Why having to choose between pessimism and optimism?


How easy it is be stuck in some kind of apathetic pessimism these days. Falling into the trap of a bleak appreciation of things has become the new norm, as enough bad news are flooding our social feeds to make us want to hibernate in spring. Of course, dramatic things are taking place both at the local and global levels. From the rise of nationalism across Europe to the situation in Syria and the first moves of Trump’s presidency – you name it. All of this is sending shivers down our spines, and for the right reasons. But Philosophie Magazine was asking in March whether it is possible to be well in a world that isn’t (“Peut-on aller bien dans un monde qui va mal”) – I want to ask, when has the world ever been OK?

Not only does this kind of positioning seem to obscure the ongoing atrocities that have accompanied humanity across the ages, but it also reveals something of the nature of our reflection on things and of the illusion that lies at the core of it: that the world is something that can be ordered, unified, and that any event that does not go towards this unity is bad, ill-conceived, a cause of desperation and apathy. As French philosopher Michel Foucault said, “my point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is danger­ous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apa­thy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.”

What Foucault expresses here is in line with his appreciation of how power works. Rather than thinking that the world is on a course of unity, he recognises the fragmented and diverse nature of power. Things and events are enmeshed in these power relations in ways that are complex, and most of the time unpredictable. He thus encourages us to see things not as bad in themselves, but dangerous. As everything is fluid and unstable, the burning ashes of today might hold the promises of tomorrow, just like the good things can easily get co-opted by the forces of mediocrity and become dangerous for society.

Recognising this diversity of events and their constantly changing nature is good because it gives us real occasions to act, rather than hiding behind the idea that the whole world is rotten and “changing the world” is a delusional enterprise. It forces us to be vigilant. Vigilance is the only viable position towards reality. Too much optimism and you fall into the trap of naive complacency. Too much pessimism and you fall into the trap of apathy or helplessness. Far from advocating a reformist position, this vision rather encourages a radical position on certain areas while embracing others. It pushes us to make the effort to discern the changing nature of some patterns of doing and thinking among societies, to decide that they pose a real threat and to act firmly on it.

Ultimately, this position of vigilance also forces us to recognise that even if achieving progress is possible, any positive change will always be local, imperfect, fragile by nature and easily fading away. Just as bad things come and go as relations of power collude or dissolve, good things come and go too. Here, Albert Camus’ work and his “Pensée de Midi” resonate. He exposes in his various essays his balanced yet dynamic look on reality, between revolt and acquiescence, always re-adjusting his vision at every step of the way and refusing to fix his judgement. Yes, Camus was right, our success in navigating the muddy waters of our era will rest on our wiseness in discerning its changing currents – in our ability to remain alert yet open to the good that flourishes from it.

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  • Albert Camus: L’homme révolté. Gallimard. (1985)
  • Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Massachusetts Press. (1983)

Photo credit to Jurgen Appelo. No changes were made.


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