Michaelis Michael is a senior lecturer of the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia, and Peter Caldwell is a lecturer at the University of Technology in Sydney. In their insightful piece, “The Consolations of Optimism” (2004), they argue for adopting an attitude of optimism regarding the meaning of life.
The optimist and pessimist may agree on the facts, but not on their attitude toward those facts. “This nicely sketches what our thesis is: optimism is an attitude, not a theoretical position; moreover, there are reasons why one ought to be an optimist.”[i] The reasons for preferring optimism have nothing to do with how the world is—optimism is not a better description of reality. Instead it is that a reasonable optimism is best for ourselves and those around us. To better understand reasonable optimism, the authors turn to the Stoics.
The Happiness of the Stoic Sage – Stoics are often characterized as emotionless, indifferent, individuals who simply put up with their fate, accepting that life is bad. Such a picture is uninspiring. While resignation toward the dreadfulness of life is cynical and pessimistic, this is not how the authors interpret Stoicism. The Stoics counsels us to embrace that which we cannot change rather than fight against it and, in the process, embrace reality. Thus Stoicism is realistic, not cynical.
For the Stoics emotions follow from beliefs. For example, if we believe that death is bad then the emotion of fear or dread may follow. In this case, Stoics generally holds that the belief that death is bad is unjustified and hence negative emotions should not follow. Now consider cheerfulness. There are good reasons to be cheerful and happy—it feels better than being unhappy. This is the reason to be cheerfully optimistic. But can we adopt this optimistic attitude, is it psychologically feasible? The authors think it is both feasible and reasonable to adopt optimism. While the pessimist might object that optimism provides little consolation, optimism contributes to a happier existence and that is a reason to adopt it. Optimism is more than a small consolation.
But optimism is not a set of beliefs about how reality is; rather it is a response to reality. A stoical attitude does not mean not caring or being indifferent to unpleasant things, rather it doesn’t add lamenting to one’s caring. Stoics do not deny that pain and suffering exist—because that is to deny reality—but accept such evils without resenting them. The Stoics reject responding to situations with strong, irrational emotions that would cloud judgment, counseling instead to remain calm and optimistic. “This way of experiencing pains without losing equanimity is the key to stoical optimism.”[ii] Optimism leads to happiness and is therefore reasonable.
The Rationality of Beliefs – Beliefs represent how things are to us. If we find beliefs do not adequately do this, we ought to reject them; if they do represent the world well, then we ought to keep them. In addition to believing things about the world, we might desire, expect, hope, fear, or want things about the world. If we expect things about the world, we believe those things will happen. If we hope, desire, want, or fear things, we might not believe those things will happen, instead believing only that they might happen. In all of these cases beliefs are about possibilities that are rational to entertain. But what counts as making a belief rational? Here we can distinguish between strongly rational—the evidence is nearly irrefutable—or weakly rational—as a practical necessity we must believe some things that are not certain but necessary for us to act in the world. So the test of a belief system may be whether it is practical in this way.
Optimism & Pessimism – Again optimists and pessimists do not necessarily disagree about how the world is, although they could, but instead project differing attitudes toward it. Since optimism is an attitude, it does not assume any cluster of beliefs and thus cannot be undermined for being irrational like a belief can. Pessimism is an attitude which demands things from reality and resent that reality does not conform to their wishes. Optimists are typically more accepting of the limitations of the world. Of course optimists may lose their optimism when bad fortune strikes, but we are all happier when we are optimistic and less happy when we are pessimistic—this is the rational ground for optimism.
Yet optimism is not wishful thinking. Wishful thinking involves beliefs that are false, whereas optimism is an attitude that does not necessarily involve false beliefs. Furthermore, optimism has positive results, as the case of Hume’s attitude toward his impending death shows. Diagnosed with a fatal disease Hume begins his ruminations on his situation thus: “I was ever more disposed to see the favorable than unfavorable side of things: a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year… It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at the present.”[iii] While many fear death or react variously in ways that disturb tranquility “Hume’s calm and sanguine resignation stands like a beacon of reasonableness, calling out for emulation.”[iv] Optimism is a reasonable and beneficial response to the human condition.
Summary – We do not know if life is meaningful or not. For now we might as well be optimistic though, especially when facing death.
[i] Michaelis Michael & Peter Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” (2004) in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar, (Lanham MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 383.
[ii] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 386.
[iii] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 389.
[iv] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 390.