Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

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.


10 Responses to “Reason, Standing on its Head”

  1. Cedric

    I am most interested in learning about your view on this matter Paul but I have to say that it puts me in a rather uncomfortable place; I consider myself to have an optimistic nature and I have always hoped that I wasn’t “just plain dumb” but perhaps I am (I am quite open to the possibility that I am a dumbass–my wife would probably not rebuke the notion) or perhaps I have the wrong definition for optimism.

    So let me begin with the term cynicism and my understanding of this term. As you say Paul, the cynic sees people as only being capable of acting out of self-interest all the while questioning whether some particular thing will happen or whether it is even worthwhile in the first place. For me however, I am more in line with your initial definition; whereby the cynic holds the belief that humanity is not what it could be or has not reached its full potential.
    As for optimism, while I understand that it is sometimes defined as “The belief that good must ultimately prevail over evil in the universe” I have never thought of it in those terms. For me it has always been more about hope and confidence about the future. In other words it is a belief system that sees people as being capable of coming up with answers to problems and having the capacity to reach their full potential.

    Both cynicism and optimism are belief systems and as such both create filters and biases in our perception of the world. It could therefore be said that both are flawed to some extent and the question then becomes, which belief system provides the most realistic view? The answer to this question can be debated but it cannot be answered (unless we can find someone free of such filters and biases but then again the rest of us would probably disagree anyway). Furthermore I tend to see these belief systems as traits built into our nature (in the same way you see self-interest as being a part of human nature which I don’t dispute by the way) and while such traits can be changed either by conscious effort or by life experiences it is worthwhile to be aware of them if I am to even begin to understand why the guy next to me has a totally different world view to me.

    The thing is, from where I am standing, there is not a huge difference between the cynic and the optimist (as per my definitions). The similarity being based around the belief in human potential and the difference being measured mostly in degrees of hope and confidence. The pure cynic holds little or no hope for humanity (which is why sometimes cynicism is seen as pessimism even though I do not see that as being accurate) while the optimist is quite hopeful perhaps because over the course of history the optimist has seen human potential improve and sees no reason why this should suddenly stop. By this logic (as flaky as it is) cynicism and optimism are not necessarily exclusive in my view. I would even go as far as to say that the most influential people in the world are the cynics who have a certain measure of optimism because without the belief that the world can become a better place (however “better” is defined by those cynical individuals) there would be little reason or motivation to do the things they do. People who have within them the ability to influence the world must do so out of a belief that they can actually change it, and yes, that drive may be partly out of self-interest but if that is the only driving force then history shows that their success will be short lived.

    I see this as equally valid in the art world. As you mentioned in the comments of your previous post, artists are cynics (in the sense that I have defined it here) but without some hope for humanity, some belief that people can be made to see more clearly, in other words, some optimism, there would be little reason for them to continue to create artworks. Self-interest probably doesn’t even enter into the equation where artists are concerned since most of them are poor and never recognised for their efforts.

    In closing I have to go full circle. Everything I’ve written is a point-of-view borne out of my life experiences and my inherent nature which is, by my definition, optimistic. Either that or I am just plain dumb which is, as I said, a possibility and in that case ignore everything I said 😉

    • Paul Maxim

      No need to feel uncomfortable, Cedric. As you correctly point out, a lot of this depends on how we define the terms. In my view, cynics do see “average human behavior” as less than optimal for the general welfare. Most people – but not all – act solely in their own interests. But I didn’t say that cynics were hopeless pessimists. (Like you, I don’t believe that “cynicism” and “pessimism” are synonyms.) Being a cynic doesn’t mean that you hide under your “blankee” sucking your thumb and wait for the world to come to an inevitable end. A cynic simply sees things as they are and acts accordingly. He (or she) is not encumbered by that most horrible of all human traits – blind faith. In my opinion, that’s where many so-called optimists go wrong. They tend to believe that things will improve because, as you say, they think that “human potential” has always improved throughout history. I think that’s a serious misreading of history, by the way, but that’s another story.

      But the center of this discussion has to do with “action”. You’ve made that very point several times. It doesn’t really matter whether you call yourself an optimist or a cynic. What matters is what you do based on that viewpoint. I just happen to believe that a cynical outlook is more likely to lead to “accurate observations” and therefore to more pragmatic, more useful actions. Let’s face it: cynics are (perhaps unfortunately) right more often than optimists. The view of the optimist is clouded by what they think is happening or what they think ought to be happening. Not all filters, after all, are equally transparent.

      Let me give you an example. A few years ago the Rochester area community was divided into 2 groups that we could generally define as “optimists” and “cynics”. The issue was the proposed development of a “fast ferry” service that would run between Rochester, NY and Toronto, CN, across Lake Ontario. The optimistic group (including the Rochester mayor) felt strongly that such a service would boost the local economy by drawing large numbers of Canadiens into our area. And many local people, of course, would want to head to Toronto. Everybody would do well. A classic win-win.

      The doubters (the “cynics”) said hold on. What evidence was there that Canadiens would want to come here in large enough numbers to make the thing work? What the heck would be the attraction? And why would western New Yorkers want to go the other way? What evidence was there that this multi-million dollar enterprise would work?

      Well, the optimists won out. Rochester became the proud owner of a very large, very fast ferry.

      That nobody wanted to ride. It cost the city a lot of money to find out what many already knew. There simply was no market for it.

      Were the cynics just trying to rain on the mayor’s parade? Were they hoping for failure? I don’t think so. They simply saw things more clearly. And they would have made a different decision.

      To your point that some cynics – the ones who are more “motivated” – are also endowed with an optimistc streak, I would say this: It’s more likely that they act in a positive way because there simply is no other choice (other than hiding under their blankee and sucking their thumb). I suppose you could also call that a form of optimistic behavior, but that’s just a question of semantics.

      The same is true, I think, for artists. They’re not necessarily being optimistic. They’re simply showing people what they’ve observed. If I make a photograph of a beautiful landscape, is it because I think that that landscape will always be there? Or is it a warning. Am I trying to show people what isn’t going to be there in 10 or 20 years? I would argue, in fact, that all “Artists” (capital ‘A’) are true cynics. Not one of them is an optimist.

      And that should rattle a few cages………..

      • Cedric

        Good points Paul, as were the ones you made on my post which is where I touched on a few things you mention here. I can’t believe that at the start of all this I said that I didn’t want to get involved. I need to learn to heed my own advice. Who am I kidding? I love these exchanges!

  2. John - Visual Notebook

    I guess I’m a cynical optimist – I think we’re capable of so much more, but I doubt if we’ll ever reach that capability. It’s a matter of training and mindset. If we could get momentum on the side of those who would teach their children how to take care of the earth and instill that in them we might have a chance, but as it is, we are a selfish, self-serving bunch of short-sited creatures who (to a large degree) have been bamboozled on what in life is truly important ($$$) and what’s not (spaceship earth). The mindset has to change – and the cynical part of me says no way, it’s all over. Nature wins, one way or another.

    • Paul Maxim

      Someone once said that “we are at our best when things are worst”. I hope they’re right. I hope that as the future becomes more threatening, people realize that “expecting different results while continuing to do the same thing” is indeed the definition of insanity. That’s my hope. But like you, I’m not betting the ranch on it. That would be a remarkable cultural transformation.

      • Earl

        I don’t know if “we’re at our best when things are worst” but I do think a man or mankind can get pretty inventive and ruthless when survival is at stake. But that’s about desperation and fear — I certainly wouldn’t equate anything optimistic about it. The issue is we’re too often short sighted…desperately solving one problem at the cost of the whole. Fast food, fast solutions. I don’t know if I’m a cynic here of late or just worn down and depressed by all the stupidity. 🙂

        Good conversation here, Paul.

  3. Juha Haataja

    I feel I haven’t much to add to the valuable thinking already show in the posting and comments, but I always get a shiver when I see or hear the word “rational” being used. Here it was not used, but I think that it was kind of implied in the discussion, for example by the word “realistic” and by the phrase “simply not paying attention” which to me means that paying attention would be a kind of rational approach to looking at the world, as opposite to dreaming or fantasy.

    I used to appreciate “rational world-view” quite a lot, and still do, but recently I have started to hesitate in claiming that being rational will solve problems, as I have started to suspect that the only people who really see the world as it is might reside in mental institutions.

    Is it possible for the human brain (and a human being with all the genetic programming built-in) to approach the world in a realistic sense? And is there any correlation between one person’s “realistic view” of the world compared to another?

    I guess I’m a cynic, with diminishing reserves of optimism.

    • Paul Maxim

      I certainly am not smart enough or wise enough to answer your questions, Juha. But I love your statement that you’ve “started to suspect that the only people who really see the world as it is might reside in mental institutions”. I think that sums up the whole discussion very nicely. And it sort of reminds me of the old film classic, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. What more is there to say?

  4. Markus Spring

    Juha stated: “I guess I’m a cynic, with diminishing reserves of optimism.”
    I fear I have not much to add to it.

    Whilst time is running, BP and all the others are drilling and gas guzzlers are thrown at the drooling masses, to name just one sector. I don’t know any better form of government than democracy, and still I do not have the feeling that the voters consider their decision with their fullest possible intellectual capacity, but instead will fall for the cheapest of tricks, world wide. And the current stakeholders support this as it keeps them in their position. Try to raise happy children in that setting…

    • Paul Maxim

      As to raising children, Markus, I think that if my wife and I were at childbearing age right now we’d give it some very serious thought. Hell, they might become Tea Partry people! Or pick Michelle Bachman as a role model………Damn, what a nightmare.

      If it wasn’t so sad, I’d be laughing at the BP TV commercials that are aired daily here. Everything in the Gulf is wonderful. Come on down!! Play in the water! Eat as much seafood as you want! We’ve taken care of everything – the world is just fine……But where did all that spilled oil go?

      Too many “optimists”, however, believe BP’s “blue bird of happiness” message. BP has become one of the good guys.


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