Optimism and Pessimism

© 2003 by Richard J. Eisner


I   Philosophical Optimism and Pessimism

In philosophy, these terms denote the following concepts:

1.   That the universe is improving and that good will ultimately triumph over evil (optimism), or that the universe is worsening and that evil will ultimately triumph over good (pessimism);

2.   That this is the best of all possible worlds (optimism), or the worst (pessimism);

3.   That the good in the world outweighs the evil (optimism); or—more important—that the evil in the world outweighs the good (pessimism); and

4.   That the world is meaningless (pessimism).

            The first doctrine, that the universe is improving and that good will ultimately triumph over evil, or the reverse, has a number of problems, one being the definition of universe. If we mean the entire (infinite) universe, how would we quantify or determine its goodness or badness, or a change in it? We might possibly imagine one individual replicated ad infinitum to constitute the whole, and suppose the infinite cosmos to contain the same proportion of happiness and unhappiness, goodness and badness, and undergo the same alterations therein, as this man. However, in reality, a modification in one person’s welfare, or in that of any locality, such as the Earth, does not become exclusively copied throughout. Nor even, probably, does such a local variance affect the welfare of the universe as a whole, since the addition or subtraction of a finite quantum of goodness or evil to/from an infinite amount makes no difference. The problem, therefore, with making the object of our optimism or pessimism the entire (infinite) cosmos is that, regardless of the state or progress of good and evil on Earth, we would never have a basis for optimism or pessimism, because we could not know whether the whole is good or bad, or getting better or worse. For present purposes, then, I shall define universe as the Earth, or mankind.

            But what exactly does good triumphing over evil mean? (For verbal economy, I shall speak of good over evil, understanding that the same point is made for evil over good.) Does it mean that eventually there would be all good and no bad; or merely that there would be more good than bad? In the latter case, how much more good than evil would there be: one percent more, ten percent? In either instance, what minimum quantum of net good is envisioned: one trillion men’s ecstacy for a year, one man’s mild pleasure for a minute? And what form would such triumph take?; what would be its mechanism? Would every organism become better until it is mainly, or completely, good? (a doubtful possibility, in that few people, let alone other organisms, continue to improve, let alone end up good; plus, even if people changed so quickly or thoroughly, about as many worsen as improve). Or would individuals be gradually replaced with better and better ones, until just good ones exist?; which also is questionable, as the contents of personality and character seem consistent over time, the same variety of saints and villains, of joy and suffering, persisting for millennia. (And without the capacity for evil [or good], would we still be human?) Or would there be a great war between good creatures and evil creatures, with the good ones winning? In which event, would the bad ones be eliminated, imprisoned, made to become to good?

             An even more serious flaw, perhaps, is the idea of an ultimate state of affairs, which implies that eventually (when good triumphs over evil) such change will cease. But, as we proceed in time, at what point do we reach ultimately? “This too shall pass.” If there are good and evil forces now, as the doctrine supposes, then, even when good defeats evil, evil forces will still exist, if only latently. Why should we assume that they will never again prevail? If there is a struggle now between the two opposing forces, it seems more likely that the struggle will continue, and that sometimes good will dominate; at other times, evil. Furthermore, if the universe evolves toward an ultimate state of good, one would think that, in all this time, it would already have arrived there, but the doctrine’s holding that good will triumph over evil implies that it has not yet done so. Finally, scientists tell us that our cosmos will continue to physically expand, eventuating in the end of all life (and hence of all good and evil) in the world, contrary to optimism or pessimism.

             In discussing the next philosophical doctrine, that this is the best of all possible worlds (optimism), or the worst (pessimism), I shall again, for economy, speak of optimism, though most of my comments will apply to both.

             At the outset, note that this doctrine and the previous one, that the world is improving, are inconsistent, for the best possible world could not be improved.

             That this is the best possible world is essentially a religious notion. According to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, “Leibniz’s metaphysical optimism is based on his rationalistic theology. From the ontological argument, he knows that God, the most perfect being, exists; and such a being must have created the best of all possible worlds; hence this must be that world. Imperfections are explained as necessary for this richest compossible whole—just as shadows are required by a picture to give form to the light and color.”

             The unsoundness of Leibniz’s argument stems largely from his equation of perfection with goodness (best means the most good). The two concepts are distinct: perfection being a matter of completion; goodness, of degree. Even in actual entities, goodness and perfection do not always coincide. Not all perfect works of art, for instance, are equally good; a work of art that is less nearly perfect than another may nonetheless be greater. A thing may be perfect and yet small, or even bad, like a perfect virus or poison, which is harmful to man. If Leibniz’s idea is that a creature is like its creator; what follows therefrom is that a perfect creator’s products would be (like their creator) perfect, not necessarily good or great.

             As to imperfections being consistent with, even necessary for, the best compossible whole, as shadows are necessary to a painting; several points. To begin with, shadows in paintings are not imperfections. But Leibniz acknowledges that the world contains imperfections. So the question is: If God is perfect, why should His creation be imperfect? Additionally, the world’s imperfections may not be distributed quite as Leibniz assumes (for man’s benefit). Perhaps this best possible galaxy encompasses certain bad planets, and Earth is one of them.

             And why does good require evil? Unlike red paint pigment, say, which, when added to blue, produces another beautiful color (purple); unhappiness does not enhance happiness or yield some other desirable entity, but instead only detracts. A person may live the first half of his life in pleasure, but then, due to some misfortune, live the second half in sorrow. Why, in order for a man to enjoy his delight, he must later pay for it with grief; or why, in order for some men to be happy, others must be miserable, Leibniz does not explain. Put another way, to explore whether this is the best possible world, a person might simply ask himself whether this is the best possible life he could live, or have lived (which question the great majority of people would answer, “No!”).

             The most fundamental problem, though, with this thesis is that, since happiness and goodness are matters of degree, however happy we are, we could theoretically be happier; any given state of affairs could be better. Hence, not only is this not the best possible world, but, further, there can be no best possible world.

            The third and fourth doctrines (that the evil in the world outweighs the good, and that the world is meaningless) compose the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. At the heart of Schopenhauer’s thesis is the notion that men are mere manifestations of a more elemental and significant life force, the Will, whose overriding motive is to survive. The world is bad since man’s urge to survive keeps him in a constant state of desire, which, being only occasionally and briefly satisfied, yields mainly frustration and suffering. Schopenhauer believes the world is meaningless because of the nonexistence of God, who would give meaning by imposing rules for our conduct and a purpose for our lives. The two concepts, I think, are interrelated, in that some suffer partly because they know their lives are meaningless; and our lives are meaningless in part because, like lower animals, we survive just to survive. Moreover, if life is meaningless, so is our suffering.

            Schopenhauer purports to offer a minor bit of consolation. We regret death because the finitude and shortness of our life contributes to its meaninglessness, and our awareness of our impending demise adds to our misery. But Schopenhauer suggests that we should consider that we do not die, since that which is real in us, of which we are a part, the Will, continues, and therein we each live on as well. As Professor Robert Solomon paraphrases Schopenhauer:

“Death has no significance, either, in a world of Will without purpose. The death of the individual is an illusion. The Will itself lives on.”

             I shall address initially Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will. A less extreme, more subtle version of this thesis is the idea, as Nietzsche puts it, that “ultimately we are all one.” However, to be, in the sole sense relevant to humans, is to be conscious. And consciousness occurs strictly on the individual level. Just individuals—no larger or smaller units—are aware. There is no awareness on the part of the universe, or even of society, as a whole. When you are not consciousness, there is no you (you do not exist) in any relevant sense. And when you die, you will not come again. If we are all one, and, even when we die, we nonetheless continue on in the lives of those who live after us; then, if one day all life suddenly came to a permanent end, would that event have any meaning for us personally?! Would we feel a sense of tragedy, of loss?! Would we turn over in our graves?! (No.) There is a popular misconception that we are unified (“all one”) in life, but separate (each person an “eternal soul”) in death. But reality is the opposite: in death we are all one, part of the undifferentiated mass of nonexistence, the void; whereas, in life we are distinct—individual conscious beings. Ergo, the notion of a life entity separate from, let alone more significant than, individual men is a fiction. Life is living organisms: no more, no less.

             And I believe most people instinctively concur with my latter perspective. While Schopenhauer is probably right that we tend to view death as negative, I think people by and large sense they live on after their deaths, not in “being one with the universe,” but rather in leaving behind something of themselves individually, in making a lasting distinctive contribution to society. The common man’s contribution thus is in the form of (his own) children; a more fortunate few leave their mark on the world through artifacts, like scientific discoveries, inventions, or works of art. So the importance to us of humanity continuing after us is not as a continuation of ourselves, per se, but as a receptacle, so to speak, for our societal contributions; in the case of an artist, for example, as a continuing audience for his work.

            But what about Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view that life is unhappy and meaningless? First, as to the role of death; though we may feel death is undesirable, why should it affect either the preponderance of suffering, or life’s meaningfulness? Personally, and I suspect it is true for most people, my joy and pain have little to do with concern for my longevity, but instead with events and circumstances of, and prospects for, what life I have, regardless of its length. In fact, it would seem that all that the perpetuation of our lives would accomplish in this regard is the extension of existing patterns of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, so that, really, for the most part, that individuals die is a blessing rather than a curse, saving unhappy men from a living hell. Likewise, it is not death which makes life meaningless. If a man’s life were meaningful without death, would not his first fifty years be meaningful . . . so that if he were to die at that point, his fifty-years-long life would still have been meaningful? If not, after how many years would a person’s life become meaningful—two hundred, three hundred, a thousand? More to the point, perhaps, if a finite life is meaningless; then, even without death, life would still be meaningless, for, at any given moment, you have lived only finitely long—you never reach a time when you have lived infinitely long; so in this sense a man’s life is necessarily always finite.

             Nor do I see why the mere fact that our drives are insatiable (or, more accurately, recurrent) should either condemn man to unhappiness or make life meaningless. Indeed, from one point of view, it is the very existence of desire which gives life zest. If variety is the spice of life, desire is its very meat. Youth, which most people prefer to age, is often spoken of as quintessentially a time of appetite, especially that for love. Plus, some humans are happy, and they are no less subject to recurrent drives than unhappy men. Life without desire would seem the height of meaninglessness.

            Nonetheless, the questions remain: Is life meaningless? Is life mainly suffering?


II   General Comments on Philosophical Optimism and Pessimism

These remaining queries can best be dealt with in a broader context. As to meaning, I believe that life is meaningless, but for a reason more fundamental than, and having nothing to do with, God’s existence or nonexistence, and which would be true even if God existed: namely, that intrinsic value is impossible. The broader question, however, is why should this truth be the basis of Pessimism. Though we could define pessimism (or optimism) so as to connect with any number of doctrines; nonetheless, even philosophical pessimism and optimism inevitably share a sense of their common meanings, which are a gloomy or a cheerful outlook or mood. Thus, concerning life’s meaning, the question is, why should life’s meaninglessness make us unhappy? To answer this, we should distinguish between the intellectual and the emotional senses of meaning. On one hand, there is the (intellectual) conclusion or proposition that life is meaningful, or meaningless, as the case may be; on the other hand, there is the feeling that one’s life is meaningful, or meaningless. And the two (the proposition and the emotion) are mutually independent. Although I believe (as a matter of abstract truth, as I believe twice two is four) that life is meaningless; I feel as if my life is meaningful, and I am filled with a strong sense of purpose (to write). There is no reason why the abstract proposition that life is meaningless should be characterized as gloomy. I, myself, find the notion downright liberating (though admittedly mine is a special case, in that, having discovered intrinsic value’s impossibility, the centerpiece of my philosophy, life’s meaninglessness is a matter of pride of authorship, and thus a source of positive feeling).

             The situation is similar regarding the question whether the world is predominantly happy or unhappy, good or bad. Life, the world, are not in general good or bad, happy or unhappy. The goodness or badness of life takes place on an individual basis. One man’s life may be good, another’s not so good. And that judgment is subjective. I may envy the life of another person, who may himself feel he is very unfortunate.

             It therefore seems to me that optimism and pessimism are not even proper subjects of philosophy (I am writing about them just to criticize the work of other philosophers in this regard). Because optimism and pessimism are less judgments about the world than projections of a man’s own mood, probably reflecting his feelings about his own life; to philosophize thus is to commit the errors of making objective what is essentially subjective, and of making matters of emotion into matters of thought. To announce oneself an optimist or a pessimist is no more, in effect, than to say, “I feel good” or “I feel bad.” One man exclaims, “Good morning!,” and his affirmation truly reflects his mood. This is hardly something upon which to erect a philosophical doctrine.


III   Personal Reflections on Optimism and Pessimism

●         Even though optimism and pessimism are to a large extent simply moods; nonetheless, talk of optimism or pessimism seems to prompt the question: optimistic or pessimistic about what? Of course, an optimistic feeling may be linked to a wide variety of specific issues—the prospect that traffic will be light for your trip home, that you will enjoy your dinner tonight, and so forth. But it would seem that a more abiding sense of optimism or pessimism pertains to our deepest wishes. Which in turn suggests the inquiry, what do you truly desire? For my own part, if I could somehow magically construct the world, or a world, not out of a sense of obligation, but just for my own satisfaction, what would that world look like? What would it mean for all my wishes, or my deepest wish, for myself, to come true? If I could have anything at all, I suppose I would wish to live forever, never unhappy, and constantly have infinite happiness. But this must be rephrased, for, again, there is no such thing as living forever, since you never reach infinity, nor, I believe, could a single consciousness experience infinite happiness. So I would restate it thus: to continue to live and never die; and never be unhappy. On the first day, I would be, continuously, as happy as I was at the happiest moment in my life until then. Each successive day I would be twice as happy as the day before. But this is pure fantasy; it could not actually happen. Let me, then, come down one (more) level, as it were, and confine myself to what is actually possible. Here I would wish to have written work with which I am satisfied, and for which I receive due recognition from the world, that I be (rightly) admired as one of the greatest writers and philosophers; that this situation continue in perpetuity, and that, after my death, people remain about as intelligent as they are now, and no greater philosopher ever arise to eclipse me. . . . My mood is, in fact, largely associated with such thoughts. I am happiest when I feel good about my creative work, as when I have just produced a piece that I am proud of, when someone praises my writing, when I feel more hopeful somehow about my work surviving and achieving fame.

            But I wonder. If Earth did not exist, and I were alone in a void, what would I wish for then? Would I want to create a planet such as this, and start a race of creatures just like human beings, with exactly their current range of intelligence and all their other now-existing traits, speaking a language like English . . . so that I could be admired by them for my writing? Or would I think this quite arbitrary, and wish for something wholly different? I suppose, from a cosmic point of view, our desires are quite provincial. We take the particular environment and circumstances in which we happen to find ourselves and wish simply for a more advantageous position within them. If I were a monkey, I might wish merely to be the dominant monkey in my group, to be respected by my fellow apes, and be able to have sex, or to mate, with as many of the (female) other monkeys as I desired.

●         I recently heard of a study which found that optimism favors, and pessimism disfavors, success. (The study seemed to divide the world into the two groups: optimists and pessimists, taking no account of a middle group of people who are not particularly optimistic or pessimistic.) Several reasons occur to me to explain this outcome. One possible reason is that, in a sense, optimism and pessimism are self-fulfilling prophecies. If it is more likely that you will live long, it makes sense, it is prudent, more often, as a course of action, to sacrifice short-run advantage for long-run benefit; and, if you are optimistic, you will probably be more optimistic about your longevity, and so you will have a greater tendency to act accordingly, in furtherance of your longer-term welfare, which actions ipso facto enhance the probability of long-term survival and well-being.

             In addition, optimism is a more pleasant feeling than pessimism. And greater happiness conduces to (and/or consists in) greater energy; and greater energy in turn helps do work, and work (which produces such benefits as higher wages) enhances the length and quality of life. There are two additional aspects of the better feeling that optimism consists in. Like physical pain, unhappiness and negative emotions may in themselves be promotive of ill health (or at least less promotive of good health). Also, there may be an element of realistic evaluation based on experience. If somehow you tend to be pessimistic, and, for some of the above reasons, you therefore tend to get somewhat poorer results than the optimist, you may simply observe this reality (whether or not you notice the precise connection with your pessimism) and expect, just as a matter of knowing yourself and your life, that things will not go quite as well as they might if you were an optimist, which may reinforce and even augment the pessimism. (As an afterthought on the notion of outlook following observation of reality; there is a sense in which optimism and pessimism can simply be justified responses to the situation. If, say, you want to be a great philosopher; a dull person may be realistically pessimistic about his chances of accomplishing this goal; whereas, an intelligent, creative, expressive person with a meditative bent has greater reason for optimism. As a simpler example, the person who is dying and knows it, will probably be pessimistic, and reasonably so, about his longevity; whereas the person who is young and healthy and knows it, will likely (reasonably) be optimistic about it. But this is perhaps a bit off the point, since the comparison ought to be between similarly situated individuals, where the only varied element is the optimism or pessimism. Of course a more intelligent person will more likely succeed as a philosopher, and will probably be more optimistic about his chances of it. The comparison should be between two intelligent people, one of whom is optimistic, the other pessimistic . . . )

             I think many people assume we can consciously choose to be optimistic. An enumeration of optimism’s benefits sounds to me like an exhortation to the pessimist to change his counterproductive ways and switch to optimism. I am not sure the assumption is true. Probably, however, at least within certain limits, in certain situations, some volitional change of attitude is possible. You may perhaps realize, for example, that you are in a downward spiral in which you are being very unproductive, and you are depressed about it, and the depression (and its attendant loss of energy) is in turn exacerbating your lack of productivity. You may also recognize that an element in the cycle (perhaps a component of the depression) is pessimism about your ability to be productive, which pessimism may at least initially come from the simple correct observation that you have been unproductive. (Perhaps this has something to do with the old saying, “The less you do, the less you want to do.”) Realizing all this, you may consciously reverse the downward spiral by making a determined effort to start to get a little more work done, in order to prove to yourself that you do have the ability to be more productive, which may in turn encourage you and make you more optimistic, less depressed, more ambitions and energetic, thus further improving your productivity, and so forth. Like me, though, you may be susceptible to a certain snag that can occur in the course of such recovery, which is that, noticing you are finally being productive, instead of gaining encouragement and energy from that awareness to spur you to further enhanced levels of productiveness; the healthy optimism becomes perverted into complacency, whereby you become so optimistic about your productivity that you start to take it for granted, and think it will happen automatically, without your continued exertion, and so you begin to work less vigorously. Working less hard reduces your productivity, which also renews pessimism and depression, thus reversing the upward spiral. To counter this problem, simply apprehend when it may be happening, and consciously resist it (continue to work diligently). But also realize that productivity inevitably fluctuates; and when it starts to lag, do not cease all activity in despair, but instead do what you can to foster its resumption in future, as by doing the less gratifying but still important preparatory work.

             Perhaps the flaw in thinking in this connection is to believe that you can become optimistic, or more so, by instant mental decision alone. Realistically, becoming more optimistic takes determination and work both inwardly and outwardly, by an interaction between consciousness and overt striving to improve the circumstances of your life.

●         Even though optimism cannot be acquired directly and instantly by choice; yet many people may cause themselves some unnecessary misery in this regard. To appreciate why, it is useful to distinguish between specific and general optimism / pessimism. Specific optimism / pessimism involve judgments about the probability or improbability of certain events; for example, whether or not someone will recover from a particular illness. In contrast, general optimism / pessimism involve free-floating, broad attitudes about, a sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with, life. Whereas the former (specific) are more or less objective matters, testable, and capable of being judged realistic or unrealistic; the latter (general) are essentially subjective.

             As a further preface to this point, consider the following. If we cannot say what constitutes a good life, perhaps we can say what are some good elements of life, or what makes life better. One good element is happiness (candidly, I cannot think of another). Most people would probably agree that, all else being equal, it is better to be happy. For example, to accomplish all your goals, to gain power, and be happy is a better life than to achieve your goals and gain power, but suffer. (Such qualities, because they are appreciated universally, regardless of circumstances, may be considered quasi intrinsically desirable.)

            I think people with an intellectual bent have a renitence to general optimism, for several reasons. First, they think optimism and pessimism are mutually exclusive, that one must be either an optimist, or a pessimist. Second, they confuse general optimism with specific optimism, and sense that general optimism somehow implies a belief that their own life will turn out well, in the sense of not dying, which they reasonably disbelieve. And so intellectual pride impels them to (general) pessimism. But optimism and pessimism are not mutually exclusive: you can be optimistic in some ways, pessimistic in others. Nor is general optimism inconsistent with death (which instead involves just specific pessimism). There is no logical reason why you should feel that a life must be unending in order to be good . . . or in order to be happy. At times we are happy. On such occasions, our knowledge that we will eventually die does not prevent our being happy, nor does it occur to us that our good feeling is somehow illogical, contradictory of the fact of death. Rather, we simply welcome feeling good. If we are going to live, it only makes sense to seek to maximize the quality of our experience, while we are having the experience, however long or short that may be. Hence, given the a-rationality of general optimism / pessimism (our freedom logically to feel either way); if—if—you had a choice between the two, would it not be more rational, so to speak, to choose optimism?


© 2003 by Richard J. Eisner