Despite our times of comfort and plenty, optimism is under assault. Pessimism is leaping to the attack. Though many prefer optimism, pessimism holding only the default position, not everybody does, and, it appears fewer and fewer people do these days.

While natural temperament, derived from heredity or environment or both, is the foundation of the preference, philosophical conviction builds on it, sometimes in surprising ways. An illustration of this is the case of my friend, the noted Australian painter, Fred Cress. I had a moving discussion with him when he was terminally ill from cancer. He died a week or so after I visited him in his studio.

Fred’s paintings are dark, even macabre at times. While superbly drafted and often ensconced in backgrounds of natural beauty, his human figures are always sly, subversive, up to no good, or just plain nasty. Intrigue and menace haunt the canvas. Fred himself was gregarious, engaging and to all appearances a happy man. You would never think pessimism about the human condition stalked his psyche.  Yet it did in his work.

As I was only there to offer support and friendship, I was surprised by the turn the conversation took. He wanted to explain his view of life, asking me what I thought of good and evil. I replied in a bland way that I thought both exist and are in constant conflict. “Which one is winning? Which one ought to win?” he asked.

When my reply favoured the good, he gave me a deprecating look, almost as if I had admitted to a moral transgression. “You’re an optimist Tony,” he sighed. “That’s your problem. Don’t you see? In reality they’re equally valid.  And they’re not only as strong as each other. They have the same value.”

Fred was right. I am an optimist. I didn’t want to argue with him, but I’ve always thought that in the eternal struggle good must prevail over time, however harsh the setbacks, for how else could homo sapiens have survived for so long and created so many wonderful things?

Generally I think things will turn out for the good, but as with everybody, there are occasions when I find that attitude difficult to maintain. In those times the only thing I can do is command myself to be optimistic and chide myself for letting feelings of negativity get in the way. That’s not always successful but the fact that I’m trying to do it helps to defuse the gloom. And that encourages more concentration on what has to be done. Here’s one such case.

The company I founded, Pancontinental Mining, was drilling for uranium in the far north of Australia and not encountering success. We were hitting dolerite, which was completely barren. I had given up a cozy career with one of Canada’s major law firms to migrate to Australia as an entrepreneur and things were going badly. We were running out of money and the investment atmosphere was unfavourable to raising funds. I was facing the prospect of being broke and jobless.  That was the reality of it all.

Every day I had to tell myself to feel positive, even though there was little evidence in support.  I can’t say it worked completely but I’m sure focus on the need to be optimistic helped me through. I thought that while pessimism might be the superior intellectual position, given the reality of the situation, countering it would generate more of the energy I needed. Pessimism might have allowed me the consolation of getting used to the results of failure and thus lessen the pain should it occur, but optimism, though risking greater pain, would create more drive to succeed.  I admit it takes the discomfort of effort to overcome natural feelings of negativity, but I believe it’s worth a try. Also, in my position, an optimistic attitude was the better one to show to members of my team.

On reflection, I suppose throughout this dark period, subconsciously I expected that somehow things would turn out all right. Though, as I passed by Rose Bay every day to my office,  I couldn’t see the beauty in the scintillating water of the harbor, I believed one day I would. In that sense, I suppose I have an optimistic temperament. But it needs the help of a philosophical conviction. It’s the little helper in the vital process of establishing the right attitude, doing the analysis and commencing the action.

Pessimism is often said to be a function of recognizing reality and optimism one of avoiding it – a cheerful flight into fantasy like that of Pollyanna in the famous American children’s story (published, ironically, the year before the First World War started). Or, as the loony optimist Professor Pangloss would say, “all is necessarily for the best end.”  Voltaire’s satire is usually called Candide, but its full name is “Candide ou l’Optimisme”, showing the dichotomy.   Through the sunny professor he makes fun of the adherents of optimism in France for failing to admit to, or even see, the manifest stupidities and injustices of the times that cried out for a salutary dose of reason and its handmaiden skepticism, rather than cheerful complacency. Pessimists today would see a parallel with the contemporary Western world

But in fact, exponents of either orientation can apprehend reality accurately; they just perceive it differently. Admittedly, optimists have a bent for wishful thinking but a sensible one would correct for it with a little mental discipline, unlike Professor Pangloss. Also, Optimists would tend to require somewhat less information to form a conclusion for action than pessimists. They would justify that through their common tendency to apply Ockham’s razor to details which they don’t consider germane, and so open up their minds to the big picture. For them a grand narrative is preferable to perceiving things in a fragmented series of deconstructed episodes. That’s not to say that details, which are actually determinative, would not be taken seriously. It’s rather a matter of de minimis non curat praetor (the governor does not care for trifles), since they are seen to  obfuscate the issue not illuminate it.  Of course there could be disputes about what constitutes a trifle, but it’s the tendency I wish to point out.

Fundamentally, it’s the potential implicit in the facts that leads to the difference – as in the glass of water.  Churchill, despite the visitations of his Black Dog, declared himself an optimist. “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. For myself, I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”

The effects can be markedly different. Optimism tends towards resilience, pessimism towards resignation. Of course, in a given circumstance, pessimism can be capable of a better result; for instance, when the optimist, underestimating the thaw the night before, ventures onto the frozen lake and falls through the ice, while the pessimist remains on the shore. But, then, an opportunity can be seized by the optimist but missed by the pessimist. One of the most famous examples of this is the dispute between Lord Halifax who wanted to negotiate with Hitler and Churchill who wanted to fight.

Just when we were nearly at the end of our rope I received a telex in my Sydney office from Dave Mosher, the geologist in charge of our exploration camp in the East Alligator region. It said only one word – “Champagne”. We couldn’t use the telephone for fear that the drillers would listen in and trade the stock, so I immediately flew up to site. There, with a smile wider than I had ever seen, Dave told me that we had just received assays from the latest hole. Their width and grade showed it to be one of the best holes ever drilled in a uranium prospect. We had gone past the dreaded dolerite into ore- rich schists. That hole ultimately led to the delineation of the largest uranium orebody in the world at the time. We called it Jabiluka, after the Aboriginal name of a nearby billabong.

Of course, an optimistic attitude couldn’t have produced the successful drilling results, but it helped in lasting the distance to it.

Although it did explain his work, Fred’s view surprised me, for it was fundamentally at variance with the traditional opinion I had grown up with. After all, the superiority of the good, both in what is preferable but also in prevalence, had been the substance of all religions and most philosophical thought, at least until the early 20th century. That assumption supports an optimistic view on life. But, as Fred’s case indicates, it’s no longer warmed by the sun of universal acceptance. Not only is there disagreement with the proposition but the contrary view can fairly be said to define the period we are in at present, at least at the sociological level. The paradox however is, by wide account, most individuals would see themselves as optimistic.

Recently I heard a successful pop song -writer on radio explain why his lyrics, like so many others these days, were dark. He claimed they reflected the mood of the times.  His reason for thinking this was that people feel disenfranchised, a factor whose importance he stressed. He went on to say it’s an irony that, despite advances in de-discrimination, an important positive in his view, pessimism is growing.

As I see it, the widespread negative sentiment afoot today towards the prospects for the human race, the criticism of its flaws and the faint acknowledgement of its successes, on the part of much of the media, academe, public intellectuals and the university educated, indicate that we’re living in an age where optimism is under serious assault.

The difficulties stalking our world are constantly emphasized, particularly by the media. Dormant for decades, threat of nuclear warfare is reappearing, concerns about climate and the environment are growing, certain types of immigration are creating angst, global population explosion is worrying, Islamist terrorism is menacing, personal tranquility is descending into anxiety and even depression among many, the rise of China is often being interpreted negatively, political and social fragmentation are creating anger as society is increasingly seen as unjust or in error in one way or another, and an election in the USA has revealed a fault line that divides the nation so deeply that the United aspect of the States is merely a nostalgic memory.

There have been ages of pessimism before – plague- driven Europe in the Middle Ages, Mongol savagery in Russia under the Golden Horde, and others more recent, but what seems unique is that ours is in the midst of the greatest affluence, reduction in poverty, life expectancy and technological prowess history has ever experienced.  Against this background, it’s hard for me to see why we have to be so defeatist in the face of our challenges, confronting though they are, why we seem to lack belief we can overcome them. And the spring – back to pessimism has been so quick. It isn’t that long ago when times were optimistic.

The 1950’s, though condemned by the bien pensants a decade later as a boring monotone, were optimistic, although too short lived to be called an age. The greatest struggle of all time had shown that even the worst evil can be defeated, post war economic rebuilding had created unprecedented wealth which the newly formed welfare state distributed widely, science and technology were flourishing, cities were so safe that few bothered to lock their doors, and nations throughout the West rejoiced in the certainty that the good times would roll.  The song, “Accentuate the positive; Eliminate the negative”, written in1944 when victory seemed assured, was popular throughout. Possibility of nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union did jolt the joy sometimes but most people considered it to be remote.


A century before, the West also smiled in optimism. Victorian England took the world on an epic journey of industrial, technological and social progress – economic wealth, relatively high social mobility, abolition of slavery, and greater concern for the poor. While religious beliefs were questioned by some of the intelligentsia, the vast majority held to their faith and there was insufficient reason to doubt. The times rang out the joys of eternal progress and romantic poets sang to the well being of society. Two of my favourites are Browning and Shelley. Browning wrote, “God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world.” And Shelley opined “O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”


But all that changed, changed utterly when the fury of the First World War let loose the hurricane of killing that blew down the social order. During that time of death (the centenary of whose end we will remember next year) a dark view of human prospects was spawned. Belief in linear and continuous societal progress celebrated in the Renaissance and charged with Enlightenment values of reason, scientific knowledge and human autonomy was judged to be invalid, unable to explain the horrors of which humanity was capable.  Nietzsche’s declaration “God is dead. God remains dead. We have killed him” (although made before) became imprinted in society’s playbook, shaking the sense of certainty and security which religion had provided over the centuries. The Dada movement (known best in art but actually of a socio-political base) and its anarchical fellow travellers tossed reason into the dustbin of absurdity with a primal scream.  An age of pessimism was born, and we are still in it.

Subsequent decades offered no reason for a reversal. The demons escaped from hell again to debase humanity in Europe and off to Russia and China to do their evil.  However, the human spirit prevailed. Defeat of National Socialism, collapse of Sovietism and release of China from the stranglehold of Maoism, coupled with relatively peaceful affluence in the West, not to mention the benefits of advances in medical and other branches of science, were compelling reasons for a return to optimism, in my opinion. But that was not to be, except for a brief period.

Despite the recess of the 1950’s and the naïve counterculture of the 60’s where young iconoclasts sang paeans of love and peace, we seem determined to carry on with the darker interpretation of life. Optimistic views in art and literature, as well as in most of academe and even the media, are dismissed as frivolous forays into unreality, worthless at best and dangerous at worst because they shift the focus away from the problems of the world and the ugliness faced by so many people. Voltaire’s sarcastic mediation in Candide of Gottfried Leibnitz’ view of the perfectibility of human nature comes to mind.

I can understand why pessimism grasped the throat last century, creating the negative cast of postmodernist thought, and even why it infects contemporary times; the trauma is just too diabolical to purge, even after so many years. But it seems to me that there was another factor at work, one that started well before. It’s more than a coincidence that the grip of pessimism has been tightening in tandem with the diminishing presence of faith, which has optimism at its base. That process culminates not only in declining spiritual awareness, whether through established religion or otherwise, but in losing faith in ourselves as human beings. That’s the ultimate pessimism.

I resist that process. As an optimist I have faith in the human project, in the human ability to overcome the most daunting obstacles. If we survived the Black Death, which carried off almost half of Europe’s population, if we outlived the tyrannies of the Golden Horde, the Nazis, the Soviets, the Cultural Revolution and so many other tragedies, why should we cower in the luxury of our affluence and let the ills of our times defeat our optimism?




The Renaissance words of Hamlet, whose sentiment regrettably would not be espoused by many writers today but should be, underlie this faith.


“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!

how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how

express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the

world! the paragon of animals!”


Tony Grey