Optimism (Latin optimus, best) may be understood as a metaphysical theory, or as an emotional disposition. The term became current in the early part of the eighteenth century to designate the Leibnizian doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds. The antithesis of optimism is pessimism (q. v). Between these extremes there are all shades of opinion, so that it is at times hard to classify philosophers. Those, however, are to be classed as optimists who maintain that the world is on the whole good and beautiful, and that man can attain to a state of true happiness and perfection either in this world or in the next, and those who do not are pessimists. The term optimism as thus extended would also include “meliorism”, a word first used in print by Sully to designate the theory of those who hold that things are, indeed, bad, but that they can be better, and that it is in our power to increase the happiness and welfare of mankind.
As an emotional disposition optimism is the tendency to look upon the bright and hopeful side of life, whereas pessimism gives a dark coloring to every event and closes the vistas of hope. The emotional disposition is one that depends upon internal organic conditions rather than external good fortune. To what extent the emotional disposition has influenced the opinion of philosophers cannot be decided off-hand. It has no doubt been a factor, but not always the only or even the decisive factor. A list of optimists will show that in general the greater minds have taken the hopeful view of life. As optimists are to be reckoned: Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, St. Augustine, St. Thomas and the Scholastics, Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, Hegel (sought to unite optimism and pessimism), Lotze, Wundt.
It has been held by some that the Old Testament is optimistic, and the New Testament pessimistic. The evidence brought forward for this theory is found mainly in the passages of the Old Testament which point to the rewards of the present life, and those in the New which call attention to the transitoriness of all human joys. This view is too narrow, and is not correct. Optimism as a philosophical term means that the universe as a whole is good and that man’s ultimate destiny is one of happiness. The Old Testament is optimistic because of such passages as the following: “And God saw all things that he had made, and they were very good” (Gen., i, 31). Even in Eccl. we read, “He hath made all things good in their time” (iii, 11). The New Testament is optimistic because it shows that the sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to come. If optimism and pessimism are to be taken as emotional dispositions, either one or the other may exist in the ascetic or the profligate. It cannot be argued that the doctrine of Our Lord was pessimistic because He taught asceticism and celibacy. For as a rule ascetics and celibates have been and are, as a matter of fact, disposed to look upon the bright side of life. They surely believe that it is better to live than not to live, that the world which God has made is good and beautiful, and that man’s destiny is eternal bliss.
As typical metaphysical exponents of optimism one may mention the extreme position of Leibniz, and the more moderate doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas. Leibniz looked upon the series of possible worlds as actually infinite. This entire series must have passed as it were, through the mind of the All-Good and Omniscient God. In spite of the fact that the series is infinite, He must have seen that one of its members was supremely perfect. Each one of these series strives to be realized in proportion to its perfection. Under such circumstances, it is impossible that a less perfect world should come into being. Since, furthermore, the wisdom and goodness of God are infinite, it is necessary that the world that proceeds from His intellect and will should be the best possible one that under any circumstances can exist. Only one such world is possible, and therefore God chooses the best. The very fact of the world’s existence makes it metaphysically certain that it is the very best possible. [See Leibniz, IX, 137, subsection (4) Optimism.] This argument might seem convincing, if one overlooks the fact of the evil in the world. The world as it is, Leibniz maintained, with all its evil, is better than a world without any evil. For the physical evil of the universe only serves to set off by contrast the beauty and glory of the good. As to moral evil, it is a negation and therefore cannot be looked upon as a real object of the Divine Will. Its presence, therefore, does not conflict with the holiness of the Divine decrees by which the world was ordained. Furthermore, since a morally evil being is only a less perfect creature, the absolutely perfect series of beings in order to contain all possible perfection, must, by necessity, contain the less as well as the more perfect. For if the series contained no beings lacking in moral perfection, it would be a shortened series, and therefore lacking in the types of less perfect beings.
Against the extreme optimism of Leibniz, one might say that God is not necessitated to choose the best of all possible worlds, because this is in itself an impossibility. Whatever exists besides God, is finite. Between the finite and the infinite there is always a field of indefinite extent. And since the finite cannot become infinite, simply because the created can never be untreated, it therefore follows that whatever exists, besides God, is, and always will be, limited. If so, no matter what may exist, something better could be conceived and brought into being by God. An absolutely best possible world would, therefore, seem to be a contradiction in terms and impossible even by the Omnipotence of God, who can bring into being all and only that which is intrinsically possible. If, then, one should take the words “doing the best possible” as meaning creating something than which nothing better is possible, no world could be the best possible. But there is another sense in which the words may be taken. Though one is not making the best thing that can be made, he still may be doing what he does in the best possible manner. In this sense, according to St. Thomas, God has made this world relatively the best possible. “When it is said that God can do anything better than He does it, this is true if the words `any-thing better’ stand for a noun. No matter what you may point out, God can make something that is better… If, however, the words are used adverbially, and designate the mode of operation, God cannot do better than He does, for He cannot work with greater wisdom and goodness” (I, Q. xxv, a. 5, ad lum). It is just this distinction which Leibniz failed to make, and was thereby led to his extreme position. According to St. Thomas, God was free to make a less or more perfect world. He made the world that would best fit the purposes of creation, and wrought it in the best possible manner.
Against this optimism may be urged the same objections from the presence of physical and moral evil which troubled Leibniz. But there are several considerations that reduce their force. (I) We see only in part. We cannot criticize the Divine plan intelligently until we see its full development, which indeed will only be in eternity. (2) The physical evils and sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to come. Should one object that it would be better to have glory both in this world and the next, one might answer that this is not certainly true. Only by the endurance of suffering and sorrow do we attain to the true strength and glory of our manhood. That which we acquire by the sweat of our brow is earned and truly our own. That which comes to us by inheritance is but loaned and possessed by us for a time, till we can hand it on to another. What is true of the individual is true of the human race as a whole. It seems to be the Divine plan that it should work its way on, from little beginnings, with great toil and suffering, to its final goal of perfection. When all things are fulfilled in eternity man can then look back upon something as his own. Perhaps this will then seem to us much more beautiful and glorious than if God had allowed us to remain forever in a garden of paradise, happy indeed, but lifting nothing with the strength He gave us. (See also in this connection the article Evil.)
THOMAS V. MOORE