The new book Pessimism: Philosophy, Spirit, and Ethic has elevated the topic of pessimism to op/ed pages here in a country founded on optimism. The LA Times, New York Times, and Paul Saffo all comment on the trend.
Pick something you’re knowledgeable about and you can probably find a reason to whine, or feel discouraged, or blame others or yourself. It’s easier to seem intelligent during cocktail hour if you’re pessimistic ("ah, an enlightened man he is") instead of optimistic ("a wild-eyed young one not yet tamed by the grim realities he will soon face"). If you want to live an entrepreneurial life — in business, teaching, medicine, law, whatever — resist the urge to cede ground to the pessimists.
Of course, there’s a balance here. Losing one’s idealism is a fundamental part of growing up. The world has some serious problems. But if you can’t get yourself to believe that tomorrow has the potential to be even better than today, life will be very sad indeed.
Excerpt from the NYT:
Pessimism, however, is the most un-American of philosophies. This nation was built on the values of reason and progress, not to mention the ”pursuit of happiness.” Pessimism as philosophy is skeptical of the idea of progress. Pursuing happiness is a fool’s errand. Pessimism is not, as is commonly thought, about being depressed or misanthropic, and it does not hold that humanity is headed for disaster. It simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.
The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists, Mr. Dienstag argues, is in how they view time. Optimists see the passing of time as a canvas on which to paint a better world. Pessimists see it as a burden. Time ticks off the physical decline of one’s body toward the inevitability of death, and it separates people from their loved ones. ”All the tragedies which we can imagine,” said Simone Weil, the French philosopher who starved herself to death at age 34, ”return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.”
Optimists see history as the story of civilization’s ascent. Pessimists believe, Mr. Dienstag notes, in the idea that any apparent progress has hidden costs, so that even when the world seems to be improving, ”in fact it is getting worse (or, on the whole, no better).” Polio is cured, but AIDS arrives. Airplanes make travel easy, but they can drop bombs or be crashed into office towers. There is no point in seeking happiness. When joy ”actually makes its appearance, it as a rule comes uninvited and unannounced,” insisted Schopenhauer, the dour German who was pessimism’s leading figure.