Optimism and Pessimism

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Optimists see the world as a positive place.

Optimism (from the Latin optimus, best) and pessimism (from the Latin pessimus, worst) are two opposing worldviews or states of mind. The former amounts to an overall positive view of things (the glass is half full), while the latter corresponds to a negative view (the glass is half empty).

But optimism and pessimism are not limited to such a psychological predisposition. Philosophically, optimism is linked to the notion that the world is fundamentally good, that it has purpose and meaning and that, therefore, one can reasonably expect fulfillment. It is also prevalent whenever there is a sense that humans can control their environment and their destiny. Pessimism is linked to the notion that people are fundamentally evil, that life is devoid of meaning and thus destined to lead to increasing suffering and the frustration of one’s goals. Historical circumstances that suggest our inability to reach these goals generally contribute to a pessimistic outlook. Optimism is often associated with the notion that the world was created by a benevolent deity; pessimism is often associated with the notion that there is no meaningful explanation for the world’s existence. The two are also often associated with the expectation that there is, or respectively isn’t, eternal life.

Contents

Assessment: the challenge

In everyday life, the optimist and pessimist types may seem fairly well defined. Even then, one is often surprised to see what lies below the surface. No one is a monolithic bloc of positivity or negativity.

Pessimism and optimism in matters of opinion are even more complex. Some, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are optimists concerning our human nature, but pessimists regarding civilization's potential to bring out the good in us. Some are optimists concerning society's potential influence, and pessimists when it comes to our human nature. Religions are usually optimistic in their view of salvation but pessimistic in their assessment of human weakness and regarding those who do not go the way of redemption (Christianity) or liberation (Buddhism). Extreme positions are difficult to hold: The almost unlimited optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the potential for human improvement through culture and progress has been strongly challenged by a twentieth century of wars and destruction. Clean-cut pessimism has its own difficulties. It is contrary to our natural tendency to entertain hope.

Finally, there is the qualitative aspect of both views. An optimistic outlook that is essentially based on one’s confidence to be successful, but without any sense of ultimate meaning, will generally be considered “shallow optimism.” A pessimistic outlook that is essentially based on a depressed mood, even when circumstances seem to indicate otherwise, can be considered unwarranted.

Good and evil

There is an obvious correlation between the question of good and evil and the positions of optimism and pessimism. A world ruled by goodness is more likely to elicit optimism than the opposite. Then, are human beings fundamentally good or fundamentally bad (evil)? Though this very much depends on one’s assessment of what counts as good or evil, there is little doubt for most of us that people are both, with different types of mixtures depending on the individual. But which is more fundamental? Since goodness and evil are a universal phenomenon, the optimistic and pessimistic options are represented with considerable consistency across cultures, with a third option, a neutral in-between, being equally widespread. One's orientation on this matter will have a great influence on the way one views and tries to influence social life.

There is, for instance, a strong tendency in Christian tradition to assume that humans are essentially evil because they are tainted by sin. That strain is particularly strong in Calvinism where man is primarily seen as a sinner destined for hell, unless he is chosen to be saved by grace. But, according to the same Christian teachings, humankind was created by God and inherited his goodness before falling into sin. There is a theological debate on whether some of that original goodness is left in us, in which case it should be even more basic than evil. Hence, there is a more optimistic strain within Christianity as well that stresses the goodness of God’s creation. Finally, many will insist on the importance of choice in heading for heaven or for hell. A 100 percent optimistic view for believers of any faith would imply the belief in universal salvation.

In Chinese thought and culture, there is no notion of sin as it exists in Christianity. The protagonists are human dispositions and the cultural environment. Starting with Confucius, Chinese civilization puts great stress on ethical education. Humans need to learn how to become virtuous and good citizens. But then, the ways part. Confucius himself believed that we are originally neither bad nor good – what we become depends on the moral control we are taught to gain over ourselves. Mencius gave this view am optimistic bend by adding that from the beginning we have sprouts of virtue within ourselves. Moral education can build upon our originally good nature. We simply need to prevent this nature from being corrupted by the environment. This resonates with the teachings of eighteenth century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that our original nature is good but has been corrupted by society.

Hsün-Tzu (Xun Zi)(ca. 310–238 B.C.E.), on the other hand, clearly believed that our original nature is evil and that the education we receive has to correct that innate tendency. According to him, "By nature man departs from his primitive character and capacity as soon as he is born, and he is bound to destroy it." An original character (presumably good) is nevertheless stated as the starting point. The result that is aimed at is the same in all three cases, but the perspective is different. Since he is more optimistic about human nature, Mencius can trust individuals to lead their life into the good direction through their own, internal moral control. Since he is a pessimist in these matters, Hsün-Tzu will rather stress the necessity for external social control: people have to be somehow coerced into becoming good – they won't do it naturally.

Optimism

Philosophical optimism

Though optimism, like pessimism, tends to be known for its most famous proponents, it is a fact that every philosophy contains elements of both. A vast majority of past philosophers, while assessing the problems of our world and existence with various degrees of hope or despair, generally come under the umbrella of guarded optimism. They do so in that their thought provides a vision for the achievement of at least partial peace and happiness (as they see it). Absolute pessimism, as defended by Arthur Schopenhauer, is a rarity in the history of thought.

Leibniz and theodicy

The notion of philosophical optimism is most often linked with the name of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who held that we live in the “best of all possible worlds,” which Voltaire famously mocked in his satirical novel Candide or Optimism. After a particularly deadly earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, Voltaire felt the urge to discredit any idea that a good God could have willed such misery. In his Théodicée (Theodicy, 1710), Leibniz does not try to show that the world is an entirely wonderful place. Rather, he grapples with the problem of a good God possibly creating an evil world (the meaning of “theodicy”). The conclusion of his long philosophical reasoning is that, all elements taken into consideration, the world as God created it is the best he could possibly have created, and that any other type of world, whatever the appearances, would have been worse.

If God, however, had wanted to do more, he would either have had to give his creatures a different nature or perform other miracles in order to change their nature, something which was incompatible with the better plan. It is as if the current of a river had to be faster than the declivity would allow … for boats to advance with greater speed. The original limitation of imperfection of creatures causes even the best plan for the universe to contain some evil, but this is for the greater good. The beauty of the whole is wonderfully revealed in the very disorder among its constituents. Similarly, in music, dissonances that are appropriately applied improve on the beauty of harmony.Leibniz, Théodicée,’’ V. Response to an objection

Leibniz’s optimism is thus not based on a personal optimistic outlook, but on an effort to explain reality.

Utopia

The British anarchist philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) demonstrated perhaps even more optimism than Leibniz, and certainly one that had an entirely different grounding. Godwin hoped that society would eventually reach the state where calm reason would replace all violence and force, that mind could eventually make matter subservient to it, and that intelligence could discover the secret of immortality. Much of this philosophy is exemplified in the Houyhnhnm society of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

More than a mere optimist, Godwin was thus one of the many utopian thinkers that appeared during and after the age of 18th century Enlightenment. These social thinkers had in common a vision of a world where injustice and misery would forever disappear. Some attempted to realize their dream in experimental communities, but all failed. Ultimately, this form of utopian optimism would be replaced by Karl Marx’s much more coherent and realistic revolutionary views.

Utopia was originally a novel by Thomas More (1515) reviving visions of a perfect society as exposed in ancient literature, including Plato’s Republic. In other words, the optimistic vision of a possible ideal world on Earth has a long history. Often, the ideal is also seen as transcending the boundaries of earthly life, as in St. Augustine’s The City of God, which is opposed to the "city of men."

Psychology

Overoptimism, or strong optimism, is the overarching mental state wherein people believe that things will more likely go well for them than go badly. This can be compared with the so-called valence effect of prediction, a tendency for people to overestimate the likelihood of good things happening rather than bad things. Optimism bias is the demonstrated systematic tendency for people to be over-optimistic about the outcome of planned actions.

Personal optimism correlates strongly with self-esteem, with psychological well-being and with personal health. Martin Seligman, in researching this area, criticizes academics for focusing too much on causes for pessimism and not enough on optimism. He points out that in the last three decades of the twentieth century journals published 46,000 psychological papers on depression and only 400 on joy. Similarly, a search for articles on pessimism is likely to yield an incomparably higher number of entries than a search on optimism. But Seligman is not the first psychologist to present an optimistic outlook. Austrian psychoanalyst Victor Frankl, who survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust, emerged an active optimist.

Optimism has been shown to be correlated with better immune systems in healthy people who have been subjected to stress.[1]

Ideologically convinced optimists may defend failures in their hoped-for outcomes by discussing "misplaced optimism" rather than abandoning optimism altogether.

A number of scholars have suggested that, although optimism and pessimism might seem like opposites, in psychological terms they do not function in this way. Having more of one does not mean you have less of the other. The factors that reduce one do not necessarily increase the other. On many occasions in life we need both in equal supply. Antonio Gramsci famously called for "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will": the one the spur to action, the other the resilience to believe that such action will result in meaningful change even in the face of adversity.

Hope can become a force for social change when it combines optimism and pessimism in healthy proportions. Pessimism, as it acts as a check to recklessness, may thus be viewed in a positive light. John Braithwaite, an academic at the Australian National University, suggests that in modern society we undervalue hope because we wrongly think of it as a choice between hopefulness and naïveté as opposed to skepticism and realism.

Pessimism

Pessimists see the world as uninviting and cruel.

Philosophical pessimism

Philosophical pessimism describes a tendency to believe that life has a negative value, or that this world is as bad as it could possibly be. It most famously describes the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. However, the list of those who, in philosophy, literature, the arts, and other areas of human activity have defended some form of pessimism is long. The list is also varied in its nature, as it includes personalities who base their pessimism on a great variety of factors. Such a list might, for instance, include atheistic existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth (because of his emphasis on our sinful nature).

Schopenhauer’s pessimism

Schopenhauer derived his philosophy from that of Immanuel Kant, but identified the latter’s unknowable noumenon as the blind Will underlying the conscious and unconscious processes of reality. Schopenhauer’s philosophy was, moreover, derived from Hinduism and Buddhism, not Christianity. As for Indian thought, the extinction of desire is seen as the only real solution in Schopenhauer’s thought.

Schopenhauer's pessimism comes from his elevating Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior. Schopenhauer pointed to motivators such as hunger, sexuality, the need to care for children, and the need for shelter and personal security as the real sources of human motivation. Reason, compared to these factors, is mere window-dressing for human thoughts; it is the clothes our naked hungers put on when they go out in public. Schopenhauer sees reason as weak and insignificant compared to Will; in one metaphor, Schopenhauer compares the human intellect to a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulders of the blind giant of Will.

Likening human life to the life of other animals, he saw the reproductive cycle as indeed a cyclical process that continues pointlessly and indefinitely, unless the chain is broken by too limited resources to make continued life possible, in which case it is terminated by extinction. The prognosis of either pointlessly continuing the cycle of life or facing extinction is one major leg of Schopenhauer's pessimism.

Schopenhauer moreover considers the desires of the will to entail suffering: because they are desires; because their objects are always limited resources; because other living things must be excluded from those resources. The business of biological life is a war of all against all. Reason makes us suffer all the more, in that reason makes us realize that biology's agenda is something we would not have chosen if we had a choice, but is helpless to prevent us from serving it, or allow us to escape the sting of its drive.

Instead of asserting a personal opinion or viewpoint about the appearance of this world being the worst possible, Schopenhauer attempted to logically prove it by analyzing the concept of pessimism.

But against the palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds, we may even oppose seriously and honestly the proof that it is the worst of all possible worlds. For possible means not what we may picture in our imagination, but what can actually exist and last. Now this world is arranged as it had to be if it were to be capable of continuing with great difficulty to exist; if it were a little worse, it would be no longer capable of continuing to exist. Consequently, since a worse world could not continue to exist, it is absolutely impossible; and so this world itself is the worst of all possible worlds. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. 46.

He claimed that a slight worsening of conditions, such as a small alteration of the planet's orbit, a small increase in global warming, loss of the use of a limb for an animal, and so on, would result in destruction. These are curious assertions, however, considering that the planet's orbit is not wholly consistent to begin with, global temperature fluctuates over time, and animals can still live after losing a limb.

Other philosophical or literary pessimists

Nietzsche believed that the ancient Greeks (c. 500 B.C.E.) created Tragedy as a result of their pessimism. "Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak instincts … Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?"[2]

Nietzsche's response to pessimism was the opposite of Schopenhauer's. " 'That which bestows on everything tragic its peculiar elevating force' " – he (Schopenhauer) says in The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, 495 – " 'is the discovery that the world, that life, can never give real satisfaction and hence is not worthy of our affection: this constitutes the tragic spirit – it leads to resignation.' "How differently Dionysus spoke to me! How far removed I was from all this resignationism!" [3]

Sigmund Freud could also be described as a pessimist and he shared many of Schopenhauer's ideas. He saw human existence as being under constant attack from both within the self, from the forces of nature and from relations with others. The following quote, from "Civilization and its Discontents," is perhaps the best example of his pessimism:

We can cite many such benefits that we owe to the much despised era of scientific and technical advances. At this point, however, the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard, reminding us that most of these pleasures follow the pattern of the "cheap pleasure" recommended in a certain joke, a pleasure that one can enjoy by sticking a bare leg out from under the covers on a cold winter's night, then pulling it back in…. What good is a long life to us if it is hard, joyless and so full of suffering that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?

The term has also been used to describe the position of the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe, although he clearly states in his philosophical treatise Om det tragiske that pessimism is a term which cannot describe his biosophy.

Some works of popular literature may also exhibit pessimism, such as Stephen King's Pet Sematary. King later expressed his reservations about the work: "It seems to be saying nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don't really believe that" (Bare Bones 144-145).

A related term

Engineers often use the term pessimal, although often ironically. It is the antonym of optimal, which literally means "as good as it gets." Pessimal, therefore, is "as bad as it gets." Computer programmers sometimes use an optimizing compiler, which produces maximally efficient machine code. They often joke about using a "pessimizing compiler," which presumably produces maximally inefficient code.

The word pessimal is not in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary or the American Heritage Dictionary.

Notes

  1. Suzanne C. Segerstrom, Shelley E. Taylor, Margaret E. Kemeny, and John L. Fahey, "Optimism is Associated With Mood, Coping, and Immune Change in Response to Stress," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74 (6).
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy Or: Hellenism and Pessimism. "Attempt at a Self—Criticism," §1
  3. Ibid., 6

Bibliography

  • Benatar, David. Life, death & meaning: key philosophical readings on the big questions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004. ISBN 9780742533677.
  • Chang, Edward C. Optimism & pessimism: implications for theory, research, and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001. ISBN 9781557986917.
  • Dienstag, Joshua Foa. Pessimism : philosophy, ethic, spirit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 9780691125527.
  • Gestering, Johann Joachim. German pessimism and Indian philosophy: a hermeneutic reading. Delhi: Ajanta Publications: Distributors, Ajanta Books International, 1986. ISBN 9788120201668.
  • Hollinrake, Roger. Nietzsche, Wagner, and the philosophy of pessimism. London; Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1982. ISBN 9780049210295.
  • Leibniz, Gottfried and Wilhelm, Freiherr von. Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil. Open Court Publishing Company, 1985. ISBN 9780875484372.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. ‘’The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. ISBN 9780394703695.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. Suffering, suicide, and immortality: eight essays from the Parerga. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 2006. ISBN 9780486447810.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World As Will and Representation (2-Volume Set). Peter Smith Publisher Inc (June 1969). ISBN 978-0844628851.
  • Seligman, Martin E.P. Authentic happiness: using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. ISBN 9780743222976.
  • __________. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage; Reprint edition, 2006 (original 1990). ISBN 9781400078394.
  • Tallis, Raymond. Enemies of hope: a critique of contemporary pessimism. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. ISBN 9780312173265.
  • Vaughan, Susan C. Half empty, half full: understanding the psychological roots of optimism. New York: Harcourt, 2000. ISBN 9780151004010.
  • Voltaire. Candide. New York: Modern Library, 1992. ISBN 9780679600039.

External Links

  • Optimism The Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  • Pessimism The Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  • Pursuit of Happiness, pursuit-of-happiness.org. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  • Optimism/Pessimism, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health. University of California, San Francisco. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  • Théodicée Introduction and excerpts of Leibniz’s Theodicy available online. French original. Retrieved June 11, 2007.
  • Authentic Happiness Martin Seligman website. Retrieved June 23, 2007.
  • Norman Vincent Peale Official website. Retrieved June 23, 2007.

General Philosophy Sources

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