Optimism

The Australian philosophers Michael and Caldwell make a pragmatic case for optimism in, “The Consolations of Optimism.” (This relates to my previous 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 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.

So 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 pessimists—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 to me in a hand-written letter almost thirty 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.

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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.

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6 thoughts on “Optimism

  1. Depends whether one refers to the meatworld, or to some other substrate. Leave it at that.

  2. Optimism, Stoicism, Pessimism, where should we Humans stand as we watch the future unfold before us?, which one should we strive to emulate?

    I have placed Stoicism in the middle because I ‘think’ Stoics are encouraged to try and see reality unclouded by ideas of what ‘it should be’ based on the ideas they were encouraged to believe it would be. Stoicism is neither Optimistic nor Pessimistic, Stoics strive to see reality as it is! Now while this is what they profess to seek I am not sure it is really obtainable because we Humans are emotional creatures and we seek emotionally satisfying results from all our endeavors!

    I believe the best Philosophical position we can attempt to emulate is, an Optimistic Stoicism whereby we seek to see reality as clearly as we are able, albeit, with the knowledge that we can never completely capture and understand any complex ever changing situation, ( We experience The World we live in through the Human Mind as it attempts to rationalize that complex and ever changing reality that exists outside our mind’s Eye, where the changes are always just ahead of our perception, therefore our perception, always being behind Reality is never complete and is always flawed) since we are dealing with flawed information we (As a Species) driven by our emotions cloaked in a false rationality, constantly make errors in judgment. Look at history!

    Knowing this, I think we should recognize causes for Optimism and pursue them, Living Optimistically is the most emotionally gratifying way way to face the unknown Future, so if your circumstances will allow it, you should embrace it!

  3. Do we choose to be optimists or pessimists? Folks seem to be born with one disposition or the other, while many others may straddle the dividing line. I think I recall Henry James making a distinction between happy and sad folks. Might the same be said for being left-handed or right-handed?

  4. yes, I do think that there is probably a genetic component here. Not genetic determinism but a propensity or proclivity toward optimism or pessimism, just as there would be tendencies toward other traits.

  5. I agree with Dr. Messerly, while there are certainly happy and sad folks, to pronounce on why they are ‘Happy or Sad’ we would have to know a great deal about their conditioning. The Nature, Nurture Question is a very old one, Personally I believe that while we may indeed have a Propensity to some personality trait and that that trait can be exacerbated by toxic conditioning, the opposite may be true for those who experience a different Childhood, this has been known for a long time as expressed by the aphorism
    “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree”.

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