Optimism and Pessimism as Inadequate Categories

“You’re so ‘glass half-empty’!” Have you ever heard that one? It usually comes up in a conversation after one party has made a particularly “negative” comment. At times, the accusation precipitates an argument on the merits of optimism over pessimism and the advantages of being a “glass half-full” kind of person.

What merit do these categories have? Is this worldly wisdom something that we Catholics can “baptize” and incorporate into our interior lives and our world view?

In brief, I will argue here that the categories of optimism vs. pessimism — or glass half-full vs. glass half-empty — are categories that I believe we should reject as essentially inadequate. This is something I have long thought rather superficially (even mentioning it in writing at times; see The Bad News and Christian Hope in Contrast), but, to be totally transparent, I had not previously given the issue any deep consideration. Reading, as I am now, Dr. Josef Pieper’s brief but intense book, The End of Time, I have been forced to think through the issue more, and can say that I am now of the same opinion, but with deeper convictions on the matter.

Further down, I will quote the learned philosopher, including references he takes from other authors, but, before that, permit me some general comments. First, I do realize that the “glass half-full” figure of speech is metaphorical, and that even the best metaphors limp in making their point adequately. However, I find this one in particular need of crutches. It begs several questions: What is the fluid? Is it excellent scotch, water, or sulfuric acid? Is it a therapeutic concoction that would be salubrious if taken in the quantity of just under half a glass, but deadly if taken in the amount just over half a glass? Are we in the process of draining the glass, in which calling it “half-empty” makes sense from a procedural point of view, or are we in the process of filling it, in which calling it “half-full” would equally make sense? When I hear this comparison made, I think that there is an awful lot we simply do not know about that glass and what is actually in it!

The figure of speech aside, these categories are, generally speaking, labels that describe our subjective responses to the realities we perceive around us. Some people, perhaps owing to temperament, perhaps to their physical health, their emotional state, or a combination of all these, are inclined to take an “upbeat” outlook; others are the opposite. The same person might, owing to his own personal vicissitudes, swing like a pendulum from being optimistic to being pessimistic. As a result, the optimism/pessimism or glass half-full/empty dialectic is more a measure of the mood of the observer than it is of reality being observed.

What is of greater importance than this subjective measure is the reality that we actually face. Is this reality a good thing or an evil thing? Is that good or evil a physical or a moral one? What are the consequences of this good or evil development? How might a good be occasioned by this evil? The answers to these questions, some of which may not be entirely knowable, are important in assessing the reality before us. One’s subjective outlook — whether the glass is half-full or half-empty — is really of secondary import.

In chapter two of The End of Time, Dr. Pieper has two subsections that are respectively headed “The present’s sense of the future,” and “The inadequacy of the concepts optimism and pessimism.” In the first of these, he contrasts the disparate views of prominent thinkers on how good or bad the future looks. It should be mentioned that Pieper, writing within the decade after WWII (the first English edition is dated 1954), would be eye-witness to a grim post-war European landscape, along with the early phase of the Cold War, with its prospects of nuclear annihilation. The contemporary intellectual atmosphere was affected by these events.

The first person he cites speaking of “the present’s sense of the future,” is the then young German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Hölderlin, who, in 1790, was very sanguine about the prospects of the future:

I love the generation of centuries to come. For this is my most blessed hope, the faith, which keeps me strong and active, that our grandchildren will be better than we…. We live in a period of time in which everything is working toward better days. These seeds of Enlightenment, these mute desires and aspirations of individuals for the improvement of the human race, will spread and grow strong and bear glorious fruit.” [p. 73]

He then cites a the more recent (1922) entry on “History” in Rudolf Eisler’s Dictionary of Philosophy:

As men, by their instinctive and volitional activity, actively remold the conditions of life, from which they increasingly emancipate themselves, they engender ever more, ever richer, finer, more harmonious culture (q.v.) and thereby educate themselves ever more actively, freely, and consciously in the direction of the cultural idea of mankind, of pure and complete ‘humanity’ (q.v.), and of the will to reason which realizes it. [p. 74]

Pieper assesses both of these utterances as being untenable in his own time. Of the latter, he writes,

This unification of technological, cultural, and moral progress, in which unity, moreover, the essential nature of history is supposed to consist — this opinion, seen from the experiences of the intervening decades, seems to us altogether contrary to the facts and almost touching in its naïveté. Who could still deem it worthy of discussion? [p. 75]

Against these, Dr. Pieper contrasts the words of Catholic historian Christopher Dawson (writing in 1937):

We have entered on a new phase of culture…, in which the most amazing perfection of scientific technique is being devoted to purely ephemeral objects…. It is obvious that a civilization of this kind holds no promise for the future save that of social disintegration. [p. 75]

And the “far-seeing” Spaniard, Donoso Cortes, writing in 1849:

Mankind is hastening with great strides toward the certain fate of despotism…. This despotism will evolve a power of destruction greater and mightier than anything we have heretofore experienced. [p. 75]

Other passages, cited from the works of Jacob Burckhardt, (Saint) John Henry Newman, Vladimir Solovyev, and Theodor Haecker similarly paint a gloomier picture of the future than the “optimistic” ones sketched out by Hölderlin and Eisler.

In the next section of the same chapter, “The inadequacy of the concepts optimism and pessimism,” Dr. Pieper contends that the “pessimism” he sees reigning in Western society in his day is simply an inversion of the previous “optimism,” the change being attributable not to a different point of view, but to the bitter failures of progress and technology to bring about their promised “glorious fruits.” This he calls “the decay of the Enlightenment’s doctrine of progress.” [p. 79]

Josef Pieper begins to shed light on the inadequacy of the categories of optimism and pessimism when he considers the nature of the “End”:

In Latin the word for end — finis — also means goal. End and goal, however, are certainly not the same thing. There may be an end that is not simultaneously a goal. Something may “cease” without having reached its goal. [As a runner who collapses before reaching the finish line. His race has ended, but he has not reached the end.] There may be an end that is characterized precisely by the goal having been missed, an end that is synonymous with non-attainment of the goal. Nevertheless, goal and end inwardly cohere. I refuse — and in doing so know that my refusal is correct — I reject the idea that I ought to believe the world so constructed that it is leading to an end in which the goal is missed and that, in other words, the name of the course of the world is “futility.”

But how, in the Christian-Western tradition, is the notion of the end of history which characterizes it, is the correlation of finis-end and finis-goal conceived? This correlation is not easily grasped; it is complicated by the necessity of discriminating between an intra-historical and an extra-temporal end of history [i.e., ends “within history” and “outside of time”], segregated from one another by the act of transposition of the temporal into the extra-temporal. Thus the doctrine of the End that is rooted in tradition descries through the ultimate happening within history the act of transposition and the extra-temporal end of history effected by it. The end within history, so says, revelation, is catastrophic in character, which must mean that it is not identical with attainment of the goal and with realization of the intention. However, this cannot be stated without reservations. In no case, according to tradition, can this end within history, however much it has been foretold as a catastrophe, be construed as a definitive failure to fulfill the intention — since the authentic and ultimate end only follows upon the end-situation with history; and it is only this end “outside time” of which we can finally say whether finis-end and finis-goal coincide in it or not. [pp. 80-81]

In summary, what the good Doctor is saying is that the End to be achieved — according to divine revelation — stands outside of time, but that there is, within time, an intervening catastrophe that is also revealed. This would be the three-and-a-half year reign of Anti-Christ, which is prophesied, certain, and therefore unavoidable. Moreover, there is a Hell, and not all will have as their own personal “end” that End for which we were created: heavenly beatitude. (Some runners will, as it were, collapse before the finish line, and have a very different end than those who reach it.) For the blessed in Heaven, the finis-end and finis-goal exactly coincide.

But because there is a Hell, there is not an absolute or universal coinciding of finis-end with the finis-goal:

But how is this question to be answered? [The question is, “Do the finis-end and finis-goal coincide?”] With a simultaneous “Yes” and “No.” But why not simply with Yes or simply with No? Because, according to the pronouncement of theology, after the final end of history there will, on the one hand, undoubtedly be the reality of irrevocable separation from the ultimate ground of being, the reality of disavowal, of damnation, or whatever name may be given to this state of having missed the goal; because, according to this, there is an end which is not simultaneously attainment of the goal. But now for the “on the other hand”! The theological interpretation states: Even in the reality of disavowal, damnation, separation, the goal of the creatio [creation] will not, in the ultimate, most profound, and inapprehensible sense, really have been missed. …

Can it now be said, after this attempt to clarify the preliminary field of the concept, whether the answer given by a Christian-Western philosophy of history, vis-à-vis the conflict between the optimistic belief in progress and the pessimistic anticipation of disaster, tends toward the one or the other side? Will such a philosophy of history, insofar as it treats specifically of history, give an optimistic or a pessimistic forecast? It reckons with a catastrophic end-situation of history; it makes ready for the foundering of what may be called the “will to culture,” a foundering on a scale both so extensive and so intensive that salvage within history seems impossible. Pessimism, then? No! For the end-situation within history is, firstly, not construed as the ultimately valid end. … Precisely in this apparent failure to attain the intended goal, in this futility which alone is visible to finite cognition, authentic realization may be achieved under cover — just as per se paradigmatic, in the highest, indeed, absolute sense, “successful” even of history wore, within history, the disguise of utter futility. The designation “pessimistic” is also inapt for the further reason that an extra-temporal end is hoped for, in which it will become manifest that there is no missing-of-the-goal in an absolute sense and that, despite the reality of the extra-temporal end-situation of rejection, the true name of the ultimately valid End, of course in an entirely incomprehensible manner, is: New Heaven and New Earth. [pp. 81-83]

After going on for two more pages citing various Catholic theories of the progress of history, all of which more-or-less confirm what he has already said, the good Doctor concludes:

The many layers of this attitude to history cannot be apprehended with the simplifying concepts, “optimistic-pessimistic.”

In the ultimate analysis, in spite of the catastrophic “end” within time, and in spite of the reality that there will be those whose “end” is not the happy “End” of beatitude, the divine purpose in creation will be realized in that happy End that takes place outside of time, outside of history. That End is supernaturally revealed, and supernaturally attained. After the oath of the angel of Apocalypse 10:6 is fulfilled — that “time shall be no longer” — the ultimate triumph will abide. We who are yet alive have the hope of realizing it, a hope that is protected from despair by the divine promises, and from presumption by the certain knowledge that we may possibly fail to persevere (Matt. 24:13), and become ourselves “castaways” (I Cor. 9:27), falling into the ultimate non-fullfillment of our goal.

Those goods that we believe in, hope for, and love by the infused theological virtues entirely transcend the superficial categories “optimism vs. pessimism” and “glass half-full vs. glass half-empty.”