Having completed my instrument check ride, I’ve found time to comment on the topic of pessimism and optimism. Forgive the lateness of my response.

Let’s say that the optimist and pessimist are those who believe the universe is all good or all bad; if we allow for this definition then we have room for someone like a realist who does not attempt to twist the universe to conform with an idea in his head, but rather soberly evaluates the universe and seeks to understand it as it is. Thus we have three types of people: the incorrigible optimist like the waiting woman from Voltaire’s Candide (who, by the way, is an amazing woman…she loses most of her backside and then is forced to ride for miles on a horse and still manages to convince herself that everything is good), the stubborn pessimist like Milne’s Eyeore (perhaps not the strongest example, but it will probably rain tomorrow anyways), and the realist who was described above. It is only the realist that can learn to be happy (or unhappy) because he isn’t already committed to and ideal which he forces on the world around him. It is his task to discover if there are reasons to hope or if there are reasons to despair and then lives accordingly.

Keith set me the rather daunting task of explaining in a blog my reasons for thinking we have reasons to hope rather than despair. I will attempt to lay a rough sketch of my ideas below.

Innocent people think that life is good and that it is normal to be happy. Cynical people are viewed as mature when they give up their pre-rational belief that life is good and enter into despair. This phenomenon was commented on earlier by Keith. I find it interesting that the normal, pre-rational (or prior to reflection) response of humans to life is generally one of hope expressed in a belief that life is good. Being a good democratic man, my first impulse is to give the benefit to this majority opinion of humanity.

Of course, this pre-rational belief cannot be sustained indefinitely because various difficult and heart-rending events will occur, forcing an examination of the true nature of the cosmos. It is at this point that other beliefs will usually enter the picture and help shape the response of the individual to the overwhelming difficulties and pain they experience. My response has largely been shaped by my belief in grace and redemption through the person of Jesus Christ; my reasons for holding this belief are many and varied, but will have to be withheld at this point in the interest of pursuing the topic at hand (but I am open to comment and questions about my reasons for these beliefs as well).

I think, though, that some progress can be made without appealing to outside beliefs in order to determine the nature of the cosmos. I offer four ways to begin:

1. What is goodness (and what is badness)? If things like existence, reason, and the senses are goods then the universe as we know it could not exist if it were not basically good. Thus, the pain and seeming evil that we encounter must be viewed as a change or addition to a basically good thing–a sort of virus or parasite, if you will. If pain, evil, and the numerous difficulties that shake the pre-rational belief in life as good are are not basic to the universe but only leeches, then they cannot be used to establish that the universe is basically bad
2. What is the purpose or goal of human life? The purpose of human life may be something that is not contrary to pain and suffering; thus even the difficulties that we encounter might be goods insofar as they enable a man to fulfill his purpose.
3. Why do we enter life with a belief that it is both good and real? If there are any valid reasons for this belief, and beliefs to the contrary cannot be established without first appealing to this pre-rational belief (if only to destroy it), then the priority and foundationalism of the pre-rational belief seems to be established
4. What is beauty? If beauty exists in any form, it points to the basic goodness of the universe as beauty is not found in pain, suffering, and hardships when they are completely divorced from goodness. All the fun of singing about tragedy, of despairing over pain and suffering arises from the ability of humans to see some beauty (and so some goodness or something redeemable) in the situation.

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Posted by Tex

4 Comments

  1. I like what you have written and find it pretty convincing on an intuitive level. However, in my own life, another element that has made me pessimistic in the past is my own failure in choosing and doing what is good. For me, at least, it is not enough that the universe be good, but that I too be good, and the rest of mankind.

    My own answer to the above is that God will change my will so that it does not incline to bad stuff. However, if such a change requires my own collaboration, I still feel a tinge of despair. The very thought that I must still choose allows the possibility of my not choosing to enter my mind, and such a possibility in my mind destroys my purity of will. Such a pure will seems necessary to me to collaborate with God in the changing of my will. The possibility of failure becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Consequently, if reality truly is good , then I feel it necessary to believe that it is completely up to God to change my will, and that He necessarily will.

    On the other hand, some people go to Hell, and I do not know how to reconcile that with the above.

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  2. Eric said, For me, at least, it is not enough that the universe be good, but that I too be good, and the rest of mankind.

    Very good. This discussion is only ultimately useful as it applies to people, to individuals like you and me. Recognizing, “I am not good” is the first step that must be taken and moves us from what I called the pre-rational state of innocence. How we respond to this discovery will determine how we view the world and how we live in it.

    So I am not good. Now what? I want to be good. Is it possible for me to be good? Yes, if the fabric of the cosmos is good and if the Ruler of the cosmos is good. How do I become good? There’s the difficult question. It is the question that priests and philosophers have been asking for ages and I think it is the question that Chrisitianity has the only unique answer to. Receiving undeserved grace and mercy, not only pardon from sin but creation of a new nature, frees me to collaborate with God and to succeed as my freedom and my nature both are founded uon His actions and His character. The Christian is set free by being made new, not merely by being released from a just punishment.

    But I think I may be talking past you. Explain to me how the thought of “not choosing” (mental act) destroys the purity of the will. Also, cannot one still choose rightly after entertaining the thought of “not choosing rightly”? How does the mental option or distinction destroy the ability of the will to choose?

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  3. I guess if the choice doesn’t have to be one of committment, then there isn’t a problem.

    However, if my will has to always be committed to God in order to collaborate with Him, the thought of not collaborating seems to entail a break of that committment. E.g. wouldn’t you feel somewhat disloyal to someone you pledged complete loyalty to if the thought of betraying them entered your mind?

    Hopefully that shows what I’m getting at.

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  4. The other thing I was getting at, the will’s place in pessimism and optimism, is that being a pessimist ultimately sends a person to Hell, which gives them reason for being a pessimist.

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