Eunomia · pessimism

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At APSA, Prof. Patrick Deneen had a critique of Prof. Dienstag’s Pessimism, which I have discussed many times before, and of philosophical pessimism itself.   He said:

Memory and hope, Christopher Lasch argued – and not pessimism – are the proper antidotes to optimism.

I agree with this, or at least I almost agree.  Pessimism seems to me to be the antidote to the poison of optimism, and then memory and hope function as the proper nourishment that human nature needs to flourish.  Even if undiluted pessimism is a poison of its own, and I might grant that it is in its most extreme despair of any meaning in life, St. John of Damascus said of his heresiological work that it is necessary to make use of poisons to create antidotes. 

I have said many times that the virtue of hope has nothing to do with optimism, and Christians who routinely mistake hope for optimism are very badly confused about what hope is and what they are supposed to be hoping for in this life.  Indeed, to hope for salvation in Christ is almost the opposite of the optimist’s view.  The optimist says, “I will be saved, and I can save myself.”  The Christian says, “I may yet be saved, if it be God’s will.”  Hope and optimism are in fact antithetical, which reinforces my sense that optimism is as vicious as hope is virtuous.  Optimism is as demonic as hope is divine.

My own view is that the pessimists are as close to being right as secular philosophers are likely to be, but that in their denial even of the hope of salvation and their denial of all meaning they have missed the heart of why they are right about so many of their other observations.  They have seen clearly through the vanity of this world and the promises of those who would seek to realise some kind of salvation here below, and we would all be better off if there were more people inclined to see these promises as the hollow deceptions that they are.  However, the only possible pessimism that escapes the ultimate emptiness of this secular pessimism (the pessimists would see it not as emptiness, but as possibility) is a Christian pessimism that understands that redemption is still possible, but it is not one that can be fulfilled in this world.

James has a very interesting and valuable post on optimism.  We agree part of the way, in that we both seem sure that optimism is undesirable, misleading and potentially dangerous.  James goes on to say:

Optimism, in fact, is an attitude, an emotional orientation, a psychological posture, a feeling — a meta-feeling, even, a feeling about feelings, the feeling that we should  feel as if failure is impossible.

I agree that there is such an attitude, or orientation, or posture, or feeling, but I would say that this attitude is the product of an optimistic worldview, rather than the substance of optimism itself.  Just as I insist that we all recognise that pessimism is more than, and indeed quite different from, feeling gloomy and misanthropic, it is important that we understand optimism as a kind of philosophical thought.  Optimism of the kind I am describing, and which I reject utterly, is not simply unsettling cheerfulness and irrepressible giddiness, bad as these may be, but a set of assumptions about the world, human nature and the direction (or non-direction) of history.      

One of my first forays against dread optimism was early last year, when I came across this outstanding Salisbury quote in a Gimson article in The Spectator.  Lord Salisbury said:

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?

Optimism is not simply an attitude or a feeling, but an assumption that all problems, in the end, have solutions and that we can know what they are and put them into effect.  It is an assumption that no consequences are final, there is always another day to set things right, that there is always a second chance and that history is moving towards something that we can discern and, even more remarkably, we may be able to accelerate progress towards that end.  The optimist says, “It is never too late,” while the pessimist knows that people are late and they miss what they are seeking, or something else interferes and prevents you from reaching the goal.  Pessimism recognises certain limitations of finite man that do not change; optimism sees human limits as continually expanding and being redefined.  This is not simply an attitude, but a belief about the structure of reality and the nature of history.  Anyone who accepts the reality of the radical contingency of historical change cannot think that history is going in any particular direction.  Anyone who briefly scans the annals of mankind cannot conclude that human reason has the capacity to actually “solve” fundamental problems of our condition, yet this is what an optimist, be he liberal or Marxist or something else, must believe.  According to Dienstag:

Pessimism, to Schopenhauer, means not that our civilization or morality are declining, but rather that human beings are fated to endure a life freighted with problems that are fundamentally unmeliorable.

Optimism is the view that there are ultimately no problems that are unmeliorable (optimists may make a concession with respect to death, but only very grudgingly).  Rather than being filled with burdens to be endured, life may be improved virtually without end in the optimist’s view.  This is far more, and far worse, than endless self-delusion based on excessive cheer and confidence.  It is the assumption that there is good reason to be so cheerful and confident about the future.

In the end, optimism as a philosophical view is an acceptance of the reality of progress.  Here is Dienstag on the struggle between the idea of progress and pessimism:

Finally, the dismissal of pessimism reflects the continuing grip that ideas of progress retain on contemporary consciousness.  Though supposedly slain many times (Lewis Mumford called it the “deadest of dead ideas” in 1932), this beast continues to rise from the ashes for the simple reason that, first, it helps us to make sense of the linear time of our calendar and, second, there is no easy substitute for it.  However much it may be denied in principle, in practice the idea of progress is difficult to displace.  And from that perspective, pessimism is especially bewildering…..Pessimism is a substitute for progress, but it is not a painless one.  In suggesting that we look at time and history differently, it asks us to alter radically our opinion of ourselves and of what we can expect from politics [bold mine-DL].  It does not simply tell us to expect less.  It tells us, in fact, to expect nothing.  This posture, I argue below, is not impossible and not suicidal.  It is neither skeptical (knowing nothing) nor nihilistic (wanting nothing).  It is a distinct account of the human condition that has developed in the shadow of progress–alongside it, as it were–with its own political stance.       

Rich Lowry actually has a moderately interesting article on liberalism and Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution:

American history no longer appeared to be a benign process, but a twisted story of rapine and oppression. “With such a bill of indictment,” Piereson writes, “the new liberals now held that Americans had no good reason to feel pride in their country’s past or optimism about its future.”

There are some problems with this interpretation, not least of which is that the liberal acceptance of a narrative of continuing progress did not actually end in November 1963.  The glossing over of Vietnam, as if it were incidental to the changes on the American left, seems inexplicable.  To the extent that Piereson is right that liberalism became less comfortable with a simple narrative of American history as the advance of freedom and goodness (I think Obama’s understanding of American history, shared by plenty on the left and right, proves that this thesis is actually pretty weak), the disillusionment that resulted confirms that it was the previous naively optimistic view that set liberalism up for any so-called Fall.  Only an absurd kind of patriotism makes taking pride in your country a function of its purity and sinlessness (you might call this the “moral proposition nation” view).   Naturally, no such country has existed or ever will exist in this world, and anyone who starts with the assumption that his country is such a pure and untainted one, somehow outside history or beyond the fallen state of man, will either spend his entire life deluded or will see this fantastic illusion destroyed before his eyes sooner or later.  This is a patriotism that inculcates love of an imaginary place, rather than the actual place where you live, and it encourages disappointment with the reality because it continually fails to live up to the high (and unrealistic) standards of the imaginary world.  Having embraced an insubstantial myth, such a person is unprepared to face the complex reality of his country’s history.  If he cannot see his national story as the unfolding of a morality play, he loses interest or becomes alienated from his own country’s past. 

Perversely, and this is where Piereson appears to have gotten the interpretation wrong, the disappointed optimist becomes even more obsessed with the future (which, as we remember from Camus, authorises every kind of humbug) because the past now appears to him as a string of injustices that mar the image of his country.  In the future, there is the possibility of improvement, while the past offers little or nothing.  His patriotism will be one projected towards a future country in which various “ideals” have been realised.  The more that history fails to match mythical fantasies about the past, the more the optimist will abandon more and more of his country’s past as virtually irredeemable (except for those few precursors and seeds of what came later).  Yet the one thing that the optimist will never abandon fully is the madness that is optimism itself.  Like an addict, the optimist becomes progressively more dependent on the destructive drug of optimism even as it steadily ruins his life.  The worse things get, the more that optimism is shown to be a lie, the more the optimist feels compelled to believe in the lie.

Still, the sour complaints and dire prognoses of 1992–oh, my God, the budget deficit will do us in!–were quickly overtaken by events. ~Bill Kristol

Yes, including such “events” as the 1994 election of a Congress that began to impose some of the fiscal restraint that ideally comes from divided government.  Deficit doomsayers may have been overwrought in 1992, but it was the Perot campaign pushing the deficit to the middle of the debate and the public’s support for balanced budgets that began to head off any potential woes of running deficits year after year.  Relative fiscal restraint combined with the post-’91 recession recovery led to the fat years of the last decade.  It didn’t just come out of nowhere, but was the result of a number of people drawing attention to a problem and attempting, however fitfully and half-heartedly at times, to address it.  Optimists are great ones for minimising the problems that can actually be solved while undertaking impossible projects to reorder entire societies, which is why they are doubly useless when it comes to running a polity.  

Kristol continues:

What’s more, the fear of many conservatives that we might be at the mercy of unstoppable forces of social disintegration turned out to be wrong.

Well, according to the Iraq standard of social disintegration, I suppose they turned out to be wrong.  In other respects, most of the things that troubled social conservatives in 1992 are still around and have become in some cases worse than they were.  Where there was greater concern about cultural rot and crime in the early ’90s–because these seemed to be and actually were the more salient problems of the time–fears of eroding national identity and security, both physical and economic, contribute to very real anxieties.  Some social problems have become less severe in the last fifteen years, but they nonetheless remain great.  Of course, Kristol is an unusually bad one to assess whether or not these claims were vindicated, since he did not accept many of them back then, either, and he is instinctively inclined to find pessimistic views unpersuasive.

But nothing changed, the other side continued to get stronger, the ARVN side weaker. One reason the principals were always surprised by this, and irritated by the failure of their programs, was that the truth of the war never entered the upper-level American calculations; that this was a revolutionary war, and that the other side held title to the revolution because of the colonial war which had just ended. This most simple fact … entered into the estimates of the American intelligence community and made them quite accurate. But it never entered into the calculations of the principals, for a variety of reasons; among other things to see the other side in terms of nationalism or as revolutionaries might mean a re-evaluation of whether the United States was even fighting on the right side. In contrast, the question of Communism and anti-Communism as opposed to revolution and antirevolution was far more convenient for American policy makers [bold mine-DL]. ~David Halberstam (quoted by Wilson Burman)

But Halberstam saw firsthand how hope turned into expectant paralysis and confidence into dangerous myopia. In that dynamic come easy bromides about “terrorists” and rejection of complex terms like “civil war.” ~Wilson Burman

The problem is that the vocabulary of optimism itself distorts our understanding of the world and leaves us lost in illusions. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag

There are at least three terrible things that optimism does to people: 1) it makes people expect success, rather than teach them to prepare for it; 2) it encourages unrealistic expectations that can never be met, thus prompting profound disenchantment and bitterness; 3) it is constantly appealing to the future to make present failure seem more acceptable, which is simply another way of trying to excuse and justify error by saying that today’s errors are the seeds of tomorrow’s victory.  Virtually all foreign interventions possess these three optimistic evils, and it is because of the ruinous effects of optimism that these interventions will fail to achieve their stated missions.

Daniel Larison, whose ever-present aura of gloom is powerful enough to drive a Care Bear to suicide… ~Dave Weigel

That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said about me in weeks.

I ask this because behind all of the misleading rhetoric, half-truths and unkept promises, the problem with the “turn the corner” language for most people is that the corner keeps receding out of view.  Suppose that “turning the corner,” so to speak, achieved nothing and simply prolonged the agony of roaming aimlessly through a maze without end?  What if you could “turn” a hundred ”corners” and still be no closer to ”victory”?  Could we admit at that point that it was time to bring our people home and stop wasting their lives in vain attempts at angular maneuvers? 

Clark offers his pessimism as an antidote to any excessive optimism experienced at Charlottesville.  I do have to confess I share Clark’s puzzlement about Prof. Deneen’s reference to people being “wildly optimistic” about human nature.  It is not necessarily true that all or even most people at the conference would share my enthusiasm for active pessimism, but as something of an arch-pessimist I would have thought I would be able to detect if anyone was a believer in the unspotted goodness of mankind.  Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention, or perhaps I simply drank too much vodka and was no longer discerning much of anything.

The Wire doesn’t just “evade” arguments over solutions, it posits that no solutions actually exist. ~Peter Suderman

I have never seen The Wire (I don’t own a TV, much less do I have a cable subscription), so this is one of those facets of popular culture that is completely unknown to me.  (I was a great fan of Homicide when I was younger, particularly enjoying the references to Poe and the all-around cynicism of Richard Belzer’s Det. Munch, and I was actually very upset when it was cancelled.)  But, if Peter and the other critics are right, it sounds like an unusually smart television show, which it would have to be to carry on in the tradition of Homicide.  (Trivial aside: Homicide was among the first to consistently use the hand-held camera documentary conceit to lend the show a more ”realistic” flavour, and the use of a similar effect in the new Galactica is part of that show’s tremendous success as a more “realistic” approach to the obviously fantastical genre of sci-fi.) 

From what I read, it seems that it does not try to do what every other television show does: bring things to tidy resolution.  Whether it is in an arc-plotted series or a single episode, TV usually tries to provide us with more or less nicely wrapped story packages.  Almost every kind of television does this: the sitcom, the miniseries, the sci-fi series, the Dallas-style one-hour primetime, non-crime-related drama (a lost art form known for the most part only to those of us watching in the ’80s), etc.  Soap operas are probably the one form of television that never really try to provide resolution, but only the illusion of it, which allows the story to continue indefinitely and take endless twists and turns.  This is one reason, in addition to the acting and writing, why they are generally considered bad television: it just never goes anywhere!  This is also why soap operas can be addictive, because there is an implicit promise of some sort of conclusion without any payoff. 

People like finality and resolution, which is why writers typically structure stories with some kind of resolution.  Narratives without some obvious ending, a conclusion, seem incomplete–this much just seems like common sense.  Finish the story, we say.  That is why real life agitates us so much, because resolution often eludes us.  Things happen, and they do not always make a great deal of sense nor do they seem to tend towards anything in particular.  (This is why the pessimists seem so compelling to people who are paying attention, and why they would be entirely right but for the truth of revelation.) 

But it is a terribly modern and optimistic way of looking at the world to see “problems” that have “solutions” rather than burdens to be born, and we know what I think of modernity and optimism.  This does not mean that we ought not try to alleviate suffering or rectify certain injustices, but that we are fools if we think we can “solve” these things that arise from the structures of our existence.  There are no solutions, only ways of making the best of what we have. 

Television routinely tells us that we can solve the injustices or difficulties of life, which may be the main reason why television is the most pervasive source of confusion about reality that exists.  If there were more shows that did not indulge this happy falsehood, we would probably all be better off for it. 

Recently I interviewed Prof. Joshua Foa Dienstag for The Dallas Morning News on his new book, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, which had inspired me to write a number of blog posts on the book and the subject of pessimism.  The interview appears in today’s edition of the paper and has also been put online at the DMN website.  Here is a sample:

How dangerous to human freedom are “historical ideals” and the rhetoric of redeeming violence and injustice through appeals to an ideological cause? How do President Bush’s references to an “ideological struggle” relate to this?

What’s dangerous is to let a vision of the future blind you to violence in the present or, what’s worse, to let it justify one’s own moral compromises. I think it’s actually wrong to say that the recent efforts to abolish the right of habeas corpus and to legalize torture are driven by fear; that would be more understandable. What’s more frightening is the idea that the people who propose these policies believe there is some kind of historical logic that justifies them. Once you start down that road, you can justify anything. If we start from the assumption that we don’t know what our efforts will come to, and then ask ourselves what kind of people we want to be, whether or not we’re successful, we’re much less likely to stumble into these moral quagmires.

Read the entire interview here.

If you find nothing else from Pessimism interesting or persuasive, I ask you to consider the simple wisdom of the following lines from Dienstag’s Afterword (alas, yes, our journey through Pessimism is nearing its end, but all things must come to an end):

We are each given one human life with no promise as to how much light or darkness it may contain.  Nor is there any promise that turning ourselves toward the light or the darkness will make us free and happy.  Freedom and happiness exist, occasionally they are even visible–but they do not exist as the “solution” to a “problem” any more than do the sun and the moon.  The coexistence of freedom and happiness is like the appearance of the sun and moon in the same portion of the sky, and effected by similar means.

The inability to keep the past alive is the truly reactionary feature. -Ortega y Gasset

Here Ortega puts his finger on something that is often misunderstood.  True reverence for the past is not the same thing as wishing for its return.  To feel the past as part of oneself is to know it is alive, ever-changing in relation to the self that necessarily alters as it passes through time.  It is only those who have no real connection to the past who can view it as something unchanging, because it is something outside them. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Indeed, it is only those disconnected from the past who believe that they can keep replaying the same episodes from the past and acting as if the past were recurring again and again (e.g., those who always think it is 1938); only those who hate the past would diminish it by imagining its continual recurrence in the present.  The reactionary loves the past as he loves a long-lost lover–he does not love her any less because she is unobtainable and gone forever, but indeed loves her all the more because she will never return.  He does not wish for her return, because her return is unnecessary for love to endure.  Though lovers perish, love shall not, and death shall have no dominion.

It [pessimism] is a freedom to dissent in a society where every kind of optimism (even the supposedly radical, such as communism) is a kind of assent to what you have been taught.  It is a freedom to cut yourself loose from a project that everyone insists you participate in. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Indeed, it would be quite impossible for newspapers to exist and be profitable if they performed as their critics believe, that is, depressing us with a constant bewailing of our state.  After a short time, no one would be able to bear them.  Instead, every morning our papers deliver to us a subtle encouragement to persist, as our morning prayers once did….Not too much, of course; for if the promise was too great, its emptiness would soon become readily apparent.  Rather, we are comforted every day by a report of the world’s Daily Progress.  The progress must be almost immeasurably small, to be sure,since, like a constant flurry of snow, it is recorded every day but never seems to accumulate. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Pessimism is the philosophy that can never crown itself king.  To be king, to be master of every circumstance–that is what pessimism teaches as unattainable.  Whatever modesty they profess, whatever authority they disclaim, optimisitc philosophies secretly find this impossible to accept, which is why pessimism has found it necessary to appear before them as a jester. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Optimism makes us perpetual enemies of those future moments that do not meet our expectations, which means all future moments.  It is when we expect nothing from the future that we are free to experience it as it will be, rather than as a disappointment. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

One could imagine a perspective in which nothing in particular was reliable, in this world, but which the world as a whole was comprehensible.  Such a view might mimic many of the effects of pessimism without really embracing it.  Augustine, for example, could be viewed in this way.  Indeed, many Augustinians are today called “Christian pessimists.”  They consider that this world is fundamentally disordered, that it will always contain evil, and cannot be set right, except, perhaps, by God at the Last Judgment.  Nonetheless, this terrible world can be viewed from elsewhere–its existence is part of a larger cosmology that also includes the heavenly city.  Although particular evils cannot be fathomed, the phenomenon of evil as a whole can be understood.  It shall be understood when one leaves the city of man for the city of God, either in this life, or the next.  Thus Augustine mimics (indeed foreshadows) many of the conclusions of pessimism–but always with the escape hatch of another world, where the effects of time are not felt. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

It is fair to say that I have been taking a strong interest in Dienstag’s study of pessimism because I hold such Christian pessimist premises.  In the final analysis, as far as these pessimists themselves would be concerned, I am not a thoroughgoing pessimist, because I retain the hope of salvation in Christ.  Obviously there is a certain unbridgeable difference here, but there are also many fascinating points of contact in a shared ascetic detachment and, if not exactly a contemptus mundi (pessimists would not have contempt for the world, but simply take it for what it is), an understanding that nothing lasts in this world. 

But, even if pessimists see Christian pessimists as mimics, both together share much in their recognition of the world as it is.  Even if pessimists see their Christian counterparts as retaining an “escape hatch” in God and the Kingdom not of this world, both share the conviction that man’s predicament is not soluble–at least not by human agency.  For the pessimists, man’s predicament is not to be solved at all, but accepted and borne; for the Christians, the predicament is solved only in Christ, but the structures of life in the world must still be borne all the same.  

A key difference between the pre-modern and modern man, as Chantal Delsol proposed in Icarus Fallen, is that modern man sees problems to be solved, but pre-modern man sees burdens to be borne.  The pessimist, though no less a child of modernity than the optimist, shares far more with this pre-modern mentality (and with a Christian understanding of suffering) than he does with his fellow moderns. 

As Michael Oakeshott put it: “Cervantes created a character in whom the disaster of each encounter with the world was powerless to impugn it as a self-enactment.”…The quixotic life is not thwarted by a lack of results; its value lies in the experience of freedom that it enacts.  That is why it is possible for the pessimistic ethic to persevere in the most adverse circumstances, when optimism has nothing to offer except an unfounded hope that is little more than wishful thinking.

All narratives, as all lives, must end (”human affairs are not eternal but all tend ever downwards”)–this is the pessimistic knowledge that grounds Cervantes’s perspective.  But if we all face destruction at the hands of time, this need not convince us to resign ourselves prematurely.  Although in one sense, nothing about the world has been changed for the better by Quixote’s actions, his success consists in having led a life consistent with who he is.  Like Sisyphus with his stone, he has achieved dignity by accomplishing nothing.  Or rather, what he has accomplished is to have enacted the value of pessimism in the form of a quest.  He has made his life unpredictable, memorable,and narrativisable by bringing his life-practice into contact with the world.  And a small portion of the world responds by allowing itself to be inspired by this practice. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

One of the best parts in Dienstag’s book is his chapter on Cervantes and Don Quixote, a work referenced by many of the major pessimists Dienstag studies.  In his telling, Dienstag mentions Quixote’s habit not of recounting specific teachings or codes of the knights-errant whom he is imitating, but instead tells stories.  That is perhaps what separates every truly humane person from an ideological one: the love of stories and the telling of stories to provide examples to follow, rather than programmatically reciting propositions, testing for ideological purity and uttering banal platitudes about the betterment of the world. 

Every story has an end, and many endings are not happy, but the good endings have a certain integrity and dignity of an authentic life.  Meanwhile the wheel of alleged Progress grinds ever onward, like time, like the grindstones of the windmills in Don Quixote, never satisfying, never satisfied, always consuming and offering us little in exchange for what it extracts from our humanity.  The optimist tries to cheat time, to beat it at its own game through every scheme of improvement imaginable, whereas the pessimist takes time on its own terms, gets knocked off his horse and badly bruised, but shakes off what has happened and goes on to the next adventure. 

The optimist would have the world be other than it is, and would have man become something other than what he is.  Pessimists and, I believe, Christians both seek for man to become what he is, though obviously the pessimists deny the Christians’ means of realising this and Christians typically reject the pessimistic rejection of all transcendence.  But what both tell us is that man can be transformed into who he truly is, made new, which is different from the optimistic view that man must inevitably keep becoming better and better in an unavoidable parade of unfreedom.  People who tell us that history has a direction steal from us the freedom that is “gained when one’s existence is detached from the narrative of progress.” (Dienstag, p. 198).   

Optimists insist that reality is insufficient and that they will redress the imbalance; they want us and everyone in the world to become someone else.  But as Ortega y Gasset said, “A hero, I have said, is one who wants to be himself…Don Quixote…is a hero.”  Let us, then, tilt at windmills in the understanding that the only true despair, the most bitter illusion, is the expectation of making the world fundamentally different from what it really is and the hope of lasting victory in this world. Read the rest of this entry »

Though the Bush administration may be the latest and most extreme version of the compulsory optimism of American politics, matters will not improve if we simply replace it with an equally optimistic administration from the other party. The problem is that the vocabulary of optimism itself distorts our understanding of the world and leaves us lost in illusions. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, The Los Angeles Times

Via The Western Confucian

Since, unlike the present, tomorrow is always imaginary, such idolatry can be manipulated in many ways.  On the one hand, of course, the Stalins of the world can demand the death of millions in the name of a future paradise.  This is an especial concern of Camus, who complains of those who “glorify a future state of happiness, about which no one knows anything, so that the future authorizes every kind of humbug.”…

Given the ironic character of history, we should, at the very least, make sure that our actions have some value in the present.  The future that we imagine is unlikely to come about, if it does come about it will not last, and when it does come about we will probably despise it. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Update: Contra Spencer Ackerman, in light of his latest speech and this citation from Camus, I think it is reasonable to say that even if Mr. Bush has read Camus he has learned nothing from the experience.

But we should all agree that the battle for Iraq is now central to the ideological struggle of the 21st century. ~George W. Bush

Without missing a beat, Mr. Bush sets up the main war as the “decisive ideological struggle” of the century, and then turns around and insists that we all agree that Iraq is vital to the “ideological struggle,” a struggle that he has just outlined as being between those who support freedom and those who support tyranny, “terror” and totalitarianism.  It does not take much to see that Mr. Bush has lined up critics of the war in Iraq (you remember–the ones he called ”good, decent people” who are just as patriotic as anybody) as failing to support the “ideological struggle” by failing to support the war in Iraq.  And you know what they do to people who are lacking in sufficient commitment to the “ideological struggle,” don’t you?  If there is any doubt that he has linked the two, he makes it clear later:

And victory in Iraq would be a powerful triumph in the ideological struggle of the 21st century.

Mr. Bush has managed to become even more melodramatic in this new series of speeches than he has in the past.  Before, he was just going to end tyranny on earth and set the world on fire with revolution, but now he is going to save history from itself (even though the outcome is, of course, inevitable, for the course of History is known to all good dialecticians):

We will not allow the terrorists to dictate the future of this century — so we will defeat them in Iraq.  

Take note of the frequency with which he talks about “the century” and how we are doing all of this for sake of ”the century.”  There is actually an undue obsession with the future here, which, as Dienstag would tell us, is one of the flaws of optimistic theories, since they tend to rather overlook what things are actually like right now and tend to impose terrible costs on the present for the sake of an imaginary future.  (I would make some sarcastic reference about how the you-know-who liked Futurism, but I am not going to sink into the mire of flinging those labels at my political enemies as they have done at us.)  Here is Dienstag:

For all of the existential pessimists, then, optimism has functioned to displace attention from the real world of today onto an imaginary future.  Not only does this future denigrate the present, it causes us to lose touch with the present.  When the present, which should be the richest and most vivid thing in our minds, is flattened out in our imagination, it makes our option seems fewer than they are….

This focus on the present does not abjure all concern for the future.  Unamuno’s claim that “the true future is today” indicates not that we are forbidden to think about what is come, but only that we should not make the future into an idol.  If we care about the freedom of later generations, we must respect it–and we respect it best by refusing to script their lives for them.

But Mr. Bush’s Marxist language and rhetoric about saving the future are not the worst.  Worse still is his conviction that history not only has a direction, but a direction that we can discern and, in this case, in some sense direct:

The path to that day will be uphill and uneven, but we can be confident of the outcome, because we know that the direction of history leads toward freedom.

If the ideological struggle is the struggle for “freedom,” then it becomes the unavoidable conclusion of the speech: victory in the ideological struggle–of which Iraq is the most vital part–is inevitable, tovarish, because history is leading on to freedom!

Philippe Beneton conjures for us the image of a horrifying future (or, if your name is Anthony Sacramone, a comforting utopia).  You may, of course, replace the name of the company in question with any other, be it the corporation so many love to hate, Wal-Mart, or any other megacorp, multinational or one of their imitators (as Beneton says, “By McDonald’s, of course, I mean more than McDonald’s.”):

The McDonald’s system is also a triumph of procedural rationality, a rationality appropriate to a market economy.  There, as in the supermarket, the pure spirit of the market reigns.  Nothing troubles the purely functional, abstract, impersonal relationship between the seller and the buyer.  Here every person, whoever he or she may be, is exactly like all the others; he or she is a consumer, nothing but a consumer, entirely a consumer, a consumer from head to toe.  McDonald’s is universalist; its calling is to embrace the whole world without regard to divisions.  Once one passes through its doors, an alchemy takes over and erases whatever distinguishes and separates; the person becomes a consumer and every consumer’s money is as good as any other’s.  This is the wonder of the system: it neutralizes differences and divisions among people, differences in traits of character, as well as social, natiional, political, religious, or other differences.  It makes coexistence and cooperation possible among people who have nothing in common except respect for the same rules of the game.  All over the world, in New York, Paris, Istanbul, or Beijing, McDonald’s restaurants welcome in the same way (automatic smile, guaranteed hygiene, industrial food), whether you are of the left or of the right, Turk or Kurd, Chinese apparatchik or dissident, a child or his grandfather, a policeman or a criminal, a racist or an antiracist.  McDonald’s is the missionary of a new humanity, the builder of a new world, in collaboration with all the other businesses set to conquer the world market and sharing this great cause with a view to the greatest profit.  This new world is undifferentiated, destined to unify itself on the basis of uniform consumption–an egalitarian world, except of course for the only distinction that matters (money), a world called to achieve unity by the grace of the market.  The political problem par excellence, the problem that arises from differences among human beings, is finally about to be resolved: consumers of all lands, unite over a Big Mac!

This vision of uniformity, dullness and mediocrity terrifies.  It is the world, as he says, “at once perfected and decivilized.”  It abolishes differences in time, and as for consideration for manners, propriety, station, custom, meaning, beauty, love–these are completely banished from such a world.  As he says later, “Who would declare his love over a cheeseburger?”  And before someone volunteers, let me suggest that anyone who would do such a thing profanes love and mocks his beloved. 

It summons to mind the absurd self-justifying essay of Mr. Meilaender, who prefers the tedious hegemony of Burger King (quote via Spengler): 

Making a long drive home from a meeting late last summer, I found myself hungry in the early afternoon. I needed something that would be quick inexpensive, and good. And there (providentally?) was the sign: a Burger King off the next exit. I felt like a flame-grilled Whopper, and the beauty of it is that you can “have it your way” which in my case meant hold the tomato and mayo, add justard. Hear is a realm of life where being pro-choice is just the thing for me…As I began to eat, two young boys (probaby about ten and eight years old) sat down with their parents at an adjoining table. Both boys had on Chief Wahoo caps, so I would have known they were Cleveland Indians fans even if they had not been discussing the previous night’s game, whcih they had seen on ESPN. It happened that in my hotel room I had myself spent the last part of the evening watching that same game. I decided therefore to venture a brief conversational gambit. “Go Tribe,” I said to the younger of the two boys…Our ability to watch the Indians on television even though we did not live near Cleveland created a little shared community among us as we sat there eating in Burger King. The experience was so satisfying that I went back up tot he counter for a Hershey’s Sundae Pie and stayed longer than I’d planned.

As I noted at the time, this is a deeply troubled view, and Fr. Jape agrees. If Fr. Jape agrees, there must be something to it. But Beneton’s description of what is to come (indeed it is already here!) is terrifying not just in the hideous future it holds out–and Beneton makes clear here that this is the future of a world of globalisation and multinationals–but in the recognition that breaks in as you read it that a great many Westerners would find themselves nodding in eager anticipation of its arrival. The libertarian would say, “Yes, you see, the millennium of peace and brotherhood is coming, and it will be brought to you by The Market!”

The people who yearn for this age of uniformity are the people whom Adam Wayne fought in the streets of Notting Hill; they are the people who built the Crystal Palace; these are people who still believe that the Golden Age is coming, and expect that it will be televised and available in high definition. I find it hard to conclude that they are not the enemies, unwitting though they may be, of everything vital and real in human life, another gang of political optimists with a different scheme but just as misguided and deluded as all the rest.

Pessimism, to Schopenhauer, means not that our civilization or morality are declining, but rather that human beings are fated to endure a life freighted with problems that are fundamentally unmeliorable. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Is this really that controversial or remarkable a claim?  It does not seem so outlandish to me, but then I cannot recall a time when I thought that meliorism made much sense.  I will refrain from Wedding Crashers references in this instance, since I imagine that is more Michael’s territory anyway.

The worst sort of unhappiness is produced by a lack of recognition of the limits to happiness. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

In this statement lies a vital part of the essence of every critique of consumerism, individualism, liberalism and every doctrine of revolutionary emancipation that exists or has existed.

Indeed, fundamentally, the pessimistic account of the origin of unhappiness (even, I would maintain, in Freud) has little to do with psychology itself but with a claim of ontological misalignment between human beings and the world they inhabit. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (p.33)

Dienstag is not talking about any of these things in relation to Christian theology.  Though he does mention Dostoevsky among the many pessimists of modernity (and it is perhaps by way of Dostoevsky that I have come to appreciate the insights of pessimism–it is also encouraging to think that Dostoevsky’s view was indeed as philosophical as I have thought it was and not simply a function of stereotypical Russian angst), he does not concern himself with modern Christian thought at all in this book.  But the pessimists’ recognition that man and the world are “ontologically misaligned,” that there is something deeply awry in our condition and that our predicament is one of continual mismatching of desires and achievement stands as a ringing confirmation of the Christian description of the state of man after the Fall. 

It is also true, as more than a few have observed over the years, that there is a strong resemblance between Schopenhauer’s pessimism and the teachings of the Buddha that all life is dukkha, often translated as suffering, because of the impossibility of satisfying craving and desire: either the desire or the achievement of the desideratum will be too great or too little, creating dissatisfaction, which cannot be cured except through the cessation of desire.  Many a deracinated child of nominal Christians has thought that in this teaching lies some hidden wisdom that Christianity has never taught, which would be mistaken–the extinction of desire, detachment, is the same concept and same goal of the ascetic life in Orthodox Christianity, which the early monastic writers termed apatheia (dispassion), borrowing from the lexicon of Plato and the Neoplatonists. 

Where the pessimists will not go, of course, because they do not believe in any ultimate solution of any kind, is to the Christian answer to the human predicament, but in their assessment of the predicament they are that much more realistic than the people who seek to sugar-coat the nature of the world with promises of a better tomorrow and grandiose schemes for reform and progress.  The Christian pessimist, if I can use such a term, acknowledges the finitude and createdness that are integral to our being, but he also places his hope in deliverance that is from beyond the ages and an adoption into the divine life of God.  

The pessimist’s recognition that no advance comes except at a price (and sometimes too high a price) and a related insight that you abolish a structure in human life in the name of emancipation only to find it re-emerging in its “black market” forms elsewhere (as Chantal Delsol has argued in Icarus Fallen) point to a certain structure and logic in reality that I think even the pessimists in their embrace of the absurd tend to miss.  This recognition of the costs of any change, though not framed in specifically conservative language, also can be seen as standing in close relation to conservative critiques of all forms of social engineering and the common sense view that there is no free lunch.

There are few activities in life that can be said to be more futile than blogging.  What, after all, does it do, except provide a forum for people with nothing better to do than to give a lecture on the virtues of pessimism to other people with nothing better to do than respond in kind?  We can futilely mock each other in very serious ways, and then pat ourselves on the back that we have made our respective points, having probably changed no one’s mind and exhausted part of an afternoon or evening that would have been better spent in almost any other way.  I could be reading more of my book on pessimism rather than writing this post.  It’s all very discouraging. 

There are no more fleeting accomplishments than writing “posts,” which sometimes lack in themselves even the completion accorded to more complete articles or essays.  As an entirely electronic medium, a blog is as ephemeral as can be and entire years of work could be eliminated in some sort of horrendous server crash.  Most blogging is of a topical and derivative nature (thus you have a response to someone else’s reaction to another person’s article on a press conference about a policy initiative), as sickeningly post-modern as you could want and as time-bound an activity as man can imagine.  Worse, only the inside jokes of sci-fi geeks can compare with the ultimate irrelevance that most blog posts enjoy (it is no surprise that many a sci-fi geek also happens to blog and more and more of the blogging at The Corner, for example, seems preoccupied with the latest trivia from the world of sci-fi).  Perhaps both benefit from their common unreality–one is a product of fictional stories, the other is an entire medium at a remove from the real world and one step closer to the fantasies of science fiction.     

Not only is online writing fleeting and impermanent, as well as remarkable for how little impact it has on anyone, but most blogging is of such a trivial nature that it would likely make schoolgirls with their diaries feel contemptuous of the light-weight, meaningless banter that goes on on many sites (that a great many blogs are actually just electronic versions of the schoolgirls’ diaries only confirms this–what is depressing in a way is how little difference there often is between those diaries and the prattling nonsense that passes for most political blogging, from which, of course, the author must obviously be excepted).  I’m sure someone has made similar observations somewhere (and if I spent enough time using Google Blogsearch, I could find the reference!), but blogging is the ideal cultural expression of an age of no authorities and no meaning.  The new authority might be this: I blog, therefore I have authority.     

It is perhaps doubly ironic that a proponent of eunomia should then be blogging at all, since I assume that there are things of permanent value and permanent meaning, though I am typically opposed to all modern progress-laden accounts of purpose and meaning in life.  But on the other hand, I believe that I am giving voice to some of the much neglected ideas of reactionaries of ages past and working, in however limited a fashion, to dismantling the pretensions of every kind of progressive, not unlike Dienstag’s own reappraisal of pessimism in Pessimism.  Whether it will have any lasting value is uncertain, and it would be entirely out of character–and quite inappropriate for this post–for me to be optimistic about that.  

One point that deserves emphasis here is the non-equation of pessimism with theories of decline.  While pessimists may posit a decline, it is the denial of progress, not an insistence of some eventual doom, that marks out modern pessimism.  Pessimism, to put it precisely, is the negation, not the opposite, of theories of progress.  This may immediately strike some readers as a fudge, but consider: most of those thinkers whom we could agree without argument to call pessimists, like Schopenhauer, did not profess a belief in any permanent downward historical trend.  Schopenhauer posits no long-term historical trends at all, merely a constantly regrettable human condition burdened…by linear time.  In fact, belief in a permanent decline of the human condition is relatively rare in political theory….But it is not an accident that writers such as Schopenhauer are known as pessimists–for the nonprogressive yet linear view of human existence is indeed profoundly discomfiting.  Unlike a cyclical account, where the pattern of history is essentially pregiven, pessimism is historical in the modern sense: change occurs, human nature and society may be profoundly altered over time, just not permanently for the better. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Spirit, Ethic

Obviously, I am sure that even pessimists cannot show change in human nature over time one way or the other, just as meliorists and optimists cannot.  It is this constancy of human nature that convinces me that the pessimists are on the whole right, or at least more likely to be right, because even with institutional, social or political change man remains unchangeably man (even the Christian belief in grace and deification does not really overthrow this constancy of nature, so much as it transforms the quality and purpose of the energies of man–grace and deification do not really change human nature so much as they restore and fulfill it to its true purpose).

As for the lack of long-term trends in history, I am completely in agreement with the pessimism outlined here.  It is my firm conviction that believers in progress are able to believe in it largely through ignorance of human history or because of a particularly biased Hegelian idea of History, so that you can still have inexplicably prominent people use the phrase, “History is against this or that,” as if History were out there somewhere expressing a firm opinion about a topic.

In spite of what I have already said on this, someone may still object that it is impossible to embrace the Gospel and pessimism, when one of the tenets of pessimism (as Dienstag lays out elsewhere) is that human existence is absurd.  But without the Gospel, without the extraordinary act of God entering history and redeeming man, human existence would be absurd after a fashion.  The pessimists do not tell the entire story, but they do largely correctly assess the state of the world and they certainly tell more of the real story than the optimists who would generally like to rewrite the story. 

Finally, the dismissal of pessimism reflects the continuing grip that ideas of progress retain on contemporary consciousness.  Though supposedly slain many times (Lewis Mumford called it the “deadest of dead ideas” in 1932), this beast continues to rise from the ashes for the simple reason that, first, it helps us to make sense of the linear time of our calendar and, second, there is no easy substitute for it.  However much it may be denied in principle, in practice the idea of progress is difficult to displace.  And from that perspective, pessimism is especially bewildering…..Pessimism is a substitute for progress, but it is not a painless one.  In suggesting that we look at time and history differently, it asks us to alter radically our opinion of ourselves and of what we can expect from politics.  It does not simply tell us to expect less.  It tells us, in fact, to expect nothing.  This posture, I argue below, is not impossible and not suicidal.  It is neither skeptical (knowing nothing) nor nihilistic (wanting nothing).  It is a distinct account of the human condition that has developed in the shadow of progress–alongside it, as it were–with its own political stance. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Most, if not all, political writers today are ready to recognize and reject the historical utopianism found in the philosophical descendants of Hegel.  Pessimism, however, is equally critical both of that tradition and of the less flamboyant but, from its perspective, similarly progressive liberalism found in the descendants of Locke, Kant, Mill, and Dewey.  Indeed, one of the intellectual benefits of reviving the tradition of pessimism is the way that it causes us to reassess the theoretical debates of the last three centuries so that we see more clearly how the various forms of optimism have been allied.  From this perspective, the great divide in modern political theory is not between the English-speaking and the Continental schools, but between an optimism that has had representatives in both of these camps and a pessimism whose very existence those representatives have sought to suppress.


For centuries, much philosophy, both Anglo-American and Continental, has been premised on the idea (not always explicitly defended) of a gradual improvement in the human condition.  But what if we grapple with the possibility that such a melioration cannot be expected, that we must make do with who and what we are?  Pessimism is the philosophy that accepts this challenge.  It does not preach inevitable gloom.  In a relentlessly optimistic world, it is enough to give up the promise of happiness to be considered a pessimist.  Pessimism’s goal is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for the life that lies ahead.  To build proper fortifications, one must have a proper sense of the enemy and his weapons.  For the pessimists, it is fundamentally our time-bound condition that threatens us.  But this presents a special problem since it is also our existence within time, and our consciousness of time, that makes possible many of the most excellent and glorious of human attributes, not least of which is the reason that allows us to philosophize at all.  So pessimism must suggest a kind of fortification of the self against an enemy that is already inside the gates of the soul. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Instead of blaming pessimism, perhaps we can learn from it.  Rather than hiding from the ugliness of the world, perhaps we can discover how best to withstand it.  As I noted above, pessimism’s critics have often assumed that it must issue in some sort of depression or resignation.  But this assumption says more about the critics than about their targets.  Who is it, exactly, that cannot bear a story unless guaranteed a happy ending?  Pessimists themselves have often been anything but resigned.  Indeed, they have taken it as their task to find a way to live with the conclusions they have arrived at, and to live well, sometimes even joyfully.  If this cannot be true for all of us, it is not the pessimists who are to blame, but the problems they grapple with. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism — a force that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other presidents, like Ronald Reagan, used to rally the country when it was deeply challenged. ~Adam Cohen, The New York Times

Of course, building confidence and inspiring hope are desirable traits in leaders.  It is not desirable when the people’s trust and confidence are used as part of a swindle to rob us of our inheritance.  To the extent that modern presidents have tapped into American optimism, I think it has usually been to rob us of far more important things–our liberty, our property and our self-government.  Not all presidents are equally guilty of this, but typically it is activist presidents who want to use American optimism to fuel some cockamamie project that ends up making Americans poorer, more dependent on the state, gets them killed in a foreign field somewhere or causes some maniac to come blow up Americans over here.  Ironically, the ”optimistic” presidents are the ones most inclined to talk in rather depressing terms about all the overwhelming challenges and obstacles that exist–but which they, with our help, will surely overcome; it is the “optimistic” presidents who rattle on about how “we” will “bear any burden,” but in the same breath will tell us that we should not have to bear the burdens of the world as we have known it to date.  We do not have to endure the structures of our existence; but we ought to endure the strictures and costs of their policies.  The problems of humanity will be solved, but solving them has become our problem without end or hope of solution.  It would be my hope that the failures of political optimism would discredit this style of leadership forever, but that would be all together too optimistic. 

People continue to buy into these failed ideas because they desperately want and need for them to succeed and, more than that, they desperately need to be the kind of people who believe that they will succeed.  As sure as there are unchangeable structures in human life that the optimists will never overcome, modern Western man’s cultural need to look for improvement and to believe in grandiose visions of change is deeply rooted in his mentality and will probably never be abandoned entirely.  The durability of such cultural attitudes is precisely one of those things that optimists believe they can alter with a few turns of the institutional or political knob, and it is here where they are more wrong than usual, which is why Western man’s addiction to the idea of progress, and the particular American brand of optimism, will not disappear or significantly weaken.  A mentality that sees the 20th century as a success story will not be shaken from its certainties by something as minor as the tragedy of the Iraq war.   

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. ~Adam Cohen, The New York Times

What thinking person isn’t skeptical of the idea of progress?  Look at the 20th century and tell me with a straight face that there is real progress, if you can.  Americans retain their optimism because they were spared most of the disasters of that century, and because most sections of the United States do not retain–or never possessed–the tragic sense that is vital to a more realistic appraisal of the world.  Southerners have historically possessed this tragic sense in greater abundance because they have experienced complete defeat, an experience that is–fortunately for us–completely alien to all other sections and largely alien to the whole of modern America. 

Pity the nation that is “built on reason and progress.”  Envy the nation that grows according to sentiment and tradition.  Both may err badly, but the latter remains closer to the ground, to the fullness of human existence because the tradition has not allowed them to forget the intangible aspects of the human predicament.  The latter has a much better chance of correcting its course and deriving some new wisdom from its traditions.  The rational and progressive nation blunders blindly on its path of self-improvement. 

Reason will lead you to think that you can solve the human predicament through better techniques, faster mechanisms, more efficient methods, and on some technical level you will even begin to see progress of a kind.  But this is the lure that traps you in the inextricable web of progressive fantasies, because with each advance your become less and less satisfied as your realise ever greater capacities to afford yourself material satisfaction.  The cult of progress neglects the cultivation of restraint and the limitation of desire, which makes the quest for real satisfaction hopeless; boundless optimism is the surest cause of despair in any man.  Nourishing and overindulging this dimension of man’s existence, the progressive races onward faster and faster, becoming more deeply entangled in the web, increasingly unaware of and indifferent to the loss of all those things that nourish a humane, full and good life.  They advance so far in solving the predicament of man’s material existence that they no longer really remember that there is any other kind of predicament or, if they remember, they no longer have the slightest clue what to do about it.  When they hear the phrase, Man does not live by bread alone, they ask, “Why not?” and begin working on trying to build a better man, a new man.

But Mr. Cohen is wrong when he says that pessimists believe pursuing happiness is a fool’s errand.  Pursuing happiness is the errand of man, pure and simple.  The wise and the foolish alike will try to seek it.  Only the fool believes that he will necessarily find it or that he has a sure-fire method to procure it without pain or effort or loss, but both he and the wise man pursue happiness.  They will, of course, not define it in the same way, which is why the fool almost never finds what he is looking for, while the wise man already possesses some part of it before he begins and has a reasonable chance of finding the rest by the end. 

Pursuing happiness is part of who we are.  But what the pessimist does say–and I think I can speak for the pessimists here–is that happiness must have its limits if it is to be possessed, it will be fleeting, as all things are in this world, and it will come at some price, be it a price in discipline, loss, suffering, regret or even the abandonment of some principle or high ideal.  It is, above all, often overrated.  In saying this, the pessimist is not trying to be gloomy or bitter, but simply honest in assessing the nature of things.  Pessimism is a reasonable position not because bad things keep happening–that wouldn’t be much of a basis for a philosophical view–but because man is a finite, flawed, created being who cannot overcome the structures inherent in his existence.  If one learns to live within these structures and accepts them as basically unchangeable, then he will know a measure of peace and happiness as he pursues his good desires within reason.  In pessimism there is hope, wisdom and, yes, even a measure of happiness.  So what are you waiting for?  Expect the worst, and be glad when you are wrong!   

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.