Optimism and pessimism

Stephen Pinker, the so-called psychohistorian, Noel Malcolm and Matthew Parris were discussing the life of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century – and his long life fitted almost entirely into that century – philosopher. Hobbes famously said that the life of the savage was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ and postulated that a strong state, governing by consent, was necessary to keep man’s worse instincts in check by handing to the state a monopoly on violence. Concluding the discussion,  the three agreed that Hobbes was an optimist in that he saw life getting better as the state grew more powerful, limiting the ability of individuals to exercise violence on their own behalf.

I had always thought the opposite. In broad terms it had seemed to me that conservatives (with a small ‘c’) are starting from a position of pessimism about human nature. They believe, to take a Christian analogy, that man is essentially fallen and, if allowed to do as he wishes will allow his fallen nature fall rein and will become ‘brutish’. It is carefully nurtured institutions – using force where necessary – that channel his better nature, allowing it to blossom by holding his fallen nature in check. Conservatives (c) are not against change per se but like to see it happen with care as those institutions are the bastions of civilization. Hobbes would seem to me to fall into this camp.

Those of the left, on the other hand, are optimistic about human nature, believing that if you only give man the freedom and the tools he is capable of great things. They are, again in the broadest terms, disciples of Rousseau who famously said the man is born free but everywhere in chains. Those chains, as Marx postulated, may be economic or imposed by institutions that are the tool of capital or other elites. If man is freed from chains imposed by institutions then all will be well as his better nature will prevail. This is how I have understood optimism and pessimism in the context of Hobbes.

In this sense, I don’t think there is a contradiction between searching for a more economically equal society and being conservative (c) in outlook. The two have become antithetical in modern political terminology but it doesn’t seem to me that this is necessarily a natural state of affairs.

Hobbes or Rousseau? Having seen what has happened in the terrible 20th Century I’m with Hobbes – but if we treasure, reform and develop our institutions, I am an optimist.

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