According to a quote often mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill, an optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty, while a pessimist sees a difficulty in every opportunity.
This statement crystallizes the fact that it is very common to oppose optimism and pessimism. According to this vision, these two mindsets would be at the exact opposite of each other.
On the one hand, there would be people with unshakable confidence in humanity, the world, and the future, positive that everything will work out for the best in the end. On the other hand, there would be people who are deeply skeptical, convinced that the worst is yet to come, whether in the form of betrayal, catastrophe, or even the end of time.
This opposition is supported by the fact that when an optimist meets a pessimist, their respective speeches usually collide in a brutal way.
The optimist usually sees the pessimist as a hopeless and depressing person. As a result, he tries to prove to his counterpart that there are reasons for hope and for looking forward to the future.
Conversely, the pessimist sees the optimist as a naive person, even a little foolish, who did not yet realize the dramatic state of the world around him. It is also interesting to note that the pessimist often refers to himself as realist, because, unlike the optimist who is blinded by his candor, only he is capable of objectively perceiving reality. This is why the pessimist usually tries to open the eyes of the optimist to this supposedly objective reality.
A superficial antagonism
This antagonism seems so obvious that it has become part of popular wisdom and is rarely questioned. However, on closer inspection, these two existential postures that seem to contradict each other are in fact two extreme variants of the same fundamental posture: fatalism.
Indeed, the optimist invites us to look at the future with absolute confidence and to consider that everything will be fine, whatever our deeds. Of course, our actions can sometimes accelerate the movement, or even allow what will happen to be even more positive than we had hoped, but in the end, there is no doubt that a happy ending to any difficulty will come about.
In the same way, the pessimist urges us to abandon all hope and warns us that no matter what we do, tragedy and catastrophe will ensue. Here again, our actions can at best alleviate some of the pain, but the tragic outcome is not in doubt.
But then, if optimism and pessimism are really just two sides of the same coin, namely fatalism, what mindset is radically opposed to it? What deeper dichotomy should be proposed that is not ultimately a continuum whose extremes meet?
Fatalism vs. voluntarism
Since fatalism postulates that our will has fundamentally no control over reality, nor over our human existence, voluntarism is logically its exact opposite. Indeed, if the fatalist defers to fate, the voluntarist is convinced that his determination is the essential driving force of his existence.
Being a voluntarist essentially implies thinking that the best way to predict the future is to invent it, according to the famous quote attributed, rightly this time, to Alan Kay. The latter knows what he is talking about, since he worked for many years at Xerox PARC, a renowned computer research laboratory in Palo Alto, where he contributed to developing many innovations that are the cornerstone of computing today.
Reasonable man versus unreasonable man
More generally, we can also relate the opposition between voluntarism and fatalism to the antagonism expressed by George Bernard Shaw between the reasonable man, who adapts to the world, and the unreasonable man who persists in wanting to adapt the world to himself. From this antagonism, Shaw concludes that all progress comes ultimately from unreasonable men.
Of course, voluntarism has its own limits and not acknowledging them can lead to problematic, even catastrophic, excesses. Indeed, the refusal to accept any limit to our will, in particular the limits imposed by nature, is the source of many of today’s challenges, especially in the environmental field.
One can nevertheless try to reconcile Shaw’s voluntarism with these challenges, by noting that in his world vision, typical of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, man is ontologically dissociated from the rest of the world. However, this conception is radically challenged today. We humans are not separated from the world, especially from nature, which has provided the conditions for our existence until now.
If we consider ourselves to be an integral part of the world, adapting the world can also imply profoundly transforming ourselves, through our modes of production and consumption, and more broadly, our ways of life.
Yet it would be a mistake to consider this as a new form of fatalism: passively accepting a situation imposed by nature or deeply adapting our behavior to cope with it is a radically different approach. Indeed, the will to deeply transform our vision of the world and our way of life requires a determination that has nothing in common with fatalism. On the contrary, the ambition to achieve such a transformation requires not only a solid will, but also a certain degree of folly.
So ultimately, who can say whether this ambition is that of a reasonable man or that of an unreasonable man?