The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Thursday 1 June 2023

Pessi-optimism (or Opti-pessimism)

Voltaire. Painting by 
Nicolas de Largillière,
When I was young, one of the favourite topics of debate amongst students in the University café or around the dining table with flat-mates asked the question: “Are you and optimist or a pessimist?” Those young, naïve, student debates could easily last well into the night.

I don’t know whether young people debate this question these days or not. However, the dualism behind the question seems to pervade our cultural beliefs and attitudes.

Optimism is the attitude and/or belief that future events will turn out to be beneficial or favourable. Pessimism, on the other hand, is the attitude and/or belief that future events will have undesirable outcomes.

In our world today, having an attitude of eternal optimism is becoming increasingly harder to maintain. The mutually reinforcing predicaments of environmental, social, emotional, intellectual, and cultural forms are all easily seen by those capable of seeing and reading.

Leibniz and Voltaire

The question of optimism versus pessimism has been with us (in the western tradition) for at least 300 years, and may even have earlier precedents.

In 1710 the German polymath, Gottfried Leibniz wrote that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ succinctly depicting his philosophical optimism.

Forty-nine years later (in 1759) Voltaire published his classic novel Candide. In it, Voltaire drew on the recent (1755) experience of the Lisbon earthquake, tsunami, and city fires, to lampoon Leibniz’ optimism. The series of damaging events left between 40,000 and 50,000 dead in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. Voltaire saw nothing to be optimistic about in these, and other, tragedies.

Although Voltaire was labelled a pessimist by his Jesuit detractors, he perhaps should be better thought of as a practical realist. For instance, in Candide, he writes that ‘we must cultivate our garden.’ Gardens were a popular motif for Voltaire, and here we read of him suggesting that we cultivate today what we expect tomorrow from the garden.

Rolland and Gramsci

Following Leibniz and Voltaire the anti-fascist Italian thinker and activist, Antonio Gramsci, was imprisoned by the Italian fascist government in 1926. During his time in prison Gramsci wrote (and had smuggled out) 3,000 pages of notes about his thinking and his analysis of the situation in Italy and throughout the world. Now known as The Prison Notebooks, one of the most famous lines is: ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’

The Notebooks were not the first time Gramsci had used the phrase, nor were they his original thoughts. However, it was his famous Notebooks that brought the statement into the public light.

The French life-long pacifist, dramatist, novelist, and essayist, Romain Rolland had coined the phrase in 1920 when reviewing a novel. Interestingly, Rolland later became one of the most ardent campaigners for the release of Gramsci from prison.

The phrase clearly shows that Rolland and Gramsci understood intellectually the bleak situations the world was in. Yet, both maintained an optimism of the will. They both understood that it was possible to look at the world around them and see its many faults and problems, yet maintain an inner sense of contentment.

Opti-pessimism Today

This same discernment is possible today. We can be both pessimistic and optimistic, at the same time. We can hold both attitudes in our minds and hearts. Indeed, holding two apparently contradictory views at the same time is the quintessential meaning of the word ambivalent.

In fact, another philosopher and social activist has written of this capability. Vaclav Havel was the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of Czech Republic (Czechia) and wrote, in 1990,

“Hope, in the deep and meaningful sense … is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Here, Havel is clearly stating that it is possible to act from an optimistic attitude (because it is good) yet recognising that the outcome may be a pessimistic one (it may not succeed.)

Recall the definitions that began this blog. Optimism and pessimism are both attitudes and beliefs about what the outcome of future events may be. There is a future orientation in the minds of those who are optimistic and those who are pessimistic.

Vaclav Havel, in the quote above, brings the conversation back to the present; to the here and now. To ‘work for something because it is good’ implies a present-moment attitude. It is good now, and hence is worth doing now. It is not attached to any outcome in the future.

Should the question of: ‘Are you a pessimist or an optimist?’ arise in conversation today, I think I will quote Vaclav Havel, and suggest both opti-pessimism, and pessi-optimism.


Today we face what has been termed a Metacrisis, in which discreet problems do not exist, instead there are inter-dependent and inter-linked predicaments. Problems may have solutions, predicaments do not, only outcomes.

In a situation like this, an attachment to optimism may end up being of more harm than a pessimistic attitude. This is particularly so with techno-optimism. Techno-optimism quickly leads to techno-opportunism, whereby technological “solutions’ get applied with little, or any, consideration for the risks that the technology may create.

Our continuing belief in technology (including that technology will “save us”) is an optimism bias we must dispense with.

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