To some, the very notion of a virtue of pessimism may seem absurd. For instance, we may subscribe to Hume’s notion that the mark of any virtue is that it is useful and agreeable, either to the person who possesses it or to others. But surely pessimism is neither useful nor agreeable. It is not useful, the argument goes, because it renders us passive, depresses not only ourselves but ‘our sense of the possible’, as Marilynne Robinson has said of cultural pessimism in particular. And it is not agreeable, since it intensifies our suffering, making us focus on the bad side of life rather than the good (or so arch-optimists such as Leibniz and Rousseau would have it). It is not surprising, then, that certain studies of supposed ‘moral exemplars’ identified positivity, hopefulness and optimism among the characteristics that such exemplars had in common.
But then, think of Greta Thunberg. If there is such a thing as a ‘climate virtue’, she would seem to exemplify it – considering the hard personal choices that she has made, the steadfastness of her vision, and the courage with which she holds world leaders to account and takes them to task for their half-heartedness, their unwillingness to commit fully to the cause. If this is not an exercise of virtues, then I don’t know what is – and yet there is nothing positive or optimistic about Thunberg. If there is hope, it’s a dark, bleak hope, full of rage and grief and pain for what is being lost – but infused also with insistence, perdurance, determination. It is clear that this activist, at least, will continue to strive even if her efforts are doomed to fail. This is not optimism: if anything, it is a hopeful pessimism, and I believe it has every right to be called a virtue in our age.
Food for thought, or confirmation for my pre-existing biases? Probably depends where you’re sat.