In Defense of Optimism

The Australian philosophers Michael and Caldwell make a pragmatic case for optimism in, “The Consolations of Optimism.” (This relates to my last post, “Hope: A Defense.”)They argue that the optimist and pessimist may agree on the facts, but not on their attitude toward those facts: “optimism is an attitude, not a theoretical position.”[i] So optimism doesn’t assume any cluster of beliefs, and can’t be undermined for being irrational like a belief can.

The reason for preferring optimism has nothing to do with how the world is—optimism isn’t a description of reality. Instead, optimism is reasonable because it helps us live well. To better understand this reasonable optimism, the authors turn to the Stoics. We often characterize the Stoics as emotionless and indifferent; individuals who put up with their fate, accept life’s shortcomings, and live without hope. Such resignation toward the life is cynical and pessimistic. But the authors interpret stoicism differently. Stoics, they say, advocate embracing what we cannot change rather than fighting against it. Thus Stoicism is realistic, not cynical.

And a stoical attitude doesn’t mean not caring or being indifferent to unpleasant things, rather it doesn’t add lamenting to one’s caring. (This caring is like my hoping or wishing.) Stoics don’t 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 pessimist demands things from reality and resents that reality does not provide them. Optimists are typically more accepting of the world’s limitations. Of course optimists may lose their optimism when bad fortune strikes, but they are generally happier than pessimistics—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 beliefs.

Furthermore, optimism has other positive results, as the case of Hume’s attitude toward his impending death reveals. Diagnosed with a fatal disease, Hume began 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]

To summarize, optimism is a reasonable response to life because we are happier, and our lives go better, when we are optimists-–although we know that our efforts may be in vain.

Optimism Reconsidered

Saul Alinsky also made the case for optimism:

My personal philosophy is anchored in optimism. It must be, for optimism brings with it hope, a future with a purpose, and therefore, a will to fight for a better world. The question arises: Why the struggle, the conflict, the heartbreak, the danger, the sacrifice? Why the constant climb? Our answer is the same as that which a mountain climber gives when he is asked why he does what he does: “Because it is there.” Because life is there ahead of you and either one tests oneself in its challenges or huddles in the valleys in a dreamless day-to-day existence whose only purpose is the preservation of an illusory security and safety.

My friend and graduate school mentor Richard Blackwell conveyed a similar theme in a hand-written letter to me more than twenty years ago:

As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.

To summarize, all of the above writers agree; optimism is beneficial. In my next posts, I’ll discuss other supporters of hope; Victor Frankl on tragic optimism; and consider critics of hope including Kazantzakis, Nietzsche, and the Stoics.

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[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.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Optimism

  1. I appreciate your revised commentary in your last post and this one. They tie together nicely.

    In your previous post, when you reject optimism, expectations and hope about the future but accept hope as an attitude in the present moment it seems to me that you are making a distinction between things in life that are largely outside of our control (the future) and things in life that are largely within our control (actions we take in our day-to-day lives). In that context, your distinction makes perfect sense to me. That also seems to fit with the Stoical optimism described by Michael and Caldwell. Why not be optimistic about those things that are largely within our control and keep working toward achievable goals (however modest)? If we know from past experience that accomplishing A, B and C will often produce the desired outcome D, then it makes perfect sense to be optimistic and expect that we can achieve D if we buckle down and work on A, B and C. To me, that seems like a productive and satisfying way to live without hoping or expecting outcomes that are largely outside of one’s control.

    When I read about David Hume more than 30 years ago and more recently in your posts, I naturally hoped that I will be as similarly calm and sanguine in the face of death as he was. But I’m already older than Mr. Hume was at the time of his death (he was 65), with the distinct possibility of living another 20 to 30 years. Having seen family members suffer from dementia and paranoia as they live well into their 80s and 90s, it strikes me that we face a different situation than did Mr. Hume, who probably had no mental decline whatsoever at the age of his death. As my brain and mental capacity deteriorates, I think it becomes even more important to try hold onto the kind of Stoic optimism that I aspire to have in my daily life. Depending on the particular mental decline that I will suffer from, that attitude may be difficult to maintain. But that’s in the future…and largely outside of my control… so I don’t worry about it!

  2. Hi Jim

    Like the stoics I agree that we should try to change what’s in our control—our own thoughts—and disregard what’s out control of control—the external world. I’ve stated this a number of times on the blog. And you are right that my attitudinal hope in the present is thus more likely to be in my control than future outcomes. The only thing I would add is that I reject hope as expectations, not just because the future is out of our control, but also because I can’t intellectually justify my beliefs that life has meaning, that justice will triumph, and all the rest of my hopes. So there is a bit more to my rejection of future expectations than I can’t ensure they’ll come to be, it’s also that I have really good reasons to think they won’t come to be.

    As for your thoughts on death, they are profound. I worry about dementia as much as anything and I’m only 62. I like how you decide not to worry about this, very Stoical. Then again perhaps you will stay as smart as you are till the end. – JGM

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