I’m an unusual philosopher in several respects. First, I have no beard, toga or tweed jacket. Second, I don't work at a college or university, where most of us are safely confined. But my focus today is on the fact that, even stranger, I’m an optimist.
Survey the history of philosophy and you won’t find many of us smiley faces in the mix. Thomas Hobbes was no barrel of laughs with a rosy view of things. Schopenhauer was perhaps King of the Pessimists. Kierkegaard was often referred to as "the gloomy Dane." Sartre is famous for his characteristic statement that “Hell is other people.” Ouch. And, you know: Check the news. The world is full of problems - overflowing with difficulties. So, how do I manage to be an optimist, swimming against so strong a tide? Why, for that matter, should anyone with a mind at all be an optimist?
First, I should qualify my confession. I'm often a short term pessimist but always a mid-to-long term optimist. Short term, any crazy thing can happen. Given time, though, things will work out. That's my view. And because the long and mid term encompasses the short term, I'm - all things considered, in the end, and ultimately - an optimist. So I choose the metaphysical smile.
Here's the thing. The same problems exist around the world that always have. But the evil practices and stupid things going on now more widely condemned than ever before. And yet, they still exist. Enlightenment is a rough and curving road, with many back turns and hills, and detours along the way. And of course, as one especially insightful individual once said, “There will always be wars and rumors of war.”
Human aggression seems to be so deeply embedded in our nature that no reasonable person could ever expect it to disappear. Renowned physicist and Expert on Many Things Stephen Hawking recently said that aggression is the greatest threat to our continued existence that there is. As an optimist, do I then think it will just go away? No. But I believe it can be redirected.
Right now, as in all the rest of our history, human aggression is directed primarily toward people. And I don’t think we need to end it. But we need to redirect it toward problems rather than people. If we could get especially the young men around the world and their supporters to go after the problems we all face with the energy and aggression by which they fight and go to war, the world would be a better place pretty quickly.
We don’t need a world with no aggression. We need a world of aggressive problem solvers. And that’s a good thing. In a wise and prescient novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, the late Walker Percy envisioned a place where drugs were put into the water supply to reduce aggression and hostility. The unexpected side effect was that many other things were reduced as well, including creativity. It’s nice to dream of a world where no aggression at all exists. But a more reasonably expected one is where it’s redirected. Will it ever happen? Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, I remain an optimist. The world is full of problems like this, but I'm convinced we're here to be problem solvers.