumption that no consequences are final, there is always another day to set things right, that there is always a second chance and that history is moving towards something that we can discern and, even more remarkably, we may be able to accelerate progress towards that end.  The optimist says, “It is never too late,” while the pessimist knows that people are late and they miss what they are seeking, or something else interferes and prevents you from reaching the goal.  Pessimism recognises certain limitations of finite man that do not change; optimism sees human limits as continually expanding and being redefined.  This is not simply an attitude, but a belief about the structure of reality and the nature of history.  Anyone who accepts the reality of the radical contingency of historical change cannot think that history is going in any particular direction.  Anyone who briefly scans the annals of mankind cannot conclude that human reason has the capacity to actually “solve” fundamental problems of our condition, yet this is what an optimist, be he liberal or Marxist or something else, must believe.  According to Dienstag:

Pessimism, to Schopenhauer, means not that our civilization or morality are declining, but rather that human beings are fated to endure a life freighted with problems that are fundamentally unmeliorable.

Optimism is the view that there are ultimately no problems that are unmeliorable (optimists may make a concession with respect to death, but only very grudgingly).  Rather than being filled with burdens to be endured, life may be improved virtually without end in the optimist’s view.  This is far more, and far worse, than endless self-delusion based on excessive cheer and confidence.  It is the assumption that there is good reason to be so cheerful and confident about the future.

In the end, optimism as a philosophical view is an acceptance of the reality of progress.  Here is Dienstag on the struggle between the idea of progress and pessimism:

Finally, the dismissal of pessimism reflects the continuing grip that ideas of progress retain on contemporary consciousness.  Though supposedly slain many times (Lewis Mumford called it the “deadest of dead ideas” in 1932), this beast continues to rise from the ashes for the simple reason that, first, it helps us to make sense of the linear time of our calendar and, second, there is no easy substitute for it.  However much it may be denied in principle, in practice the idea of progress is difficult to displace.  And from that perspective, pessimism is especially bewildering…..Pessimism is a substitute for progress, but it is not a painless one.  In suggesting that we look at time and history differently, it asks us to alter radically our opinion of ourselves and of what we can expect from politics [bold mine-DL].  It does not simply tell us to expect less.  It tells us, in fact, to expect nothing.  This posture, I argue below, is not impossible and not suicidal.  It is neither skeptical (knowing nothing) nor nihilistic (wanting nothing).  It is a distinct account of the human condition that has developed in the shadow of progress–alongside it, as it were–with its own political stance.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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