Optimism may be understood either as a general feeling and attitude of mind or as a philosophical system. The former is a habitual tendency to see the world, and all that happens in it, from the bright side and to look hopefully to the future. The latter teaches that the present world is essentially good and in practice assumes two forms, one absolute, the other relative. Absolute optimism holds that this is the best possible world, that it is either absolutely perfect or as perfect as it can be. Relative optimism admits that the world could be better, but maintains that the good it contains is of such value that its existence is preferable to its non-existence.
The term optimism is often taken in a broader sense, as in evolutional optimism or sociological optimism, or as in its cognate, meliorism. Evolutional optimism affirms that there is a slow but constant progress in the evolution of the universe (J. G. fichte, P. teilhard dechardin); sociological optimism expects a solution to the social question sometime in the future; and meliorism asserts that life possesses a real value, which man can increase by his personal efforts.
Forms of Optimism. All great religions are optimistic. They assure man that the evil that makes him suffer in the present life has no absolute power over him. Even buddhism presents its faithful with a method by which they can escape the sorrows of life and the deceptive illusions of existence. Zoroastrianism similarly assures man that the malignant divinity responsible for evil in the world will be finally defeated by the supreme Good Principle (see zoroaster). manichaeism, a synthesis of Zoroastrian, Gnostic, and Christian notions, maintains that man's final salvation can be easily accomplished by belief in Mani as the prophesied Paraclete and by leading an ascetic life. The Gnostics promise their faithful a happy immortality, provided that they adopt the teaching of psychic intermediaries (aeons) between God and man, and cultivate their spiritual and intuitive powers.
Greek philosophy is decidedly optimistic. For plato, the world is a product of God's providence, and therefore it is the most beautiful and the best (Tim. 30A). According to Aristotle, nature as well as God does nothing in vain; it foresees the future and implants in all things something divine (cf. Cael. 271a 33; Eth. Nic. 1153b 32). The fundamental principle of Stoic philosophy is that man can be happy regardless of his position in the world, for happiness is within and is obtained by mastering one's appetites and passions. According to plotinus, the objects of intellectual knowledge are the Ideas in the Nous, and its climax is a mystical union with the One, itself the ultimate good.
Such thought exercised a notable influence on philosophers in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance; in fact, the absolute optimism of nicholas of cusa and Giordano bruno is clearly dependent upon Plotinus, as is the later optimism of B. spinoza. Pantheistic optimism, such as Spinoza's, starts from a gratuitously asserted identity of God with the world and terminates in a negation of evil in the world that is itself untenable.
More interesting and authentic is the optimism of G.W. leibniz. [In fact, the term optimism, used for the first time by the Jesuits (1737), designated Leibniz's theory that the world created by God is the best possible (Lat. optimus, best). The term was popularized by Voltaire in his novel Candide ou l'Optimisme (1759).] Attacking the Manichaean dualism of P. bayle, Leibniz strove to demonstrate his thesis. He argued that if the slightest evil that exists in the world were missing, it would no longer be this world, because, taking all things into consideration, this was judged best by the Creator who chose it. As there is an infinity of possible worlds in the divine ideas, and since only one can exist, there must be a sufficient reason for God's choice. This reason can only be found in the degrees of perfection these worlds contain, since each possibility can claim existence only in the measure of the perfection it possesses (cf. Monadologie, ch. 53–54).
Absolute optimism was taught also by N. male-branche, who had some influence on Leibniz. "God, discovering in the infinite treasures of His Wisdom an infinity of possible worlds," he writes, "decided to create the one which could come to be and maintain itself in existence by the simplest laws." Such a world bears "to the highest degree the marks, the stamp, of His attributes," and glorifies Him best (Traité de la nature et de la grâce, 1.13).
Evaluation. Some maintain that optimism entails the negation of God's omnipotence, and consequently of God Himself, because if the present world is the best of all possible worlds, God cannot produce anything better. This argument is of doubtful value. Just as no one can make a square circle, so no one (not even God) can create something better than the best.
Again, the notion of the best possible world is fictitious. It applies to a world whose perfection cannot be surpassed by any other world; consequently, a world that constitutes the last term in the series of possible worlds. Yet the series of possible worlds is infinite, and the last term in such a series is as unintelligible as, for example, a square circle. Moreover, no matter how perfect one imagines a world to be, its perfection will always be finite. Consequently an infinite chasm will always exist between it and absolute perfection. And so it will always be possible to interpolate other worlds that are more and more perfect.
Absolute Optimism. According to optimists such as Leibniz and Malebranche, the best world means a world that manifests the divine perfections to a degree that no other world could equal. How does one know that it is precisely this present world that manifests God's perfections in this way? Certainly not by experience. Here the optimists appeal to a priori considerations. Malebranche says that God "acts exactly according to what He is, and according to all He is" (Entretiens 9, ch. 11). Now in doing so, how could He fail to give all possible perfection to the world? Malebranche here confounds the divine action in its source with the divine action in its term. The former, being identical with God's essence, is the most perfect. But the latter essentially depends upon the free will of God, and for this very reason can be limited in different ways.
According to Leibniz, God's will always chooses the greatest good. Any theory that would claim the contrary, "would clash with the supreme principle of sufficient reason" (Théodicée 2, ch. 175). If one admits this reasoning, one must say that God's action is subject to necessity, that the present world emerged from competition with all possible worlds. Such absolute optimism, under pretension of exalting God, degrades Him. It is incompatible with true Christian belief.
Relative Optimism. For the Christian, the present world cannot be essentially evil. But the Catholic can go further and maintain, with the Fathers of the Church, scholastic philosophers, and many other thinkers, a moderate or relative optimism. Two features are discernible in the present world: (1) the beings that actually exist in it and (2) the relations that unite these beings to each other and produce in this way the admirable order existing in nature. Hypothetically, the present world could contain more perfect things than it does because God could create more perfect things, e.g., new species of living beings. But this would be a different world, not the present world, and thus the hypothesis involves a hidden contradiction. To the objection that things could be better ordered, it suffices to note that the order of this world is not the effect of chance or of external necessity. It is founded on the laws of nature, and the laws of nature have their basis in the natures of things. It must therefore be concluded that the present world cannot be better ordered; and, to this extent, it gives reason for entertaining a moderate or relative optimism.
See Also: pessimism; universe, order of; good; evil.
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