On pessimism

(and on hope in the face of climate disaster)

I have recently been thinking about what it means to tell the truth, in part because I was invited to write about the topic for Earth & Altar (a shining new addition to the world of humanist ‘small magazines’ described beautifully by Elayne Allen), a piece I hope will appear in a few months. But after only the latest reminder of climate catastrophe, the scorching of the Pacific Northwest, these thoughts took a darker direction. Honesty is a virtue; if the world is dreadful, isn’t pessimism required of us?

What should we say about this idea, which seems to me a near-ubiquitous temptation in our public conversation, political, cultural, and artistic?

To address this large subject, two further questions seem apt. First, what kinds of truth-telling does honesty demand? And, are hope and despair simply moods or traits of personality or might they also be governed by the truth?

Honesty, as a quality we cherish and need in others, is more than a habit or inclination to say what happens to be true. There are familiar examples of when the truth can be too much: the gossip, the tactless person, and the mean-spirited critic can all easily confine themselves to the literal truth. 

More interesting to me are cases where the truth is too little. I often feel this way when it comes to debates over what to do about climate change. Of course, we do need the truth told, about what is happening all over the planet and why, especially in the face of denialism (which increasingly involves a nihilistic ‘so what’ alongside or instead of the familiar ostriching). We need to face what it means for a village in British  Columbia to reach a Death Valley-like 50C (121ºF) and be burned to the ground by wildfires, for hundreds of vulnerable people to die of heat in the span of days in the world’s richest countries.

But in addition to this kind of truth, we also need imagination to find new (or old) ways of living that are adequate to this crisis, and the truth or falsity of imagination lies both within our power and on the ever-receding horizon of the future. (It seems a false hope that we will simply technologize our way out of climate change, for instance.)

Truth-telling is just one of the ways we ought to relate to the truth, and any given truth may be too much or too little. Honesty, though it requires various kinds of truth-telling, also demands more of us, to live up to the truth in what we do, to declare the truth in action as well as words. 

[Here, I am reminded of the Psalmist’s exuberant experience of the beauty of the world, which Haydn sets in his Creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handy-work. One day telleth another; and one night certifieth another. There is neither speech nor language; but their voices are heard among them” (Psalm 19: 1-3).]

Grant, then, that we need to strive for truthful imagination as well as frank speaking. We can then ask whether the hopeful or the despairing imagination is the more truthful. 

Counselors of despair are not in short supply in the face of any of our gravest fears: climate change, future pandemics, persistent inequality, the erosion of democracy, and so on. 

But what exactly does the pessimist assert, say, when it comes to democracy? One claim is that there is a natural principle at work, by which experiments in self-governance are and will continue to be undermined. Call this social determinism. Another claim is more neutrally predictive: we see a slide away from democratic principles towards form of authoritarianism and have every reason to expect it to continue. Call this anti-progressivism.

Both social determinists and anti-progressivists set themselves up against a foolish optimism, represented in the West Wing fantasy version of politics where our problems could be solved if only we had the smartest (and wittiest) people in charge. One could, I suppose, hold the countervailing views without succumbing to Weltschmerz, but I don’t see how one manages it.

More importantly, the anthropology and cosmology of the social visions of the pessimists seem seriously impoverished – original sin without grace, a fallen world without redemption. Far from being dispassionate, the pessimist is committed to a set of practical attitudes about (and even emotional responses to) what they hold to be the truth.

One can, I think, look squarely at what ails us as human beings, really grapple with the truth and the particularity of it, and not come away with despair. What is needed is instead an imagination that can dwell in the uncertainty of the present and which way it is tending – and also the resoluteness to recognize what is in our power without ceding too much to fate or fortune.

I found myself reading Aquinas on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity recently and was struck by an article in the Summa which asks whether “the hope of those who are wayfarers through this life admits of certainty” (ST II-II q 18 a 4), not least for the poetic quality of the question. The answer is complicated – yes, but such certainty can coexist with failure – and depends on his particular views of happiness and the next life. 

But part of the story is that we have to see ourselves as akin to the rest of nature and not as self-making or self-determining entities. As it happens, I think this idea is something that climate activists want and need us to see, too. And it needn’t be a source of despair, but the grounds for the very resoluteness and imagination we require to survive – and perhaps even to flourish.