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I think ‘hopeful pessimists’ have better lives than optimists – but I’m not positive

Unthinkable: It’s nice if your glass is always half full, but are you deluding yourself?

Psychologists are big on the benefits of optimism. “Being optimistic is not just a happy accessory to life. It is a vital precursor to individual and economic well-being,” according to Maureen Gaffney, whose book Your One Wild and Precious Life is one of two notable works on cheerfulness in the bestseller charts.

The other, In Fact: An Optimist's Guide to Ireland at 100 by Mark Henry, applies to economics and politics the logic of seeing the glass as at least half full. For natural moaners like journalists, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

Is there anyone, Unthinkable cries, to sing the praises of pessimism?

Step forward Mara van der Lugt, author of Dark Matters: Pessimism and the Problem of Suffering (Princeton University Press). A self-described "incidental" analyst of the subject, she found herself immersed in the rival arguments of optimists and pessimists while researching the history of ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries for a PhD.


Discussion of the issue was then very much bound up with theology – the term “pessimsme” first entered popular use through Jesuit critics of Voltaire. The author of Candide had famously critiqued the Leibnizian-Christian idea that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”.

Arthur Schopenhauer built on Voltaire's arguments to portray pessimism as not only a more humane philosophy than optimism but a more rational one. As Dr van der Lugt puts it, "Schopenhauer believes pessimism to be true. When he cites the tragic poets, it is because he believes they were right in describing a world of suffering."

Gaffney is fond of quoting economist David Landes who said: "In this world the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive... Educated eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only offer the empty consolation of being right."

To Schopenhauer, however, being right was a necessity that, in its own way, was a sort of consolation.

He rejected the idea “that we have to see reality as deeply good”, says van der Lugt, a lecturer in philosophy at University of St Andrews, Scotland, who combines the best of both perspectives into something she calls “hopeful pessimism”. This seeks to combine a degree of Stoic resilience with Schopenhauer’s unsentimental rationality – the German philosopher advocated addressing one another not as Madame or Monsieur, but as “fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères”.

The “ethic of pessimism” that van der Lugt seeks to acknowledge is encapsulated in a phrase that she once read on a park bench: “It’s okay to not be okay.” She explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Why did Schopenhauer believe pessimism gave a more truthful account of the world?

“Schopenhauer is a hard one to summarise because he approaches it from different angles.

"One of the things that's so interesting is that all the earlier pessimists say you have to look at experience because the optimists have these a priori, rational arguments about why the world is innately good and then [the pessimists] say, no, look around you; look at the experiential reality of suffering that is part of human life. Schopenhauer does that too but that is the second part of his argument. In the beginning, he says, let's also do it a priori – separate from experience.

“So he has this very strange argument about how life is made up striving for something we want but, whenever we want it, boredom sets in – so we are swinging between striving, not being satisfied, and being bored… That’s what he uses to build up his case for pessimism.

“But then, later on, he also brings in those arguments – that are maybe more powerful and intuitively appealing – where he says, look around you; there is something harsh about a philosophy that would try to explain the suffering away in order to make it fit into a system.”

He argues in favour of "eternal justice" – the idea of "an intrinsic alignment of sin or guilt with suffering". How does that fit in to his overall philosophy?

“The eternal justice argument is such a strange one – the idea that, in the end, suffering and guilt are in balance; that moral evils and physical evils are connected. That idea sounds very Augustinian. It’s like reading Leibniz at some points.

“I’m not entirely sure why he went there but it was obviously a very important idea for him and I think it has to do with what you see in other pessimists… [who] aim to establish some kind of consolation and compassion.

“Schopenhauer ’s idea is that this notion of eternal justice is somehow consoling, and is also something that would connect us to other people who are suffering, because in a deeper metaphysical sense their suffering is our suffering – because we are more deeply identical.”

You settle on the position of “hopeful pessimism”. Is that just a matter of taste or does reason compel you to reach that compromise?

“I guess I take some risks here and there that strictly as a historian one might not necessarily do. But I was trying to evaluate the optimists’ and pessimists’ arguments according to their own terms…

“Trying to establish this dialogue throughout the centuries one cannot help but look around and think, what does this mean for us today?

“And I think one of the arguments that the pessimists, as I reconstruct them, make is I think a very convicting philosophical one, and that is that any kind of tendency to overburden the will – to say you’re radically responsibility for your own happiness and in control of your own happiness and suffering – is very problematic. It puts too much on the individual.

“It tempers the compassion that we have, and also the care that we should have for other people. That is one of the ways that pessimism might have moral value.

“But then the risk of pessimism is that, in itself, it can become too deflating. If we keep emphasising only the bad, and our incapacity or fragility – while I think there is great value in that – it can also go too far. And there have been pessimists who are quite callous in how they formulate their pessimism and are not responsive to, or considerate of, what we might say to suffering.

“So one of the risks is we get these very black-and-white ideas – it’s either/or. The concept of hopeful pessimism is an attempt to think along with what these thinkers were doing but also to come up with something that breaks through the dichotomy.”

Has researching the subject changed your own outlook?

“Definitely yes… On mental health and mental illness, the way these philosophers would respond would be to always think out of the perspective of that kind of fragility: it’s not a weakness or a personal failure that people fail at flourishing but always see it rather as someone who was not able to… Maybe they did all the best they could.

“I think there is a lot of tendency within the media to say if someone is, for instance, very ill that that person is a ‘fighter’ – they are going to pull through – but it’s not up to us to decide whether we conquer it. ‘Conquer’ is not the right kind of word for things like illness.

“So those kinds of perspectives [come from hopeful pessimism]: Be more compassionate towards people who are not as happy as they would want to be. And especially with social media, there is a lot of pressure on people of all ages to manifest their happiest selves, and it might not always be up to us.”