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