The importance of being pessimistic

JOSHUA FOA DIENSTAG is a political science professor at UCLA. His latest book is "Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit."

In his second inaugural address, President Bush proclaimed “complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom.” He said: “History has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty.” In his Aug. 21 news conference, he sounded more subdued: “Frustrated? Sometimes I’m frustrated. Rarely

surprised. Sometimes I’m happy. This is -- but war is not a time of joy. These aren’t joyous times.... “

Are we finally ready for some pessimism?

Republicans hardly have a monopoly on the tendency toward optimism. Americans of all stripes tend to treat pessimism as if it were a psychological impairment or rare tropical illness that inexplicably befalls others. Jimmy Carter was widely criticized when he dared to suggest that there existed a U.S. “crisis of confidence,” a mistake Ronald Reagan exploited when he announced “Morning in America.” During the presidential race of 2004, the candidates of both parties competed avidly for the title of most optimistic. But Bush’s verbal fumbling on a question about the Iraq war indicates that there are some situations -- unfortunately, very common ones -- for which the language of optimism is not helpful.


Pessimism is more than a bad mood or the result of an unhappy childhood. In fact, pessimism has a long and distinguished philosophical heritage, one which we would do well to take more seriously as our grand plans to remake the world come a cropper.

The first modern pessimists were dissenters from the Enlightenment notion that the world would be remade according to reason. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example. He is often remembered as a precursor to the French Revolution, but he was in fact deeply suspicious of what became the revolutionaries’ alternative faith: inordinate belief in their own rational powers.

What Rousseau sought to emphasize was simply that we lacked the tools to master history and bring it to heel. “Everything is in continual flux on Earth....” he wrote. “All our plans for felicity in this life are idle fancies.” Politics, like personal life, was a place where grand strategies could and often did go awry. We should celebrate the good that happened but not delude ourselves that the overall pattern of the universe is pre-made in our favor.

This doesn’t mean that reason is useless. Rousseau had a variety of philosophical inheritors and, though they disagreed on many things, one point they generally had in common was the idea that reason served humans best by divesting them of politically dangerous illusions. That would seem to be a concept of greater utility now than a belief in history’s inevitable positive outcome.

The president’s claim that he is “rarely surprised” doesn’t ring true; it seems like a particularly desperate effort to assert some control over a situation in which every supposed sign of progress in Iraq is undercut by more violence. Optimists, expecting things to go well, are constantly surprised and disappointed when their illusions are punctured. It is the pessimists, expecting little, who are rarely surprised.

It is sometimes claimed that pessimism retards political action, that one must somehow be an optimist in order to get out of bed in the morning. This is not only silly but dangerous. If one looks at the writings of, say, Albert Camus or Vaclav Havel, both philosophers who also were active in resistance against tyranny, it’s easy to see that they had no expectations their actions would defeat what seemed like an overwhelming foe. They were as surprised as anyone when the regimes they opposed collapsed. They acted not out of optimism but out of a sense that opposing dictatorship was the only decent thing to do, the only way to live with dignity in dark times.


Camus liked to say that he wasn’t interested in the future at all: “He who dedicates himself to ... history dedicates himself to nothing and, in his turn, is nothing.” Instead, we should engage in “giving all to the present,” which meant dealing with the problems that appear on our doorstep rather than trying to vindicate an idealized destiny, the “visible direction” of history. (Perhaps if this administration had paid a little less attention to the tides of history, it might have had more time to deal with the actual floodwaters.)

The language of pessimism doesn’t have to be depressing, and it doesn’t have to be stupefying. In a certain way, it is even liberating. When confronted with bad news, it is the optimist who feels cheated of a happiness he or she thought was promised to him. As a pessimist, you don’t have to carry the burden of fulfilling destiny; confronting daily misery is enough.

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.

We don’t need politicians to raise our hopes; we need them to build stronger levees, and not just in New Orleans.