Thursday, August 30, 2007

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

I am in Chicago for the next three days, attending the American Political Science Association's Annual Meeting. A teeming sea of political scientists. The heart palpitates.

I am (officially) on two roundtables commenting on two important books. The first is a roundtable on Joshua Foa Dienstag's book "Pessimism " - a book that argues in favor of philosophic pessimism, and against the modern optimistic philosophies of progress. The second is a roundtable on Michael Kazin's biography of William Jennings Bryan, "A Godly Hero."

I post below my response to Dienstag's book (I will post my response to Kazin anon). You can get a sense of his arguments from my comments. What's better still, my response is evidence that I'm NOT a pessimist!!

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Wake Up and Smell the Coffee:

Response to Joshua Foa Dienstag

Patrick J. Deneen

Georgetown University



Joshua Dienstag has written a remarkable and important book that, in my view, contains a persuasive argument about the existence of the underappreciated and under explored philosophical school of pessimism. I am so persuaded that Joshua is correct about the existence, and importance, of this school of thought – represented by such various figures as Rousseau, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Cioran, and Nietzsche – that I am simply going to concede that Joshua is right about its existence and its main features. In addition to reflecting my actual view on the matter, this concession also allows me to devote my comments to an exploration about why Joshua’s correctness about pessimism’s existence should not obscure his more fundamental mistake of commending this philosophy to his readers.

But first, let me say some good things about Joshua’s project. Joshua is certainly correct to call into question all our modern optimistic faiths, ones that have proven to be so calamitous since the advent of the modern age. Advanced early on by such thinkers as Machiavelli and Bacon, modernity was inaugurated by the ambition to control fortune, and in particular, to master nature and apply scientific principles to politics and the whole of the human realm. Joshua rightly notes the perils of this modern optimism, its rejection of limits that might moderate our grand schemes, its willingness to excuse horrors of the current moment in the name of progress (to name a few, the Terror, imperialism, Fascism, eugenics, Stalinism, medical experimentation on human subjects, napalm, doctrines of preemptive war, industrial farming, widespread acceptance of abortion, strip mining, accommodation with Mid-east tyrants, and the list could be expanded considerably). More existentially, Joshua urges us to consider that the world may not be subject to our remaking in such a way that will result in our happiness. He seeks to lower our expectations considerably, to show us – in the spirit of the Stoics of old – that much of life is about endurance and a degree of acceptance of what cannot be fundamentally changed. We should eschew “global ambitions,” he writes at one point (198), a caution that surely should have special resonance and meaning in these days replete with efforts to remake the world in the image of a rapacious neo-liberalism, whether through commerce or war. Many will be drawn to Joshua’s arguments, and for good reason.

But the alternative Joshua offers – pessimism – is a false alternative, above all because it is no alternative at all. Pessimism, Joshua essentially grants, is the flip side of optimism, its twin, born almost simultaneously in the modern era as a rejection of the ruthless rationalism and progressivism of modernity. Hobbes and Locke beget a Rousseau and a Vico; Kant, Mill and Hegel spawn a Nietzsche, a Spengler, and a Freud. Rather than telling us that we can expect that everything is getting better in every way, everyday, pessimism advises us – if not that things are getting worse, which Joshua insists can’t be known (though, truth be told, the book recurs frequently to invocations of decay – 92, etc.), then, in an oft-repeated phrase, that we can “expect nothing” (5, etc.). The pessimist, most obviously, is a disappointed optimist, someone who is initially charmed by modern stories of progress and mastery, but who soon realizes that reality does not comport with these elevated expectations (if this doesn’t describe Rousseau, then I don’t know what). Joshua relates a fable by Leopardi that traces this precise trajectory, according to which children begin life with an optimism that the world will fulfill their expectations, but that as they age, “seeing that the hopes which they had until then been putting off from day to day, had not been realized …, it seemed they deserved little trust…. Their ill-content increased so much, that they were not past their youth before a downright disgust with their being had universally possessed them. And little by little … some were driven to such desperation that, unable to bear the light and breath of life which at first they had so deeply cherished, in one way or another they of their own accord deprived themselves of it” (56). Joshua understands this dis-illusionment to be the truer condition, and that we are right to expect nothing rather than expect everything. However, surely to expect nothing is to live with a kind of certainty as thoroughgoing as optimism’s belief in progress, to know that any expectations are false because they cannot ever be fully fulfilled, that it is the human condition to remain permanently unsatisfied. It is the falsity of optimism’s twin that Arendt likely had in mind when she wrote, in the Preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, that she had written the book “against a backdrop of reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition…” (vii).

Both are superstitious because both deny reality, the reality of our given world and of human life in that world. One holds that humanity can craft its own redemption; and the other, that we inhabit a living Hell. Pessimism begins as a reaction against an extreme and false ideology, but is itself no less false for its rejection of falsehood and no less extreme for its eschewal of another extremism. In order to escape all disappointment, it denies the substance of the world, the diurnal and perennial renewal afforded by nature, the love of those in our homes, the good life afforded by flawed but potentially decent cities and the fellowship of fellow citizens, the fidelity of memory and memorial, and the hope – not optimism – we may properly hold for the future. Because any of these might disappoint at any time, they are all declared to be false and hollow, with our only recourse being, if not suicide, then withdrawal into a Stoic resignation or solitary resistance.

It is a false philosophy because it is false to the reality of our world, of nature, of the human creature. Joshua rightly notes that many critics of pessimism will accuse him of a closet optimism since he has written a book, and I agree such an argument is “the last refuge of an optimistic scoundrel.” But, I would like to draw attention to one telling detail, drawn from a chapter of aphorisms with which Joshua concludes the book (258). He argues that it is not a “belief in truth” that most require to get out of bed in the morning, but rather “a belief in the existence of a future, that is, that our acts might lead to something.” For some, that might be “world revolution,” and for others, a cup of coffee – the very motivation that Joshua acknowledges prompts him to arise each morning. But, he writes, “I simply can’t see how a verification of reality is involved in my anticipation of my morning coffee, only memory and hope.” Expect nothing – not even that there will be coffee. And why? Joshua writes, “What if our memories and hopes proved false?” That is, what if we will be disappointed? And we know that we will be disappointed, eventually (if nothing else, one morning we won’t awaken anymore – even if the coffee is ready). And so, he writes, “[our memories and hopes] are always false, or at least imperfectly true” (and, still he gets up, like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill). But here Joshua has elided an important distinction – that between something that is “always false” and something that is “imperfectly true” – and in this elision we can perceive the fundamental flaw of pessimism. There is a world’s difference between memories and hopes that are “always false” and memories and hopes that are “imperfectly true.” Only a disappointed optimist would confuse them – would make the “or” that separates them equivalent to an “and” – finding disappointment in any form unbearable, and thus insisting on the certainty that memory and hope are always false, rather than allowing that they may in fact be imperfectly true.

In my house, I get out of bed most mornings because my children won’t let me stay there (coffee is compensatory). This is a reality for much of the human race that is wholly absent in Joshua’s account – the reality of love and sacrifice, life in home and polity, the diurnal rhythms of cultivation, and the hopes and even plans we make in light these facts of life – not with world altering ambitions, and in full knowledge of likely disappointment. Joshua describes a world like that of P.D. James’s novel “The Children of Men,” in which we can expect nothing because there is literally no prospect for a human future, no children born of women (only those non-children of men). In that book, suicide becomes regimented and normalized; but in a world of children and love, it is properly the great exception. And yet, here and now, children continue to be born, they grow and fall in love and have children of their own. And yes, they disappoint – perhaps above all they disappoint! – but also they flourish and achieve, and perhaps bestow love as love was bestowed upon them. It would be as false to believe that children, spouses, friends, fellow citizens, polities, plans, dreams, memories and hopes always disappoint as it is to believe that they can be made never to disappoint. Because the world has some degree of predictability and rhythm, our expectations can be “imperfectly true.” Joshua would have us build a wall not around our children’s soul – there are no children in this book, as there is no love – but around our own souls, separate and protected from the disillusionments that modernity seems to breed en masse, enjoying a sort of aesthetic individual freedom that relishes its independence but is in fact parasitic upon the necessary disappointments generated by an optimistic worldview that it otherwise appears to reject.

Linear time haunts modernity, and I think Joshua is right to note its world-altering importance. Linear time is a creation of modernity, a portent of progressive ideology, and a marking of temporality that comes to mock progress’s failure. The pessimist – having rejected optimism’s belief in progress – experiences linear time as a burden, a torment of meaningless successions that lead nowhere, that create expectations of a forward trajectory which can only disappoint. But, here again, we should notice that the pessimist is as thoroughly in the throes of superstition as the optimist – the pessimist accepts the conditions laid down by the optimist and then declares his dissatisfaction with them. But he does not dispute the underlying premise of the conditions. We are stuck with all the burdens of linear time, and enjoy none of its illusory compensations.

In several passing comments Joshua rejects out of hand the possibility that a more ancient “circular” conception of time is available to us moderns (16, 161). The modern mind is inescapably defined by the experience of linear time, he asserts. According to one of Joshua’s aphorisms, we moderns experience time wholly as a creation of culture and artifice, a division of the days and hours that provides the “appearance of order and continuity” (244). Joshua is particularly charmed by arguments that it is the invention of mechanical timepieces that inaugurates the era of linear time, that induces a belief in progress, that thrusts us into existential abstraction and alienation from ourselves and from nature. Linear time is the creature of mechanization, of artifices that “divorces the measure of time from nature” (13). I want to dispute this point, however. Here again, I think it is the case that the ideology of modernity obscures reality, not the clock – and reality is that terrestrial time remains fundamentally circular. Joshua states that “the revolutions of the heavens were displaced by clock and by calendar.” This is mistaken: the clock and calendar mark the movements of the revolutions of the heavens; they are based most fundamentally upon those movements. Even in our digital age, most people wear watches or consult clocks whose shapes are round. Our methods of time-marking are an acknowledgment of the cycles and revolutions of the heavens, of the daily turning of the earth, the monthly cycles of the moon (one that exerts influence alike over the daily tides and the monthly cycles of a woman’s body), and the annual rotation of the planet around the sun. Yes, the manner of division involves some arbitrariness – why base 60? – but the standard governing the division remains the motions of nature. Our experience of time is one of beginnings and endings, and again new beginnings and new endings. Each day, each month, each year we return to where we have started and begin anew. A clock and a calendar do the same.

Linear time is not a result of clocks; it is the result of the ideology of progress that believes that it can master and dismiss the circularity of nature. To paraphrase Machiavelli, nature is a woman’s cycles, and must be straightened into submission. In turn, the exertion to master nature appears, if for a time, to render those cycles irrelevant: thus, we can plant certain crops in any season thanks to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, build roads without regard to terrain or topography, and wear shorts indoors in the winter and sweaters in the summer. The pessimistic instinct – to recognize the falsity of these presumptions and the ultimate and ironic failure of these efforts – is the right instinct, but it goes too far in asserting that, because the presumptions of progress are wrong, the opposite must be true – and, as a result, you should expect nothing. Indeed, because of its rejection of circular time and its acceptance of linearity, pessimism most fundamentally shares with its optimistic counterpart the same ultimate desire to conquer nature: it denies a rhythm in the natural world and seeks to live aesthetically – to turn nature into art, or, as Joshua puts it, to “emphasize how [nature] is a function of man” (268).

The reality of circular time, however, tells us we are bestowed with the privilege to expect something – the sunrise, the return of rain and sun for our crops, the birth of a child even as we mourn the passing of a parent, the seasons, the years, the centuries. We can expect the cup of coffee, because the coffee farmer plants his seeds in their season with the expectation of a successful crop. This does not mean that he will not experience disappointments – droughts and plagues, hail and pests – but memory and hope tell us that we can expect the return of our crops – that their reappearance is “imperfectly true.” Memory and hope, Christopher Lasch argued – and not pessimism – are the proper antidotes to optimism.

Memory and hope are also the proper resources and dispositions for politics. Politics should draw from the stores of memory of what has been possible and what has constituted hubris, and, so informed, becomes entitled to hope for appropriate and chastened aims. Pessimism, as described by Joshua, invites us to think of the “democracy of moments,” fleeting combinations amid a more constant activity of individual self-fashioning. It denies the possibility of political communities as stores of memory and hope and rejects the idea of a democracy of the living, the dead and the unborn. But it is this latter kind of democracy that develops discernment and judgment drawn from the source of memory and prodded by modest hopes: it is informed by the kind of prudence that can distinguish between the appropriateness of hopes for world revolution and those for a cup of coffee. Throughout his book Joshua equates hope and optimism as only a pessimist can, mistaking the chastened aspirations of the one for the hubris of the other (132). Hope, combined with memory, can go some way in distinguishing between those things that are “imperfectly true” from those that are “always false,” and perhaps most importantly, is able to retain the distinction between the two as defensible. And in maintaining that distinction, we can reject the superstitions of the optimist and the pessimist alike in order that we might find our proper place among imperfectly true human beings, creatures subject to, and grateful for, the motions of the heavens beneath whose rhythms we might together remember, and hope.

1 comment:

Turnip said...

I agree with Deinstag that linear time, reason, and modern progress have removed us from the bliss of our ignorance. However, it is through this reason that we can learn what is worth hoping for (such as the cup of coffee), and what is not (world revolution, eternal life) - and that is where I wholeheartedly agree with you. Excellent response!