One of the many nightmarish global crises indexed in the pages of the New York Times this past week was the identification of an almost universally neglected bogeyman: Optimism. According to Roger Scruton, writer and Professional Fellow in Moral Philosophy at St. Andrews, the myth of progress in Western Civilization has reached dangerous heights in the hands of glass-half-fullers leaving both ourselves and the rest of the developing world mired in various states of economic and social collapse. Rather than heeding the voice of hesitation, today’s political leader storms forward under a banner that simply reads “Forward” while the consequences of such enthusiasm are seen only in hindsight. The solution, at least according to Scruton’s controversial Op-ed, is a reappraisal of the much derided voice of derision in our cultural conversation and an invigorated appeal to the merit of pessimism.
Scruton’s defense of pessimism rests largely on his claim that the present age is one in which “hope is more important … than truth.” In an historical survey that runs from twentieth-century utopian dictatorships to the economic crisis of 2008, Scruton describes the pessimist as an isolated defender of truth in the face of a herd-like hopefulness continually swelling in number. Of course the dangers of group-think are already well documented (perhaps most entertainingly in Charles MacKay’s 1841 opus Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds); nevertheless, it remains striking how the rallying cry for today’s optimistic ideals like “Equality,” “Change,” and of course “Hope,” is increasingly coupled with a disdain for those expressing hesitation. In a campaign of abstract positivity the enemy has become anyone begging for particularity.
In this sense, the crisis of “unscrupulous optimism” is essentially linguistic. Just as Jen Logan pointed out in her recent post for Transpositions, as ideals are removed from their active context they are inevitably emptied of content. And once the gap between a sign and what it signifies widens to enable a broader appropriation and ultimate proliferation, we arrive at the contemporary situation: the replacement of truth for inspiration, meaning for mysticism. Truth, once a currency of concrete value, is thus traded for a hope outside of faith to establish a linguistic economy of “coins which have lost their embossing,” just as Frederic Nietzsche predicted.
But is pessimism the best response to a cultural optimism co-opted by therapeutic feel-goodism?
Scruton’s elevation of the pessimist as an agent of unheeded wisdom makes sense only when placed within the ultimate context of religious belief. Just as Christian theology sustains its dynamic function as a sustaining source of Truth in a postmodern age that denies believers anything but rhetorical truths, here too faith serves as a bastion wherein pessimism is subsumed within an all encompassing eschatological hope of things to come. Outside of this eschatology the logic of progress must be continually reworked, rebranded, and buttressed by an indefatigable optimism.
“Much pessimism is a kind of disappointed religious faith,” Scruton explained in a 2010 talk at the Royal Society for the Arts, “which has retained something of the sense of the fallen condition of mankind without the religious hope that enables us to live with that.”
The distinction between an agnostic nihilism and faithful pessimism is one of quiet persistence.
If the lives of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Albert Camus may be easily categorized by their faith or lack thereof, the existential questions of their characters provide an equally engrossing account of the “fallen condition” shared by us all. It is the proximity of religious hope to one’s sense of pessimism that makes the difference.
It is often said that when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he was certain that the apocalypse were to unfold the following day, he responded, “I would plant a tree today.” Luther’s response displays what meaningful optimism rooted in faith and tied to individual action looks like. It is not an optimism of numbers nor a pessimism of despair. It is the optimism of concrete action whose physical embodiment perfects its linguistic signifier: in the cultivation of the soil he participates in the cultus of divine worship.
Such a quiet optimism could have a mass appeal.
 Scruton makes the same case in an early essay on the use of the word “progress”: “In what respect are men supposed to progress, towards what, and how? Are we speaking of scientific knowledge, of technology, of social harmony, of moral and political perfection?” (“The Idea of Progress,” in The Philosopher on Dover Beach [Manchester: Carcanet, 1990], 189-195.)  “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Pearson & Duncan Large (Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2006). 114-124.
Denny Kinlaw is currently studying for his MLitt in the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. His interests include American Literature and the intersection of literary theory and theology in the work of David Foster Wallace.
Image Credit: Roger-Scruton.com