Optimism and Pessimism are often conflated with Hope and Despair in everyday language but in the HBO series True Detective when Rustin Cohle says “Look, I consider myself a realist, all right, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist” he isn’t necessarily saying that he’s filled with despair – even if he does seem like it at most times – what he’s actually saying is that he’s a capital P pessimist. A philosopher in the tradition of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
Cohle is saying that he rejects the Optimist’s (such as Plato or Kant, or any scientist) claim that there’s a reason why the universe – and human existence – is the way that it is, that it is orderly and that we can uncover and even control that order through thoughtful inspection. And instead, he embraces the Pessimist’s idea that the universe is “a monster of energy, without beginning, without end.. eternally self-creating and destroying.. without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal.” (Nietzsche) In other words, the universe is chaos, there is no progress, there is no goal, and that even if it wasn’t chaos, humans couldn’t reason our way to understanding it much less controlling it.¹
These aren’t merely two different ways to see the world, according to these philosophers they are inherently at war. The Optimist believes that they can make their lives better through careful planning, adherence to science, or even through a belief in a reward in the afterlife. The Pessimist believes that this is not only wrong, because look how often the Optimist fails and how chaos always wins in the end, but it becomes dangerous when the optimist starts to believe that they can control the chaos.
In his essay “The Hopeful Pessimism of True Detective” Joshua Foa Dienstag uses the analogy of a weatherman. An optimistic weatherman might predict the weather based on what he wants the weather to be. A pessimistic weatherman might not even try to predict the weather at all. But where the optimist becomes dangerous is when a weatherman thinks that they can change the weather because of their knowledge of meteorology.
Sometimes we see this play out in football. I can’t think of a more “Optimistic” coach than Pep Guardiola. His “Juego de Posicion” is the ultimate expression of control and belief that through self-mastery and practice, one can and will master the forces of chaos in football. And for Guardiola and Manchester City this works to a large extent. Over the years that he has been at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has won the Premier League 3 times and is on the verge of winning his fourth. He has done this with hyper-control of football matches.
And yet despite their dominance, their hyper-control of matches, they lost to Real Madrid in an 8 minute period where utter chaos just reigned. I’m not suggesting that Real Madrid are some team of underdogs who eked out a special win through sheer luck. Rather, it’s just an example of how no matter how well you plan things out, sometimes a weird glancing header just goes in, and how football is a place where chaos can pop up occasionally.
I should be clear, I am neither celebrating pure pessimist nor optimist. I have been both and neither in my life. In the early days of this blog I used to joke that you can’t spell optimist without “tim” and I believed strongly that Arsene Wenger’s plan would bring glory back to Arsenal. And in a certain way it did. We never won the League again after the Invincibles but we came close a couple times and won the FA Cup three times before he was forced to step down. But also as his tenure wound down, I found myself more and more pessimistic in that I could see the team degrading and the cycle (the flat circle) getting ready to repeat itself.
My daily rituals are also an example of extreme optimism: I have a list of 30 things that I do every day, things like reading (from a book) or making my bed. And I largely stick to them all. And when I make bread I have precise formulas I use to measure the exact amount of each ingredient. My bread baking is often wildly optimistic: imagine thinking I can control another living organism just by measuring it and its food properly!
But the big problem with Optimism is that we have the illusion of control. That all of these things I’m doing is somehow controlling the chaos of the universe. And when chaos inevitably breaks through – which it will! – the pain of loss of control is intense. I can’t make bread perfectly every time and I admit, when I leave a loaf to proof for too long, my first reaction is frustration.
And so I constantly have to remind myself to embrace chaos, to accept failure and to be a little more like the Pessimists. Because I think a “good Pessimist” – if there can be such a thing – simply lowers their expectations. And once you do that (for yourself and others) I think you learn to accept mistakes as inevitable bits of chaos and ultimately learn to take life one day at a time. So, instead of getting frustrated when my bread fails or when my dog eats an entire stick of butter. Or getting disappointed at myself when I don’t make my bed. I try to just accept these inevitable failures.
Maybe that makes me a Hopeful Pessimist or maybe I’m a dour Optimist but whatever label I carry, I allow myself to laugh when Real Madrid’s chaos beat Manchester City’s control. Because in something low stakes like football (or bread making!), chaos is funny and inevitable. And it’s especially funny to me when that chaos happens to a team and coach who want to impose strict control on football.
Maybe Nietzsche was right in a way, the joy in the circle is the goal.
¹”The Hopeful Pessimism of True Detective” Joshua Foa Dienstag an essay in True Detective and Philosophy.