Simon Critchley on Optimism
Simon Critchly is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of many books,including On Heidegger's Being and Time and Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. The Book of Dead Philosophers was written on a hill overlooking Los Angeles, where he was a scholar at the Getty Research Institute. He lives in Brooklyn.
Question: Who is the most optimistic philosopher in history?
Critchley: The cheerful philosophers, maybe in the history of philosophy, most cheerful philosopher in the book is David Hume and Hume is a fascinating example because Hume is an atheist and dies as an atheist. Adam Smith, in a correspondence with Hume’s doctor, the word that keeps coming up in the exchange is cheerfulness, Hume’s good humor, Hume’s humor, Hume’s cheerfulness, and he was visited on 2 occasions by James Boswell who was Samuel Johnson’s biographer, because Boswell was offended that Hume was going to go to his death as an atheist. He didn’t believe that Hume could go to his death as a non-believer and Hume good-humoredly admitted him, they talked and Hume persisted in his belief, but he wasn’t, he wasn’t mean to Boswell. A certain point, it is recorded somewhere that Boswell said to Hume, Hume, do you not at least conceive of the possibility that the soul is immortal? And Hume said in response, if I throw a piece of coal on the fire, it is possible that it will not burn, and that’s the closest he… And so, Hume, I wouldn’t say is necessarily an optimist but he goes to his death cheerfully. For me, there’s a correlation between cheerfulness and pessimism, you know. It’s the pessimist who is the person who is cheerful. I have, if like Nietzsche worries about optimism, optimism is usually bound up with an idea of the future being better than things are now which I think is a risky thing to believe. For me it’s about a philosophical disposition, is about embracing a certain pessimism that is not negative but which is a condition for cheerfulness and affirmation. That’s something that one can find in I think like Nietzsche for example.
Question: Which philosopher gives you the most solace?
Critchley: I would maybe go for Epicurus. Epicurus is what he calls the tetrapharmakos, the 4-part cure, and don’t fear death. Don’t fear God. What is good is easy to get and what is difficult, what is painful is easy to endure. But that thought is very interesting. The idea that one should not fear death I’ve already talked about. You know, the point of being Epicurean is to accept the fact of one’s death cheerfully without a longing for the [frivol] touch, a longing for the afterlife. Don’t fear God. Well, there was no some big, angry, vengeful God for the Epicureans. God was somewhere out there but it wasn’t really terribly important. What is good is easy to get and what is painful is easy to endure. When most people think about Epicurus and Epicureanism, they think of someone who’s committed to pleasure. It’s completely wrong and when Epicurus was asked, what would give him pleasure? He said, a barley cake and a cup of water. Maybe with a part cheese every now and then, and that would be more than sufficient. What it means with Epicurean is to minimize one’s pleasures and to focus on the most genuine pleasures and if you minimize your pleasures, you also minimize your pains. So, the problem if not the crisis that you know, we’re confronted with now is the crisis caused by excessive, excessive pleasures. The cultivation of excessive pleasures. So, paradoxically, a time of crisis like this might be one in which people can learn to minimize their pleasures and actually be happier in a strange way. Points of crisis can be philosophically interesting, you know. I mean, people were obviously living through some sort of dreadful delusion these last years about the future and about the endless opportunities and possibilities of the future. A lot of that has gone. That is an interesting philosophical moment. When that bubble is popped, you’re left with you know, you’re left with yourself in facing up to yourself. You can run away into religion, if you like. That is a consolation but it’s a false consolation. You know, when I was talking earlier about the need to embrace the transient and never occurring presence, and that is the only alternative that’s available to us. I think that’s something which is very important. You don’t need money to do that. You don’t need a crazy luxurious lifestyle to do that. In many ways you know, one of the interesting things you can learn from the history of philosophy is the importance of poverty. The philosophers were often poor, _____ you know threw-away his cup when he saw someone drinking with their hands. Why do I need that cup? I could live without it. So in many ways, you know, philosophy isn’t a luxury add on to culture for me. It’s something which can allow one to accept, you know, the less is more in a strange way, something like that.
Simon Critchley on the philosophers of optimism.