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Monday, August 22, 2016

Optimistic and Pessimistic Societies

Physicist David Deutsch has a chapter called “Optimism” in his wide-ranging book “The Beginning of Infinity”.  Deutsch writes about the idea of optimistic and pessimistic societies, as exemplified by ancient Athens and Sparta, in the fifth century BCE.  It seems to me that the duality of optimism or pessimism explains much about human thinking and behavior, both as individuals and societies.  The idea is particularly striking when applied to American political parties in 2016.

To state the obvious, when faced with uncertainty, an optimist expects good things to happen and a pessimist expects bad things to happen.  Our attitudes and actions are built from those expectations.  An optimist plans for success; a pessimist takes precautions for failure.  An optimist expects normal traffic on the way to the airport, expects to check in easily and clear security without problems.  A pessimist expects difficulty at some point, and allows extra time. 

It should be clearly understood that neither optimists nor pessimists are necessarily correct.  Most of the time, the optimist meets the expected normal conditions, but some of the time misses a flight.  The pessimist spends much more time sitting at the gate waiting for departure, but rarely misses a flight.  Each of them simply experiences different costs and benefits.

David Deutsch generalizes optimism and pessimism to societies.  

Optimistic Societies
Optimistic societies expect the best from the unknown.  Optimistic societies welcome change, because they expect change to be good.  Optimistic societies value the diversity of ideas and seek innovation in science, industry, art, and culture.  Optimistic societies value non-conformity in youth and in education.  Optimistic societies are open to immigration and integration with other cultures.  Optimistic societies value individual freedom, and are permissive with regard to social behavior.

Ancient Athens is Deutsch’s example of an optimistic society.  Fifth-century Athens was a free-wheeling place, the site of the world’s first formal democratic government.  Pericles, in 431 BCE, speaks of a people who live at ease, who are lovers of the beautiful in all things, whose strength is in knowledge rather than laborious military training.   He describes a society of non-exclusiveness, where people freely do as they please in their private lives without fear of criticism from neighbors. 
Pericles noted his city’s openness to foreigners as a strength (although he also noted the increased risk due to information which could be transmitted to enemies).  The ancient Athenian society produced an unparalleled flowering of civilization from a few people in a small place and a brief time.   Athens produced the greatest advances in science, ethics, mathematics, art, literature, government and philosophy in the ancient world.  Ancient Athenians even explored the theory of knowledge itself – something not tackled seriously by Western philosophers until the 20th century.

Pessimistic Societies
Pessimistic societies avoid change, because they expect bad things and fear the unknown.  Pessimistic societies value conformity and obedience to authority.  Pessimistic societies especially emphasize conformity and obedience in children, and traditional values in education.  Pessimistic societies fear foreign aggression and foreign influence, so they are militaristic and intolerant of foreigners.  Pessimistic societies are authoritarian, and emphasize the importance of police in maintaining law and order.  The military, the police, religion and other symbols of authority are glorified.  Past wars and the dead from those wars are memorialized and revered, to reinforce the moral obligation for obedience to authority.  Oppositional opinions and news sources are repressed. Pessimistic societies share many characteristics of fascist societies.  

Ancient Sparta, as a pessimistic society, provides the counterpoint to Athens.  Noticeably, there are no Spartan historians, no Spartan playwrights, no Spartan philosophers.  Almost everything we know about the Spartans comes from their rivals, the Athenians.  But 2400 years later, half-way around the world and in another language, “Spartan” is still a synonym for discipline and deprivation.  Spartan society was completely militarized.  Sparta was based on a slave economy, with slave provided by military conquest.  Its educational practices were harsh, disciplinarian and directed toward military service.   Sparta was intolerant of differences; it valued conformity and absolute obedience to authority.  Sparta did not seek improvement, except in military matters.  Sparta did not seek improvement; it abhorred change.

Optimism and Pessimism in American Politics
It seems to me that our current political divide and culture wars relate to an optimistic or pessimistic outlook.  Progressives embrace diversity and change, while conservatives seek to revert to the status quo of the late 1950s.  Attitudes towards immigration, cultural and sexual diversity, religious tolerance, militarization and authority – all seem to relate to the division between optimism and pessimism described by David Deutsch.  In most measures, Democrats are the party of optimism, and Republicans are the party of pessimism.  This is why Barack Obama successfully energized Democratic voters with his message of hope and change.  And Obama himself is the embodiment of diversity within American politics.

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech for the nomination of the Republican party paints a dark (and inaccurate) picture of America.  It is a thoroughly pessimistic speech, written to appeal to a thoroughly pessimistic partisan following.  Donald Trump’s supporters have one of the most distinctive demographic form of any in recent election history.  Trump’s supporters are America’s aging white majority, who look back to the 1950s and 1960s as their template for what the country should be.  This demographic group is still strong, but it is fading in significance with every passing year.

Caveats and Conclusions
To be fair, neither individuals nor societies are strictly optimistic or pessimistic.  I know a man who is a classic pessimist in most things.  He arrives at the airport two hours before flight time; he is very conservative about investments and spending.  However, he climbs mountains – technical climbs of thousands of feet, alone, in winter!  Clearly, this is the behavior of an optimist!  

Likewise, the apparently optimistic culture of Athens had pessimistic traits.  The democracy of Athens convicted Socrates of heresy and corruption of youth, and sentenced him to death for his crimes, in 399 BCE.  This is not what we expect of the tolerant society described by Pericles.   Sparta, also, was not completely pessimistic.  Spartan culture granted more rights to women than Athens, including the right to own property and the right to divorce.  These are values we associate with progressive, optimistic societies.  So there are no pure endpoints in the optimistic/pessimistic spectrum.

Further, to reiterate a point I made at the beginning of this post, neither optimists nor pessimists are necessarily correct.   Sparta conquered Athens in 404 BCE, ending the Athenian enlightenment.  Deutsch describes several examples of optimistic cultures through history, all of which advanced civilization but subsequently failed.  [Deutsch writes, "If earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars, and you and I would be immortal."]  Our current period of enlightenment has lasted than any other, but optimism does not have a good track record for sustained dominance.

I do believe that human progress is necessarily tied to optimism.  Cultural and scientific advances occur slowly, if at all, in a conservative, authoritarian, static society.  Human progress requires openness to foreign influences, globalization of the economy, acceptance and tolerance of cultural differences.  So count me as a citizen of Athens and an optimist!

David Deutsch, 2011, The Beginning of Infinity, 487p.; chapters “Optimism”, pp. 196 – 222, and “A Dream of Socrates, pp. 223 – 257.

Plato, Apology, 399 B.C.E., a retelling of Socrates unsuccessful oral defense at his trial for impiety and corruption, in Five Dialogs, trans. by G. Grube and J. Cooper, pp. 21 – 44.

Pericles, 431 B.C.E., Funeral Oration,

Xiao-Yu, 2016, in a free-write piece on Ari’s Blog.  I particularly liked Xiao-Yu’s choice of illustrations contrasting the cultures of Athens and Sparta.

Thomas Cahill, 2003, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea; Why the Greeks Matter, 304 pp.

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