These are ideal times for the release of “Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit,” by Joshua Foa Dienstag, a U.C.L.A. political theorist. Mr. Dienstag aims to rescue pessimism from the philosophical sidelines, where it has been shunted by optimists of all ideologies. The book is seductive, because pessimists are generally more engaging and entertaining than optimists, and because, as the author notes, “the world keeps delivering bad news.” It is almost tempting to throw up one’s hands and sign on with Schopenhauer.

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. ~Adam Cohen, The New York Times

Now, who wouldn’t want to be part of the more engaging and entertaining set?  Who wouldn’t prefer to be the sort of person who chooses to bear his burden rather than seeking to revamp entire social and political systems at unknown cost to countless others?  Perhaps Mr. Bush’s recent turn towards Camus for some light summer reading has its source in a pained recognition that political optimism is not just fatally flawed (and doomed to fail) but also deeply dissatisfying because it promises satisfaction and resolution.  Only people who believed that Iraq could be remade should be discouraged that the remaking is failing; only people who believed the government should feel betrayed that it launched a war without reason; only those who trusted in princes should feel dismayed that they have used and abused the people.  Remember, gentle reader, if there is no solution, there really is no problem.  As Chantal Delsol wrote in Icarus Fallen, it is the trait of modern man to expect solutions; it is the mark of traditional man to bear burdens and to assume that the structures of life are not problems to be solved but realities that cannot be negotiated away.  As it happens, this is also the mark of the pessimist: 

But pessimism’s overall spirit, as Camus noted, “is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments.”

Mr. Cohen writes that Bush has robbed America of its optimism.  Now if this optimism was anything other than a pose, a mindless embrace of myths of progress and improvement that had no basis in the real world, we should be glad to be rid of it, because it was in that case artificial, a fake belief.  If it was something more deeply rooted in our national character and history, if it was something integral to human nature itself, I doubt very much that Mr. Bush could have stripped us of it, though he might have dampened American spirits a bit. 

Hope is, of course, a theological virtue, essential to Christian life.  In my view, orthodox Christian hope and pessimism in the world are two sides of the same coin.  Only the meliorist, the gnostic, the immanentising chiliast believes that the hope of eternity and transcendence can also be more and more ours in the world if we apply the right methods and solutions, establish the right kind of regime, pass the right laws, elect the right people, kill the right enemies.  Someone preoccupied with improving the world does not really believe that the world has been overcome already; a Christian preoccupied unduly with improving the world probably lacks the conviction that Christians are not of the world.  Without a reasonable pessimism, there is no true hope.