Monday, November 28, 2005

Pessimism, realism or wisdom? Optimism, idealism or naivety?

My beloved once asked me rhetorically whether I wouldn't acknowledge I'm a pessimist. "Of course not," I replied. "Can't you see that we pessimists must see ourselves as realists?"

The recent profile of former National Security Adviser and Kissinger-disciple Brent Scowcroft in the New Yorker reminded me of this by discussing the "realist" and "idealist" schools of foreign policy. "Well, these are the schools of pretty much everything, aren't they?" I thought.

(And a little Googling confirmed it.)

The foreign policy idealists in the profile, who were uniformly pro-war, I suddenly wanted to call "optimists," since clearly no one planning on the ideal can be anything but. Then "wisdom" and "naivety" came to mind.

Though once I thought pleading "realism" was a person's only defense against the accusation of pessimism, actually if optimism and pessimism are the two schools, then scholars see themselves in any of three ways, depending on mood. The Pessimist School takes its name from the way it characterizes itself at its dreariest. On better days the pessimists are realists, and ultimately not only they but others may see them as having been wise. The Optimist School names itself according to its most cheerful self image. On darker days though it calls itself idealistic, and on the very worst naive.

Would you rather risk wisdom or naivety? It seems to me the English language urges pessimism. But you know me.

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