A Point of View: The advantages of pessimism

 
Man doing thumbs down

Incompatibility between our big aspirations and the reality of life is bound to disappoint unless we learn to be a bit more gloomy, says Alain de Botton.

Today I want to advance the unusual idea that we'd be a great deal more cheerful if we learnt to be a little more pessimistic.

And, from a completely secular point of view, I'd like to suggest that in the passages before they go on to promise us salvation, religions are rather good at being pessimistic. For example, Christianity has spent much of its history emphasising the darker side of earthly existence.

Yet even within this sombre tradition, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal stands out for the exceptionally merciless nature of his pessimism. In his book the Pensees, Pascal misses no opportunities to confront his readers with evidence of mankind's resolutely deviant, pitiful and unworthy nature.

DNA autoradiogram Scientific advances make us optimistic

In seductive classical French, he informs us that happiness is an illusion. "Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself," he says. Misery is the norm, he states: "If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it." And we have to face the desperate facts of our situation head on. "Man's greatness," he writes, "comes from knowing he is wretched."

Given the tone, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that reading Pascal is not at all the depressing experience one might have presumed. The work is consoling, heartwarming and even, at times, hilarious.

For those teetering on the verge of despair, there can paradoxically be no finer book to turn to than one which seeks to grind man's every last hope into the dust. The Pensees - far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, positive thinking or the realisation of hidden potential - has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet.

If Pascal's pessimism can effectively console us, it may be because we are usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope. It is hope - with regard to our careers, our love lives, our children, our politicians and our planet - that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us.

Nurture and educate

The incompatibility between the grandeur of our aspirations and the mean reality of our condition generates the violent disappointments which rack our days and etch themselves in lines of acrimony across our faces. Hence the relief, which can explode into bursts of laughter, when we finally come across an author generous enough to confirm that our very worst insights, far from being unique, are part of the common, inevitable reality of mankind.

Our dread that we might be the only ones to feel anxious, bored, jealous, perverse and narcissistic turns out to be gloriously unfounded, opening up unexpected opportunities for communion around our dark realities.

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We should honour Pascal, and the long line of pessimistic writers to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of our sinful and pitiful state. This is not a stance with which the modern world betrays much sympathy, for one of its dominant characteristics and - in my opinion - its greatest flaw is its optimism.

Despite occasional moments of panic, most often connected to market crises, wars or pandemics, the secular contemporary world maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement, based on a quasi-messianic faith in the three great drivers of change - science, technology and commerce.

Material improvements since the mid-18th Century have been so remarkable and have so exponentially increased our comfort, safety, wealth and power, as to deal an almost fatal blow to our capacity to remain pessimistic - and therefore, crucially, to our ability to stay sane and content.

It has been impossible to hold on to a balanced assessment of what life is likely to provide for us when we have witnessed the cracking of the genetic code, the invention of the mobile phone, the opening of Western-style supermarkets in remote corners of China and the launch of the Hubble telescope.

Naivety and credulousness

Yet while it is undeniable that the scientific and economic trajectories of mankind have been pointed firmly in an upward direction for several centuries, you and I do not comprise mankind. None of us as individuals can dwell exclusively amidst the ground-breaking developments in genetics or telecommunications that lend our age its distinctive and buoyant prejudices.

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Alain de Botton

A pessimistic world view does not have to entail a life stripped of joy”

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We may derive some benefit from the availability of hot baths and computer chips, but our lives are no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than were those of our medieval forebears. But at least our ancestors had the advantage of living in a religious era which never made the mistake of promising its population that happiness could ever make a permanent home for itself on this earth.

The secular are at this moment in history a great deal more optimistic than the religious - something of an irony given the frequency with which the religious have been derided by the non religious for their apparent naivety and credulousness. It is the secular whose longing for perfection has grown so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realised on this earth after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research.

With no evident awareness of the contradiction they may, in the same breath, gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics will together cure the ills of mankind.

The benefits of a philosophy of pessimism are to be seen in relation to love. Christianity and Judaism present marriage not as a union inspired and governed by subjective enthusiasm but rather, and more modestly, as a mechanism by which individuals can assume an adult position in society and thence, with the help of a close friend, undertake to nurture and educate the next generation under divine guidance.

Capacity for appreciation

These limited expectations tend to forestall the suspicion, so familiar to secular partners, that there might have been more intense, angelic or less fraught alternatives available elsewhere. Within the religious ideal friction, disputes and boredom are signs not of error, but of life proceeding according to plan.

These religions do recognise our desire to adore passionately. They know of our need to believe in others, to worship and serve them and to find in them a perfection which eludes us in ourselves. They simply insist that these objects of adoration should always be divine rather than human.

Bracelet Increased wealth makes us less pessimistic

Therefore they assign us eternally youthful, attractive and virtuous deities to shepherd us through life while reminding us on a daily basis that human beings are comparatively humdrum and flawed creations worthy of forgiveness and patience, a detail which is apt to elude our notice in the heat of marital squabbling.

Why can't you be more perfect? This is the incensed question that lurks beneath a majority of secular arguments. In their effort to keep us from hurling our curdled dreams at one another, religions have the good sense to provide us with angels to worship and lovers to tolerate.

A pessimistic world view does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists can have a far greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break out across their darkened horizons.

 

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 164.

    I think a lot of people are so busy thinking about and worrying about what may be that they fail to appreciate what they have - fresh air, clean water, a child laughing at something silly........ or as was said in the film Kung Foo Panda "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, which is why it's the present!"

  • rate this
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    Comment number 163.

    Don't always agree with Mr de Botton, but this time 100% yes. The founding fathers of the US saw fit to place 'the pursuit of happiness' - not 'happiness' - up there with liberty. They were very serious-minded. This 'think positive' nonsense is pernicious. 'Smile or Die' is the title of a rather good book on the subject. How can one be happy if there is no contrasting state? Well done, Mr Botton!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 162.

    Brilliant !.... I'm putting Alain de Botton forward as the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

  • Comment number 161.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 160.

    Sorry, but anyone who suggests that this a 'religious' piece is subverting it to their own agenda.
    It's a philospohical treatise, and a timely one at that.
    The idea that we are 'entitled' to be happy and free to do what we like is to promote anarchy.
    Society is underpinned by shared values and shared misery.
    That doesn't mean our lives are always unhappy; we live for those moments of joy!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 159.

    Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 158.

    I loved this article...because it reminded me of "Me". Yes, I have a pessimistic trait; but along with that I have a "Sense of Humour" to beat. & boy, aren't I laughing right now with myself, at myself.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 157.

    Our major religions are responsible for a great number of wars, oppression, corruption, abuse, and delusion.

    We can come up with those traits and sins w/out religion, but to attribute religion with a recipe--i.e. pessimism equals a begrudging sense of hope, seems shallow.

    Evangelical fundamentalists believe in (hope for) the end times rather than working for sane stewardship of the earth.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 156.

    Come on guys, be honest. This is not a discussion about pessimism & optimism, it a poorly disguised pro-religious rant. Quotes such as "secular whose longing for perfection" and "sincerely trusting that the combined powers of " clearly indicate an anti-scientific bias. Its hard to think that a world of servitude, obedience, ignorance and abuse is somehow more beneficial to 21st century man.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 155.

    #148: Hope for the best; prepare for the worst. You cannot do more than that.

    Well, you can, actually: you can TRY for the best (hope alone never gets you anywhere)!

    So many people are so busy preparing for the worst that they have no time left for anything positive - and then they victoriously declare "I was right: life IS miserable!" Sorry, but once again: gimme a break with pessimists.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 154.

    The problem with pessimism is that it's a slippery slope, descending inexorably into fatalism, which is toxic to the human spirit. If you seek its monument, look at the former Soviet Union.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 153.

    I just pity the pessimists. If I was one, I would never have fled from communism, nor tried to start a business of my own: both are difficult and were nearly bound to end in failure. But I did both, and am now happy to be a free man without a nasty boss to bow to. The pessimists all stayed behind of fear.. and now just complain how 'lucky' I was (& how they will be even worse off)! Gimme a break.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 152.

    I'm with Tim Smit (of Eden Project fame) who has a memorable epithet which he repeats on every possible occasion, and that is 'Kill Negative People'. How right he is.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 151.

    French men are often absurdly pessimistic.

    Pessimism and cynicism is the French male collective consciousness.

    Half childhood was spent in French schools & with French families. While I have somewhat of the 'American optimism' bias I have many childhood memories of French men being pessimistic much more so than what I saw back in the US. I usually refrain from such generalities but it's true.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 150.

    What a genius. Don't have delusional expectations and you may not be disappointed.Wow.A clear distinction between a philosopher and student of others' philosophy needs to be made.That advice could have been given by anyone,and has been around for centuries.AdB is a fraud, plagiarist and pathetic compared to the great philosophers.With all that study and books, he won't be remembered past 2050.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 149.

    Read 'Learned Optimism' by Seligman, for a basic grounding in the science of explanatory style (and for an opposing view Ehrenreich - not one I agree with, but hey).

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 148.

    Hope for the best; prepare for the worst. You cannot do more than that.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 147.

    i don't think Mr dB is saying 'be a pessimist' but advocating an allowance of pessism to enter our lives a bit more, and explains the advantages. saying 'successfull people are positive, pessimists are miserable failures' is not a counter argument, seeing as the definition of succesfull is rather vague and those 'happy people' may well have all kinds of hidden issues your moody friends don't have.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 146.

    Add your comment...I agree that personal expectations can make us miserable, but when faced with great adversity, a life without hope may feel like a life not worth living. It is our hope and belief that, as orphan Annie puts it, "the sun will shine tommorow" which keeps us going. Also, should we not be optimistic that we can make the world a little better for others?
    for others if not ourselves?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 145.

    I firmly believe that if you go through life in the understanding that the worse could possibly happen, then you are better prepared for when it does. On the other hand those who "stick their heads in the sand" are often sorely disappointed. - That's my mantra. I'd rather be pessimistically prepared than optimistically unprepared!

 

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