For centuries the word ‘optimism’ has been viewed with scorn by those who cannot think of a better way to describe what they are not. In distancing themselves from this word and defining others by it, they have opened yet another unnecessary void between those who are and those who are not, those who have and those who have not.
It was Voltaire who first satirised the burgeoning concept of ‘optimism’ in his novel Candide, ou l’Optimisme, in which Candide explains optimism as “the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” But the modern notion of ‘optimism’ has evolved far beyond what Voltaire understood it to be. Perhaps the emergence of capitalism and industrialisation led it to be associated with progress, both economic and moral. It would come to be understood as “the obstinacy of maintaining that everything will be best when it is worst.” But then, perhaps Voltaire wilfully misunderstood ‘optimism’ all along.
Either way, ‘optimism’ has long been considered an inherently conservative trait; for Voltaire it concerns the conviction that nothing need be changed and for capitalists it concerns the prospect of monetary and material gain. Here we begin to comprehend what makes ‘optimism’ so objectionable to a population adamant that only the upper echelons of society can afford it. But ‘optimism’ is not so objectionable. Even if everyone made the claim that everything they had ever done and planned to do was simply for survival, they would still be admitting the desire to survive.
Survival is, so far, the best explanation for the overarching perception of ‘optimism’. ‘Optimism’ is a means of survival. It is not necessarily a question of whether one has ‘optimism’ or not, but more a question of the extent to which one has it. A rational being who sees greater ‘optimism’ in another rational being is disposed to feel threatened by it and jealous of them. By diminishing the ‘optimism’ of others, one is protecting one’s own and, in turn, strengthening one’s chances of survival.
But it is unjustified and insufficient to maintain that ‘optimism’ and those with it have been forced into seclusion by those who embrace, to a greater degree, its antithesis. ‘Pessimism’ – arguably “the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is worst when it is best” or “the obstinacy of maintaining that everything will be worst when it is best” – is pervasive because of its adoption into habit through incessant use. The media, so much for its role as a medium, has bombarded humanity with its ‘pessimism’ to the extent that we have come to see it as an inescapable truth and unavoidable reality. The so-called middle ground has perpetuated the belief that the world is in a continual state of decay, both to keep us in subjugation and heighten our sense of significance.
But, as difficult as it is to wrench ourselves away from politics and the media, there is a further element which prevents us from an acceptance of ‘optimism’. There is a distinct conception that those who engage in modern-day ‘optimism’ are necessarily of a naïve disposition, though this is seemingly incompatible with their natural questioning of what is. This is linked closely with the fear of indoctrination which has permeated many societies since the fall of popular religion. Of course, ‘optimism’ has had close ties with religion even before the work of Leibniz which Voltaire satirised. No wonder, then, that people harbour such suspicion of ‘optimism’ today; it is difficult to conceive that one might have faith without having a faith.
Further grounds for suspicion arise from how these two worldviews undermine our perception of reality. If those who predominantly subscribe to ‘optimism’ claim that “everything is best” and those who predominantly subscribe to ‘pessimism’ claim that “everything is worst”, there is a preconception that only one worldview can be regarded as the truth. But both claims are justified by the evidence and both claims are believed by their claimants. And yet it is ‘pessimism’ which appears to win out; it allows for one reality, for one vision, for certainty. ‘Optimism’ has so far ceded its case; it allows for all realities, for all visions, for compatibility. Since ‘optimism’ has neither the strength or stability in argument of its rival, it necessarily withdraws its case.
There is a difficulty, however, in identifying ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’ as opponents – they are not mutually exclusive. There are not two types of people in the world; one can have ‘optimism’ and be a realist as much as one can have ‘pessimism’ and be an idealist. Moreover, there are degrees of ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’, we have the capacity for both, not the necessity of being one or the other. In this sense, there is the potential to be one whilst having the other. These extremes maintain the equilibrium. At present this equilibrium is disturbed. To reaffirm it we must revive or recreate ‘optimism’.
There are not two types of people in the world. ‘Optimism’ wears many colours; it is from here that arises muddled understandings and inadequate definitions. We must consider what the essence of ‘optimism’ is and how it is used to identify people. It is a quality that people can have as much as they can be; it is a state one can possess as much as a state one can exist in. It is a predetermined and determined state that one cannot be excused from; if it is not inherent within us it is something attainable.
What is modern-day ‘optimism’? We may adapt it to mean “the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is and will be best even when it is worst.” It is not a state which relies on it being “worst” for it to be “best”, but simply a state which maintains that “everything is and will be best” irrespective of the reality or, rather, people’s perception of that reality. But ‘optimism’ also has its roots in a certain understanding that the past was “worst”, enabling one to always drive for the “best”, without which no improvement would be made under the eye of ‘optimism’. There is no contradiction in stating that the present is “best” as well as the future, with all its improvements; if the present is the “best” it can be it does not follow that the future cannot better itself.
This blog seeks to encourage our ‘optimism’ through its cynical dedication to current affairs and to making affairs current, restoring the equilibrium increasingly absent from our world. In doing so, it will seal this and many other unnecessary voids.