Why Good Societies Are Pessimistic


It might be normal to imagine that a good
society would be one in which a majority of people held optimistic views about themselves,
their fellow citizens and their prospects for their collective futures. But, in fact,
quite the opposite appears to be true: deep pessimism seems a key ingredient for the maintenance
of any good society. At the core of pessimism is the idea that everyone, however outwardly
normal, is severely flawed: short-term, blinkered, vengeful, sentimental and prone to reckless
anger, fear, delusion and passion. We’re mad monkeys, with a few extra neurones. From
a brutal acceptance of this dark starting-point, there can flow a range of measures that together
will make for exceptionally wise, calm and reasonable societies. Let’s consider a few:
In an ideally pessimistic society, rather boring and extremely steady politicians are
the norm. No one believes the wilder utopian promises of firebrand leaders. The electorate
is simply far too pessimistic to trust in easy, rapid solutions to any of the nation’s
substantial problems. Dramatic promises at the stump are immediately discounted with
a wry, dismissive shrug. Because pessimists know just how flawed any one individual can
be, the ideal pessimistic society invests heavily in strong, slow-moving, independent
institutions that prevent too much power from ever falling into the hands of a single person.
Furthermore, these institutions are insulated from the fluctuations of public opinion – which,
pessimistically, are seen as being hugely prone to hysteria and overreaction. In the
ideal pessimistic society, there won’t be much appetite for singling out any particular
group or class of people for blame. Our troubles, the electorate sadly admit, are caused mainly
by big impersonal, historical forces – rather than by a few people who are easy to target
and cathartically hate. Because they assume that it’s natural to have rather dangerous
appetites and desires, the citizens of a pessimistic society willingly put quite a lot of restraints
on themselves, defining freedom not as the ability to do whatever they want at any point,
but as the liberty to act in accordance with their wisest, most reasonable selves (which
only appear every now and then). They therefore don’t see it as any particular loss of freedom
to be gently nudged away from blowing their savings, overeating, doing no exercise, ruining
their relationships or developing addictions. They accept a paternalistic society as the
natural price for limiting their own self-destructive tendencies. Pessimistic societies don’t
have much time for celebrity culture, for they are dubious about whether anyone much
deserves to be idolised: they know that from close up, we’re all a bit of a mess. And
they’re not shocked by revelations of chaotic private lives, since this is assumed to be
the norm. Spare energy is directed more towards forgiveness rather than adulation followed
by denigration. In pessimistic societies, the education system is elaborate, broad,
ambitious and very well resourced; citizens assume that the raw human mind needs a huge
amount of structured, targeted help in order to cope with life’s challenges. The curriculum
isn’t merely focused on technical skills though; there is a lot of help around emotional
issues too – which, it’s acknowledged, are at the root of so many of our tragedies.
Because they acknowledge that we’re all fragile, easily irked creatures, pessimistic
societies place great emphasis on creating quietly uplifting and beautiful communal environments.
Cities are marked by elegance, simplicity, rationality and harmony. A stridently ugly
tower block, a depressingly chaotic airport, a squalid railway station – they darkly
admit – could be enough to drive someone to despair. The rich have always recognized
this for themselves; a pessimistic society merely differs in regarding this as a universal
truth. In optimistic societies, there are constant claims that everyone can be exceptional
and, one day, awe-inspiringly successful. The charms and rewards of life are therefore
fundamentally geared towards those who make it to the top. The best restaurants are superb,
the private hospitals are outstanding, the most expensive schools magnificent, the richest
residential areas delightful, the taxes for the rich very low. But, naively, such societies
forget that, by statistical inevitability, most people are actually not going to be successful
at all. So in the pessimistic society, mediocrity and relative failure are assumed to be the
norm and the goal of government is understood to be that of rendering an average life (that
is, the life most people will actually lead) as attractive as possible. Public housing,
state schools, public hospitals and transportation are all superb, because it’s assumed (with
extreme realism) that we’re almost all going to be relying on them. By following such pessimistic
dictates, the profound consequence will be a society where – paradoxically – there
will be rather a lot to be cheerful about – though, of course, the wary, gloomy and
wise citizenry would never quite dare to put it like that. At The School of Life we believe in developing emotional intelligence. To that end we’ve also created a whole range of products to support that growth. Find out more at the link on the screen now.

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