Learning to be optimistic: an educational issue?


At a time marked by the end of great hopes , humanity seems to be engaged in a race for disaster, where reasons to hope, and to believe in a better and smiling future, are, if not nonexistent, at least very rare. As chaos seems more certain than progress , what sense can it have to be still optimistic? Is an education in optimism desirable, or even simply possible?

When collapsologists credibly theorize the collapse of the world, wouldn’t the desire to teach optimism be the sign of an excess of optimism that is totally out of season? Because, according to a word from Alain, in his Words on Happiness , it is often necessary to recognize that “the darkest pessimism is the true”. This is why it was easy for Voltaire to ridicule Leibniz through Candide , an irreducible optimist, who believed himself in “the best of all possible worlds”.

But what are we to understand by “pessimism” and “optimism”? Before designating specific philosophical currents, these terms refer to mental attitudes, and express a dominant way of apprehending situations and events.

Resign or act

The optimist feels a sense of confidence in the future, and expects a happy outcome. While the pessimist is convinced that things always turn out badly. The first is rather happy with his present, and without any particular fear for his future. The second dissatisfied with the present, and very worried about the future.

Is one attitude better than another? Pessimism could be held as objectively truer, in the sense that things often end up turning out badly, death being, as Pascal says, “the end which awaits the most beautiful life in the world”. Whereas optimism is humanly more fruitful, in the sense that it expresses a hope without which the human being will undertake nothing. One leads to endure and to resign oneself, in the name of a present that is always disappointing. The other to act and to move forward, in the name of a tomorrow likely to sing.

Should we therefore bet on the dream, against realism? The optimism / pessimism dichotomy is not exclusive. We would gladly say that, as Devos glimpsed joy against a background of sadness, optimism must be considered as a way of overcoming the sadness into which the taking into account of the harshness of the times, and the observation of the suffering that accompanies everything, plunges. human life.

A third term: chance

For Schopenhauer, “Life is never good”, because it “is nothing more, as a rule, than a series of aborted hopes, disappointed projects and mistakes recognized too late”. “Human life… goes from suffering to boredom”. That is. But should we be content to suffer, without trying anything, on the grounds that failure would be more certain than success?

While pessimism is like an immediate given of conscience, optimism is a requirement, or a duty, for human beings. They must not be thought against each other, as if the choice of one leaves no room for the other. We do not have to choose a camp, between for example Schopenhauer, for whom wanting to live generates suffering and evil, and Leibniz, for whom everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

And for two reasons. On the one hand, the future escapes us. Whether the forecasts are optimistic or pessimistic, their first characteristic is to be very risky, and to only engage those who believe in them! And, on the other hand, the question of whether or not the world is the best it can be makes little sense today.

The world is what it is. He wants us neither good nor bad. The future is uncertain, and can bring good as well as evil. This is why the realism of pessimism does not prohibit, quite the contrary, the “mad hope” (Guy Béart) of optimism. We must be cured of paralyzing pessimism. Education must therefore promote a saving optimism.

Differentiate between difficulties and despair

Pessimism goes without saying. It is the dominant color of all human life. No need to want to teach it: it is like a “default” mode of operation. Optimism, on the other hand, needs to be promoted. It is in this sense that, as Alain says, if “pessimism is in the mood, optimism is in the will”. What Georges Pascal, in The idea of ​​philosophy at Alain , expresses by a very beautiful formula: “optimism is a voluntary refusal of despair”.

We do not refuse to take note of the difficulties which overwhelm all human life, but to give in to the despair that this awareness can cause. Because “black pessimism” is “true” only for those who abandon themselves, then becoming the plaything of forces which remain “external” to them. If I do not make the effort to govern myself, I become the prey of my moods, the toy of my passions.

Optimism is the result of conquest. You have to learn it. But then: how do you learn to be optimistic? Quite simply: by cultivating one’s will. But there is no will magic. This is forged, and strengthened, on the double condition that one tries, instead of abdicating a priori; and that we hope, instead of thinking that we should never expect anything good.

The power of will

The power of the will increases through daily work, to discipline one’s body, and better conduct one’s actions, and one’s life, according to the demands of the mind (Alain: “to know one’s mind and, as such, absolutely obliged “).

We find, in fine, the fundamental optimism of the Stoics. There is no point in worrying about things that are beyond our control. Whether Providence watches over it, as the Stoics thought, or not, nothing can be changed. On the other hand, we have all power over the things that depend on us. On condition of making the effort to “get started”, to take them in hand, that is to say to act, with the hope of mastering them, and, by the same token, of mastering oneself.

This makes it possible to understand that “everyone is just as intelligent as he wants” ( Comment on education , XXIV), in proportion to the will committed, and the work done. This is what education’s task is to make people understand and experience. And who will make the difference between the educated man, and the one who is not …

It is on this power of the will that the “crazy hope” sung by Guy Béart is based:
It is the mad hope
Which consoles us
To fall from the nest
And which, tomorrow, prepares
For our guitars,
Other harmonies.

Author Bio: Charles Hadji is Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences) at the Université Grenoble Alpes (UGA)