Today's NY Times has this review, by Adam Cohen, of a new work about pessimism by U.C.L.A. political theorist Joshua Foa Dienstag:
... Pessimism is not, as is commonly thought, about being depressed or misanthropic, and it does not hold that humanity is headed for disaster. It simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.
The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists, Mr. Dienstag argues, is in how they view time. Optimists see the passing of time as a canvas on which to paint a better world. Pessimists see it as a burden. Time ticks off the physical decline of one’s body toward the inevitability of death, and it separates people from their loved ones. “All the tragedies which we can imagine,” said Simone Weil, the French philosopher who starved herself to death at age 34, “return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.”
Optimists see history as the story of civilization’s ascent. Pessimists believe, Mr. Dienstag notes, in the idea that any apparent progress has hidden costs, so that even when the world seems to be improving, “in fact it is getting worse (or, on the whole, no better).” Polio is cured, but AIDS arrives. Airplanes make travel easy, but they can drop bombs or be crashed into office towers. There is no point in seeking happiness. When joy “actually makes its appearance, it as a rule comes uninvited and unannounced,” insisted Schopenhauer, the dour German who was pessimism’s leading figure.
Pessimists fail to look around enough, if you ask me. If you want to know what evidence supports being an optimist, all you have to do is perform Greg Easterbrook's thought experiment by asking yourself: Would you trade places with your ancestor who lived 100 years ago? What about 1,000 years ago? Or 10,000 years ago?