Reason, Standing on its Head
“The power of accuarate observation is frequently called cynicism by those who don’t have it.”
George Bernard Shaw
I received some interesting and thoughtful comments on my last little blurb about global warming (or climate change, if that term makes more sense to you). No one really disagreed with my assertion that things could very likely get worse. Although there are plenty of people out there who would disagree with me, I suppose, but (fortunately) the overwhelming majority of those folks don’t read photography blogs. Heck, most of those idiots probably don’t read anything at all. They just listen to Rush on the radio.
What got me a little worked up, though, had nothing to do with climate change. Or at least not directly. No, it was the old discussion about the differences between “optimists” and “cynics”. As you can tell from my opening quote, this is not something new. People have been going back and forth on this for centuries. If there’s anything original in this discussion it’s the introduction of a relatively new term: the “cynical optimist”. I guess it serves as something of a compromise. You get the best of both worlds, or the worst of both worlds, depending on your point of view.
So what exactly is a “cynic” anyway? And I’m not talking about classical Cynicism, the philosophical discipline that originated with the Greeks. I’m talking about the term as it’s used today. If you labelled me a “cynic” – and you’d be correct if you did – you would be defining me as someone who thinks that the quality of human behavior, or perhaps it would be better to say the average quality of human behavior, is much lower than it could be and ought to be. To use a sports term, we’re simply not reaching our “potential”. Most people do what they have to do to get by and that’s about it. It’s a day to day existence. Making the world a better place for those who come after us is not on most people’s list of “things to do today”. Or tomorrow. That’s the way we are. Always have been that way and always will be that way. It’s human nature. Most people look out for #1 first. And last.
“An optimist is someone who figures that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s the bluebird of happiness.” (Robert Brault)
The “optimist”, on the other hand, has a somewhat different view of human nature. The optimist tends to believe that we live in the best possible world, that most people are inherently good and that most people will usually do the right thing. “Good” will eventually triumph over “evil”. Having said that, however, I wonder if it’s possible to have an “evil optimist”. I mean, was Hitler an optimist? Or Joe Stalin? Something to ponder………
Anyway, the debate between cynics and optimists will probably go on for as long as both types exist. Personally, I don’t see that optimists have a leg to stand on, but that’s just me. At best, they’re dreamers. At worst, they’re simply not paying attention. As Mark Twain said, an “optimist is a day-dreamer more eloquently spelled”.
Speaking of historical figures, how should we classify these people? Do you think that the so-called “founding fathers” were optimists? I suppose if you’re a modern day optimist you might. I seriously doubt it, however. Or how about Abraham Lincoln? Hmm. Definitely a “no” on that one. The guy was damn near chronically depressed. Or how about the greatest general of World War II – George Patton? Now there was a guy who got things done. But if you’ve studied the man (I did way back in my college days), you know that he sure as hell wasn’t an optimist. He did not believe that the world was an inherently good place. He was, however, an “accurate observer”. And based on those observations, he did what he had to do to win.
If you really want an optimist from American history, try George Armstrong Custer. He believed completely in himself and in the “righteousness” of his cause. All in all, not a very good observer. He paid the price.
Oh yeah. Then there’s the guy in this photograph (that my wife took in Monument Valley). He’s probably an optimist, too. I say that because he was doing this little handstand on a wall with something like a 100 foot drop on the other side. Well, either an optimist or just plain dumb. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.