“In politics, the optimist is an unreliable or even dangerous man, because he doesn’t take the great difficulties that his projects present into account; they seem to possess a self confidence leading them to the effortless realization that they are destined, in their mind, to produce more happiness.”
To him, little reforms, made through constitutional policy and especially by governmental staff, seem sufficient to guide the social movement in such a way to lessen what frightens sensitive souls in the contemporary world. Since his friends are in power, he declares that we must let them have a free hand in things, that we must not rush, and content ourselves with what their good will suggests; it is not always solely self interest that dictates his satisfied words; as often believed: self interest is strongly aided by self-love and insipid philosophical illusions. The optimist passes from revolutionary anger to the most ridiculous social pacifism with remarkable ease.
If he has an impassioned temperament and if, unfortunately, he finds himself armed with power, permitting him to realize a ideal that he has forged, the optimist can lead his country to the worst catastrophes. Actually, he soon realizes that social transformations don’t happen as easily as he expected; he brings his woes to his contemporaries, instead of explaining the progression of things through historical necessity; he tries to make the people whose ill will seems dangerous to him disappear for the good of all. During the Terror, the men who caused the most bloodshed were those who had the strongest desire to make their countrymen realize the golden age they dreamed of, who had the most sympathy for human misery: optimists, idealists, sensitive people, they proved themselves to be all the more implacable because they had a greater thirst for universal happiness.
Pessimism is an entirely different thing than what the caricatures most often present it as: it’s a metaphysics of mores rather than a theory of the world; it’s a concept of a route towards deliverance strictly linked to: on one hand, experimental knowledge that we have acquired from the obstacles that oppose the satisfaction of our imaginations (or, if one wants, linked to the feeling of social determinism), – on the other hand, to the deep conviction of our natural weakness. We must never separate these three aspects of pessimism, although their close connection is hardly taken into account in practice.
1 – The name pessimism derives from the fact that the complaints made by the great ancient poets on the subject of the miseries that constantly threaten man made a great impression on historians of literature. There are few people to whom good luck has never presented itself at least once; but we are surrounded by harmful forces that are always ready to emerge from ambush, in order to fall upon us and crush us; hence very real suffering arises which provokes the sympathy of nearly all men, even those who have been treated favorably by fortune; moreover sorrowful literature has been successful across nearly all of history. But one would only have a very imperfect idea of pessimism by taking this type of literary production into consideration; in general, in order to appreciate a doctrine, it doesn’t suffice to study it in an abstract manner, nor among isolated personalities, one must research how it manifests in historical groups; thus we are lead to add the two elements mentioned above.
2 – The pessimist sees social conditions as forming a system bound by an established truth given in full, imposed by necessity, which would only disappear through a catastrophe that sweeps it away entirely. So it would be absurd, when we accept this theory, to make a few evil men bear responsibility for the evils from which society suffers; the pessimist doesn’t have any of the sanguinary follies of the optimist, distraught by the unforeseen resistance his projects encounter; he doesn’t contemplate creating happiness for future generations by butchering the selfish today.
3 – The way of conceiving the route to deliverance is the most profound thing in pessimism. Man would not endure the test, either from the laws of misery or fate, which shock our naive pride so much, if he didn’t have the hope of overcoming these tyrannies through an effort that he would attempt with a group of companions. The Christians would not have reasoned so much about original sin if they didn’t feel the need to justify deliverance (which must result from Jesus’ death), by supposing that this sacrifice had been made necessary by an appalling crime attributable to humanity. If the Western Christians were much more concerned with original sin than the Eastern Christians, that is not due to the influence Roman law alone, as Taine thought, but also to the fact that the Latins had a more elevated feeling of imperial majesty than the Greeks, considering the sacrifice of God’s Son as the realization of an extraordinarily marvelous deliverance; hence the necessity of deepening the mysteries of human misery and destiny.