THE BLOG
11/12/2013 07:36 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Optimism Is Virtuous

For two millennia optimism was the West's secret weapon. Psychologist Richard Nisbett says: "To the Asian, the world is a complex place, subject more to collective than to personal control. To the Westerner, the world is a relatively simple place, highly subject to personal control. Very different worlds indeed." The reason the West made so much progress from the dawn of civilization to the early years of the twentieth century was optimism, leading to activism.

Three intertwined beliefs lie at the heart of Western optimism. One is the autonomy myth - individuals can be autonomous self-starters, taking charge of their destiny, shaping the world around them. Ancient Greek philosophers argued that humans alone had minds and so could grasp truths about the universe. Minds were individual and linked to other minds and to divine intelligence. People could control their surroundings by learning nature's rules.

The second was the goodness myth. Creation was good, and getting better, through heroic exercise of the mind. Plato said that humans had souls, constrained by man's animal nature, yet precious to God and giving access to God, enabling one to attain virtue.

The third was Aristotle's idea of potentiality. The deepest reality was not what is, but what will be. Ultimate reality resided not in the start of things, but in their telos, their end, that to which they aspire, their purpose and final form.

These ideas were developed by Jewish and Christian thinkers. The Jews detected progress in the hand of God in human history. The early Christians took Jewish and Greek ideas to new heights of optimism and activism. God's love and goodness were unquestionable, and through Christ, men and women are given access to the divine nature, for improvement of the self and the world around them.

These ideas receded somewhat after the fall of Rome, but came back stronger than ever from the thirteenth century onward. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) said that every person was created in the image of God and could participate in God's infinite creativity for good. The West gained renewed and increasing confidence in human reason - resulting in the massive achievements of the Renaissance in science, art, drama, architecture, and exploration. Renaissance man saw himself as a co-creator alongside God. Western science achieved so much because its ambition knew no bounds, and it was constantly directed to practical ends to improve life on earth - to conquer disease, improve health and nutrition, and eventually make steady growth in the economy, population, and welfare of human beings, as human life was enriched by new discoveries and powers.

Optimism reached its zenith in the Enlightenment thinkers in eighteenth-century Europe and America. Freed from superstition, we could become ever more knowledgeable, ethical, humane, and original. Historian Edward Gibbon opined that "we cannot be certain to what height the human species may aspire ... every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race." The industrialists, scientists, political and social reformers of the nineteenth century were driven by an intoxicating sense of optimism.

It all came crashing down in the twentieth century. In a weird way, intellectual pessimism prefigured the tragedies of that century. In 1913, for example, Carl Jung was on a train journey and had a vision of the whole of Europe being swept under a great flood. Was he going mad, he wondered? A year later he realized it was a premonition of the Great War, the cataclysm that almost destroyed Western civilization. The work of Freud, Nietzsche, and a handful of other incredibly powerful pessimists drew attention to the naïve fallacies of the optimists. If optimism had become self-fulfilling, so too was pessimism. The unbelievably awful personal experience of the War influenced the elite of Europe - those it did not actually kill. It is not fanciful to see the Great Depression of the 1930s and the hateful, negative ideologies of the Nazis and Communists as not only the cause of a new wave of pessimism, but also its result.

After 1945, the world was saved by American optimism. Having escaped the brunt of the war in Europe, the Americans thought it was possible to piece together the smashed fabric of European society. They reconstructed Europe, and also transformed Japan. Western optimism began to recover on the back of an unprecedented wave of prosperity, of renewed faith in science, and of the success of the European experiment, melding together a Common Market and interlinked prosperity amongst countries that had been foes for centuries. Western optimism - in the form of a near-universal business culture - even began to infect Asia, changing both the prosperity of nations (wherever markets were allowed to work their magic) and, through the education of the Asian elite in America and Europe, the very ideas those opinion formers held. The difference between the achievements of South Korea and the appalling conditions in North Korea is very largely explained by the operation of optimism and markets in the former, and of pessimism and paranoia in the latter.

So where are we now? We are poised between the facts that should drive us to believe in progress - the inexorable rise of science and, despite setbacks, the improvement in standard of living for most people in the world - and the cross-currents of new waves of optimism and pessimism from Western intellectuals today. Oh yes, those intellectuals matter - novelists, poets, political theorists, researchers, and non-fiction writers of all stripes. On balance, Western intellectuals are far more negative and pessimistic than they have any reasonable right to be. The new class of thinkers is right to draw attention to the weaknesses of the West, though they rarely do that for the more glaring weaknesses of many other cultures. But the intellectuals are wrong to be pessimistic, not just because the facts don't warrant it, but also because pessimism, like optimism, is self-fulfilling.

In our own individual lives, we have the ability to be optimistic, or pessimistic. It is a matter of moods, but also of mind over mood. It is strongly influenced by the people around us, and by the baleful influence of 24/7 news, with its distorted focus on isolated instances of disaster and tragedy. Do we want to shape our lives, or to hunker down in cynicism or superficial consumerism? Do we believe that the world can be a much better place, and that we can help to make it so?

Pessimism is negative. Optimism is positive. The ancient Greeks and the early Christians were right on the money. Optimism is good; pessimism is the work of the devil.

Optimism is a duty, though a pleasant one. So when you feel yourself succumbing to pessimism, remember this - you can make life a heaven or a hell in your own mind, but heaven is good and hell is bad. Both are real. Why not vote for the reality that reflects the glory of humanity, and of your unique cultural heritage? Why not vote for the way that increases your potential and your power for good? There is no good reason not to, only the mushy incubus of bad ideas from people who combine high intelligence with breathtaking practical stupidity. Vote for optimism, every day, in every way.