A Point of View: The advantages of pessimism
- 12 August 2011
- From the section Magazine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.