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optimism and pessimism


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The term ‘optimism’ is first used in English in 1759, in reference to the work of Leibniz. The term ‘pessimism’ is recorded as first used by Coleridge in 1795. The best-known and certainly the starkest expression of pessimism is from the Greek dramatist Sophocles: ‘Not to be born is best, but having seen the light, the next best is to go whence one came as soon as may be’ (Oedipus at Colonus). Optimistic philosophies include Platonism, with the ruling place assigned to the form of the good, Aristotelianism, with its sense of the harmony of nature and the attainability of ends, Epicureanism, which denies the evil of death, and Stoicism, which denies the evil of pain as well. Christianity can come in either flavour: philosophers have mostly been concerned with the optimistic project of reconciling divine excellence with apparent evil. The most famous result of this exercise (theodicy) was the panglossian vision of Leibniz, satirized by Voltaire in Candide. However, Christianity also offers a pessimistic version, with the stress falling on sin, the Fall, the likelihood of predetermined damnation, and the propriety of anguish and guilt. The Eastern religion that is most closely identified with pessimism is Buddhism, where the eightfold path is a training in the renunciation of desire and complete withdrawal from the world. This attitude is again expressed by Schopenhauer, and becomes common in the 20th century. Other elements in a philosophy may be affected by the optimistic or pessimistic temperament, such as susceptibility to scepticism (pessimistic) or realism (optimistic). See also apathy, tender- and tough-minded.

Subjects: Philosophy.


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