In light of our recent recording on Voltaire's Candide (to be published in a few weeks), I've been thinking lately about the role of optimism in contemporary American culture (Candide critiques a kind of optimism in vogue at Voltaire's time that he associated with Leibniz' "best of all possible worlds" theory). A recent piece by Oliver Burkeman defends negative thinking:
Though much of this research is new, the essential insight isn’t. Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty.
I'm reminded of our general cultural problem with negative capability; the opposite of which the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear describes as "knowingness" -- a good translation of Plato's doxosophia ("conceit of wisdom"), and something exhibited in reams in contemporary scientism. Both positive thinking and knowingness can be ways of foreclosing on having negative feelings, including the feeling of being ignorant. (And isn't our cultural tendency toward positive thinking related to our post-enlightenment scientific optimism?). The alternative to mourning our limitations is to manically defend against them.
As Burkeman notes, the "relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity." By contrast, Buddhist meditation "is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content."
And positive thinking can have negative consequences:
The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.
We could go farther. There are forms of pathological optimism, such as grandiosity and mania; or, to take a less severe and more common example, there is what Freud called "reaction formation" (think of a hyper-positive person you know who is obviously concealing a great deal of rage that seeps out in passive aggressive ways). Such individual pathologies are cultural universals: for instance, one is all but required to make the frankly psychotic admission that they come from the "greatest country in the world." (This claim is delusional even if you happen to live in the most economically and militarily powerful country in the world, a fact that will provide you with some sophisticated rationalizations about the meaning of "greatest." But someone who believes they can fly does not cease to be insane just because upon jumping from a building they happen to be carried off by a passing tornado). To challenge these delusions is to be forced into a ludicrous debate about one's patriotism and "American Exceptionalism."
-- Wes Alwan
Interesting post. A few thoughts had crossed my mind before when it comes to this optimism. In the UK we don’t quite have any real equivalent to American Exceptionalism, certainly not anymore. However, there have indeed been events and national celebrations which have whipped up feelings of patriotism and a substantial amount of pride that goes a good way to temporarily (thankfully temporarily, but after this people only go back to breakfast table outrage) dulling any pain or negative feelings about the current shambolic state of affairs in the UK. If anyone dare voice any contrary opinion to those caught in this illusion then they’re chastised because one is of course threatening this illusion. And at that point the veil of sheepish optimism and love for the shepherd slips off revealing a fairly rotten, resentful core. The celebrations I paticularly have in mind would be the Diamond Jubilee this year and Royal Wedding previously.
It seems to go back (maybe) to this longing for something greater than the individual, who is relatively powerless in the face of the troubles of the world and wanting to be taken in and sheltered. The average individual cannot understand the complex financial world, or geo-politics which are currently shaking the foundations of the west, that have resulted in Austerity over here. They must flock to some shepherd at somepoint! The monarchy is something we of course have and America does not. America will be proud of its values, its freedom, liberty etc. where as the British equivalents may likely congregate around the Monarchy which is interesting because of course the Monarchy has long been the head of state, and in previous times practically been the ruling, tyranical yet “caring” parent of the nation. The idea still seems to be temporarily resurrected though, dusted off and put back on a pedestal for those of us who are inclined to gawp at it hoping to seek comfort.
Maybe this American Exceptionalism manifests how it does partly because there is no single icon as there can be here? Instead in the US these values (so strongly connected to identity) instead take the role which can be more constantly held up in the modern world, and also threatened and exported more than the Monarchs us old, archaic European nations have. There is more of a distance from the monarch who doesn’t necessarily impact the individual day today, unlike the values that a country that is founded upon. Of course another thing which will contribute is people being aware of it’s current position and the mentality they’re deservingly great.
I’m very much looking forwards to the discussion on Candide. I read it last week and have to say it was one of the most entertaining but thought provoking books I’ve read in my fairly young life.
-PS I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression of Brits. I mean to have been speaking about this particular strain within the country that come from under the woodwork from time to time.
not sure if negative capability is the same as not-grasping-for, might in fact be more of a capacity for dwelling in the not-yet as part of a reaching (over-reaching?) for, working with/in. I think that Keats was in favor of en-theos and maybe even Romantic manic flights but it’s been a while.
This is why British comedy is the best in the world 😛
It’s almost always about people just barely coping with misery, loneliness and failure. With hilarious results.
It’s perhaps down to the class system. In Red Dwarf, you have Lister as the only living human in the universe and potentially capable of great things were he not so lazy and “undeserving poor”.
Then you have Rimmer with his sense of entitlement but simply lacking the talent to achieve.
It gives you the sense that no matter how hard you try or how much you want it, you can still fail simply because of who you are. Conversely, in Red Dwarf the entire human race is left with a guy who just can’t be arsed. Again, this is simply the kind of person he is, for whatever reason.
If I have not read your post too hastily, it seems to me you are suggesting a false dilemma. It is true that negative thinking has its virtues, but it needn’t be at the expense of optimistic thinking. In Edward De Bono’s clever little book Six Thinking Hats, he agrees with your assessment of the value of negativity, which he calls black hat thinking, but he thinks you need to wear a variety of chapeaus including the yellow hat of optimism to make yourself a better thinker. (As to the other thinking paradigms, wikipedia “Six Thinking Hats” to read a description.)
Without giving it any undue praise, I could equally list the value of optimistic thinking. Kant, near the end of his first critique suggested there were three great questions we have to deal with as rational beings: What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? And Kant had some pretty optimistic hopes. Furthermore, if I may be allowed to mangle Viktor Frankl words from Man’s Search For Meaning a bit, you have no chance of enduring any “what”, unless you have a pretty optimistic “why.” (Did I go too far with that mangle? I optimistically hope not.)
In the end I think we are back to Aristotle’s prescription of moderation and the golden mean.
Kyle H says
While at uni, a geologist sarcastically made the point that “We are smart” and will no doubt fix the hole in the ozone layer. Good scientists’ know to temper their faith in science at solving all technical problems Indeed most new technology produces its own set of new problems including waste.
I’m half through skimming Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism. A dose of pessimism is quite healthy.
Take the fallacy of central planning–belief that creating programs to solve a social ills. Indeed the program creates a different problem that begets another new government program to solve.
Talk on mandatory optimism:
RSA Animate – Smile or Die