There are exactly two ways of viewing the world: we either understand that it is something good, or something evil. The perspective of any man derives from his understanding of what the world really is. This is why there is no such thing as a ‘realist’; reality, in the sense that those who call themselves ‘realists’ use the term, is the objective universe, something that we experience individually through our own subjective understanding. To put the matter more clearly, as Francis Parker Yockey says, ‘Pessimism only describes an attitude, and not facts, and hence is entirely subjective’. Pessimism and optimism are adopted attitudes by which we view the world, but realism is not a viable third option, since reality is the subject matter, and can never be the subject.
We are human, which means that we cannot possibly experience reality in a purely objective state; we are not machines, which are programmed to go about their business utterly unconcerned about whether ketchup tastes good, or why the sky is blue, or how full the glass of water seems to be. The calculator knows which numbers will appear on the screen, and cares not one whit; the car dealer has a rough idea of what those digits will be, yet wishes them to be higher. We are human, which means that we cannot help but be partial to reality, whether it be the girl we choose to marry or what we will have for lunch. Reality is conditioned or filtered by the nature of the subject, and is thereby experienced uniquely by the subject. Every one of us is a world unto himself, and there is not one world that is identical to any other. There is no such thing as a realist because we are all realists.
There is, however, a greater world that prevails beyond our own subjective spheres – it is this which we can more truly call ‘reality’, and it is this which we can deem either good or evil. From the position of the philosopher, pessimism is the mental mood or moodiness wherein we consider reality fundamentally flawed, randomly arranged and pointless, existentially void, entirely ordered by malignant forces, et cetera; it is the philosophy responsible for Schopenhauer’s fatal maxim, ‘human life must be some kind of mistake’; it
The idea that this place we inhabit is somehow insufficient or insufferable is an extraordinary insult to its Creator; pessimism betrays an ungracious pride that speaks either of a dreadful ignorance of what is good, or of an infantile petulance that wails continually for something better, something more. Pessimists typically like to think that they are simply the ones who are strong enough to be able to look at the facts right in the face, and maintain no illusions about the ‘cold, hard truth’. It is rather that they do not know anything about the truth, which is why they become pessimists. The truth is that behind every seemingly chaotic event there is a causal order; the truth is that behind every act of evil there is the potential for recovery and redemption, and a deep potential for saintliness that exceeds all manner of spiritual crime. As Job came to learn the hard way, as he knew more than anyone else, God did not create this earth for our suffering alone – He created this earth so that our suffering might mean something, and that it might also mirror the joy of the heavens on those special occasions when we have the strength to see it.
Now, the trickier part of this essay will be to distinguish between the blind, or false, brand of optimism, and the true, or visionary, optimism. The false form of optimism appears in the guise of the pantheist, the evolutionary thinkers, the progressives, all the men and women who believe without question in the popular creed that our civilization, our entire species is moving in an inexorably positive direction; science, technology, discovery, medicine, social tolerance are all profound pieces of evidence which these beaming prophets readily supply to secure this claim, saying all the while, ‘look how advanced, we can count the stars whereas before we could not count the dead of the Inquisition’, or, ‘look how healthy, we can live forever whereas we could formerly hardly make it to age fifty’. The most common substance that ties these claims together is clearly that of quantity over quality. Our world is more and more of this and that, but we will never hear the blind optimist admit how our world is less, not so much in degree, but in kind.
Allied as it is with secular humanism, this species of optimism is bound up with a fervent denial of God. The false optimist believes quite simply that the world is unconditionally and unreservedly good because he has made it the substitute for the divine. It is man that directs progress, and it is Nature that provides the material; the world is capable of being dissected and classified, organized into scientific laws that document and regulate reality because that is all that there is to reality. So, unlike the old pantheists and pagan merry-makers who had the excellent excuses of a youthful jubilance and an intrepid imagination that coloured their world with every type of dancing deity, contemporary optimists believe in a world relieved of its metaphorical visage, its mythical veil. The god of the blind optimist is a naked brute, for that is all that
The truth is that not everything is good. There are a great many things that are not good, but evil. The truth is that our civilization is not currently strapped to the rocks, equipped with an ice axe, ascending with the slow and steady movement of the skilled climber; far from the dreams of progressives, we are rather tumbling down the mountainside head over heels, oblivious to the means by which we might save ourselves, or at least slow our crazed descent. The physical universe is a wildly beautiful dimension; but it is not the only dimension, even if that is what we think our scientific instruments are telling us. It is furthermore a cruel and wicked dimension a lot of the time – if there truly is no God, then the ‘problem of evil’ is thrusted upon the shoulders of the false optimist, and we fear that he is not quite as well-prepared to bear it. In both cases, whether he believes in the absolute good of human evolution or more broadly in the self-sufficient good on the material world, the optimist is invariably unable to truly answer why he believes in these things. We might very well hear him bluster on about how far we have come since the ‘evils of Patriarchy’, or how the world is sufficiently beautiful without the adornment of fictional figures like Hermes and Morrigan; but ask him why women are qualified to operate in business or in the mines when they are not qualified to be the mothers to their own children; ask him how magical the universe becomes when you stop seeing Apollo in the dawn of every amour, and Daphne in every rejection. Ask these positive people why they are so resolutely positive in their flickering creeds and you will only hear the same tired clichés, the sentimental axioms that the explorer tells himself when he is lost but thinks he is nearly there; you will hear something like, ‘it is just around the corner, everlasting peace, we are on the right road, if only we could find the missing link, perhaps around this corner’. Optimism is also cowardice, for it is the refusal to admit that not everything is good, that we are not indeed near the top but are still sliding down the mountainside – the tragedy is that only the bottom will smash our illusions, as well as our back.
Between, or rather against both of these perspectives, there is what we have called the ‘visionary optimism’, or what G.K. Chesterton has called the ‘Christian optimism’. The world is essentially good, but that is because it is firstly the creation of a divine artist, which the false optimist dismisses altogether; once we deny the Creator we deny creation. The world is essentially good, but that is because it is accidentally evil. What we mean by this is that the universe exists as part of an overflowing abundance of love and creativity deriving from the eternal being of God, and this great good has entered the void, and, ex nihilo, a world appears. In order for this place to have any existence of its own, that is, an existence distinct from God Himself, it must be at least partially outside of God – and that is whence evil comes, from the nothingness outside of God. The universe is a battleground for the fullness of God’s being against the nihilism of the abyss. The world is at once good and evil: good inasmuch as anything that exists is an emanation of divine being, and evil inasmuch as anything that is not wholly good or real is an emanation of non-being. All life represents the struggle towards wholeness in the hopes of escaping the infernal forces which seek to separate and divine, to make unreal. The pessimist sees the world as evil manifest, tending emphatically towards the void, whereas the false optimists thinks of us as sufficiently good and real in ourselves, and that we are not in any need of salvation; the truth is that we are in need of salvation because we are responsible for the evil.
‘Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.’ ~G.K. Chesterton
The above aphorism illustrates the fundamental point of our optimism, which is simply to love and celebrate something that is ours, like we love our sons unconditionally, even if we might not like them, even if they grow up to be something utterly distasteful. We are the human stewards of a vicious, generous, turbulent, colourful, random, beautiful, deadly world; its nature is equally enthusiastic towards helping us with bountiful harvests as it is towards hindering us with hurricanes and blizzards. We are the stewards responsible for the senseless murder of our own kind, the avaricious rape of the environment for the sake of industry, the vast array of deviant crimes and perversions that result from our fallen nature; the world is good, but it is not unconditionally good, which is why we can never worship 'mother earth', but love her as we would a sister, or our native country, to borrow two more Chesterton similes.
‘My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.’ ~G.K. Chesterton
While Chesterton calls this attitude ‘cosmic patriotism’, it is clear that it is really the richest, most radical optimism. We love the world because it is our world, because it is the source of every morning’s joy as it is the source of every evening’s tragedy; we learn to walk and to talk, and we learn that we must die, and that our loved ones must die. We love God because He is good, but we do not love the world because
‘The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.’ ~J.R.R. Tolkien
Optimism is indeed the attitude which is rightly paralleled with the virtues of hope and heroism; it is not necessarily the perspective that looks merely at what will happen if everything goes right, but it is the perspective necessary for carrying on the fight with the same joyous heart that we enjoyed from the beginning of the fight, even if everything has gone wrong. Our optimism is alive so long as hope is alive, and the activity resulting from our hopeful optimism is called heroism. To act with the knowledge that all is lost is honourable; to act with the same knowledge but with a happy heart, armed with the superior wisdom that what we do is but a glimpse of heaven’s paradox, is heroic. Gandalf says that the hope to destroy the Ring and to save the civilized world was ‘just a fool’s hope’- but is there anything that is really foolish about hope? On the surface, of course there is; who could fail to laugh at anyone who seriously believed that Liverpool would go on to win the 2005 Champions League final at half-time, when they were losing 3-0 to a seemingly invincible
So, in opposition to both the defeated pessimist and the blind optimist, the visionary optimist is keenly aware of the fallen nature of our world, the infinite potential for evil that man has in store, and yet maintains his paradoxical faith in the overarching goodness in man and in reality as we know it; the visionary optimist proudly brandishes his foolish hope that good will always conquer evil, even when it does not. The essence of the matter is ultimately a matter of will, a matter of choice: we can choose to be sour old men and passively await the cataclysm with the smug consolation of being able to say ‘I told you so’ at the last; or we can be juvenile idealists who relentlessly hammer into the heads of all who would listen the notion that everything is quite fine without bothering to look above, to see the gathering of the storm; or we can choose to recognize the imminent danger, to recognize the fact that most of our comrades are deaf and dumb or otherwise useless, and yet lead them all into a silly song as one final moment of human defiance to the cruelty of the cosmos. Optimism really is the force responsible for making the best out of every situation; optimism really is the perennial pursuit of the best in the face of the worst.
Now the final thoughts from G.K. Chesterton, someone who is infinitely more qualified to argue for our subject.
‘…all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist's pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.’ ~G.K. Chesterton