In 1872 Lord Salisbury suggested, in an article about the failure of Gladstone’s policy in Ireland, ‘The optimist view of politics assumes that there must be some remedy for every political ill, and rather than not find it, will make two hardships to cure one. If all equitable remedies have failed, its votaries take it as proved without argument that the one-sided remedies, which alone are left, must needs succeed. But is not the other view barely possible? Is it not just conceivable that there is no remedy that we can apply for the Irish hatred of ourselves? …May it not, on the contrary, be our incessant doctoring and meddling, awaking the passions now of this party, now of that, raising at every step a fresh crop of resentments by the side of the old growth, that puts off the day when these feelings will decay quietly away and be forgotten?’ ~Andrew Gimson, The Spectator (registration required)

Ever since I researched the Venezuelan boundary dispute in a class on American foreign policy and I became familiar with the character of Lord Salisbury, I have been nothing but impressed with the man’s intelligence and wisdom (his acquiescence in the dreadful Boer War notwithstanding). I regret that men of his calibre are no longer in government service (indeed, that there may no longer be men of his calibre at all thanks to the degradations of mass society), and I observe that democratic societies are uniquely unsuited to producing men of this sort. Lord Salisbury was one of the last of a dying breed of an aristocratic servant of the Crown before the British aristocracy descended into complete decay and frivolity, and his departure from the political stage heralded the rise of the new men of “Tory democracy,” such as the guttersnipe imperialist Joseph Chamberlain, and also of the opportunists, such as Churchill. When Lord Salisbury indicts the foolishness of “optimists,” it carries an especially great weight.

There are times when, as Burnham said (I am roughly paraphrasing here), there is no problem because there is no solution. Some predicaments do not have solutions, at least not man-made solutions. It is the lunacy of all modern political ideologies to believe that their plans can solve all major human predicaments; now trans-humanists and the nuttier nanotechnologists believe that they can eliminate basic predicaments that are part of our very nature.

There is something astoundingly naive in the conviction that there is always a solution, always a way out of a jam. That is the cardinal tenet of an irresponsible man or of a Hollywood writer: the difference is that the latter gets paid to create fantasies, while the former tries to live out his fantasies without any concern for what it might do to other people. Optimism takes this occasional irresponsibility and makes it into a creed, indeed into a way of life. But in a world where men are mortal, fallible and subject to passions, some consequences are final or irremediable, except by the miraculous, except by grace. Because they deny or minimise this, many “optimists” are really very impious.

There are some genuinely religious people who make the mistake of identifying the virtue of hope with “optimism,” but hope is a theological virtue because it is closely related to and dependent on faith, which requires confidence and trust in God in spite of whatever we may encounter in the world. Hope is the proper attitude of man to anticipate the enduring goodness of God–it is not really some wistful belief that “everything will come out right.” Hope does not rule out all manner of terrible trials, suffering and what the world would regard as spectacular failures. Hope is the expectation of deliverance by God in the midst of all those calamities that shake our confidence in God. If we have hope, it is very hard for us to be “optimists.”

We like to believe that there is always a way out, especially when we have created the mess. This is a very human trait. It also happens to be one of our greatest failings, a kind of delusion that allows us to believe that, contrary to everything we (especially we conservatives) say, actions don’t really have lasting and (oftentimes) irreversible consequences. The “optimists” will retort, for example, to very reasonable criticisms of the Iraq war: so what if we have turned Iraq into the new Afghanistan, the new Jihad Central? So what if we have created a colossal mess? We can fix it (with democracy!), the “optimists” tell you, provided you lousy “defeatists” out there don’t get in our way. Like the compulsive gambler or some other perennial loser, certain that “things are going to change soon,” an optimist of this sort does not know when to quit–indeed, he cannot allow himself to quit without betraying his core convictions. Chances are he is also one of those people who “believes in himself,” and as Chesterton once wrote mental asylums are full of such people.

Sometimes repairs cannot be made, and sometimes injuries, whether to a person or a polity, are too severe. This is not to encourage fatalism of any kind, but to recognise limits and constraints imposed by nature, necessity, contingency and God. You don’t have to be a godless cynic like Voltaire to recognise that, except in some grand, providential sense that we cannot perceive or understand, things do not often work out “for the best,” nor are there always resolutions to intractable conflicts.

Tragedies are not really possible in the optimists’ fantasy world (perhaps this is why the word tragedy itself has become the most overused word that has thoroughly lost its older meaning in conventional language), because the optimist believes at some level that you can have your cake and eat it, too, and that there are no unmoveable objects or insurmountable odds. Optimists are usually incapable of recognising that both sides in a conflict are in some way justified: they are constitutionally much more vulnerable to the fiction that one side embodies Light, the other Darkness, and the total triumph of the one is necessary for the good of all. They are never satisfied with the merely good, but always want improvement. Perhaps in their own lives this desire for improvement would be good, even admirable, but optimists are imperialistic in their projects of improvement: it isn’t enough to make myself and my environs better (which is at least somewhat feasible), but we’ll have to make the entire world better, too! There is a close relationship, I think, between the thinking of an optimist, the believer in man-made perfectibility and the abstract universalist.

It is, as Chantal Delsol suggested in Icarus Fallen, a profoundly modern, irrational view to see the world in terms of problems to be solved. It is to mistake life for mathematics instead of the art that it is. The traditional view of life, in which we bear burdens, cultivate patience, develop a spirit of longsuffering and make the best out of genuinely bad situations, has nothing to do with this problem-solver ideology. The problem-solver mentality is the root of social engineering, central planning and every kind of political activism, all of which espouse the saccharine but actually quite dangerous, gnostic notion of “making the world a better place.” For these people, there is something basically wrong with the world that needs to be fixed and that they claim to be able to fix, and provided that we listen to them everything will just get better and better. Except that 200 years of listening to these sorts of people has netted us the greatest horrors in the history of mankind.

Before the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Bush often lectured opponents of the proposed attack that “hoping for the best” with Saddam Hussein was not a strategy. Nevermind for a moment that this was a silly caricature of what his critics were saying (it was not we who were hoping for the best, but assuming that the status quo, however lousy, was a lot better than whatever was going to come later–incidentally, we are daily being proven right). Nowadays, indeed ever since the invasion, the greatest fans of a very cheap sort of hope (which I must stress is not really hope, but wishful thinking) are on the pro-war side. Thus all of the rubbish about “turning corners” and reporting the “good news”–the only thing holding back the glorious rebirth of Iraq, they kept telling us, was all of this negativism and “defeatism” back home and in the press. Their motto might as well have come from a New Age guru or self-help instructor: “Be positive!” Now comes the news from a poll a few weeks ago that the Iraqis are also “optimistic” about their future. Given what I think about optimists, this is not a promising sign. Very often it is the case that someone is optimistic because he has no idea what is going on. On the other hand he may be only too aware of how badly things are going and desperately needs to believe (especially if he had a hand in creating the lousy situation) that things will improve–this is a way of staying sane and perhaps surviving in difficult circumstances, but it is valuable in these circumstances because such “optimism” is almost certainly wrong. Optimism is the psychological fix for the miserable, the guilty and the fearful.

In his tirade against Scott McConnell and the representatives of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, Gary Rosen whined about Mr. McConnell’s “pessimism” about America’s role in the world. Thus it has become conventional to regard as pessimism any argument that points to real limitations, unsustainable courses of action and misguided projects. Critics of interventionist policy, however, are not necessarily pessimistic: they are pointing out massive structural flaws in the edifice and warning, quite soberly and without any necessary hint of gloom, that the edifice will collapse if it is built according to the shoddy standards of the current architects. Nor are they “defeatist,” unless it is “defeatist” to say that the “optimistic” vision of radical cultural transformation and the planting of democracy in the Near East are fantasies as ridiculous as they are bound to fail.