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  • jdtkirby

A plea for pessimism

Expect the worst.

I’ve recently gotten wind of a somewhat peculiar self-help phenomenon that goes something like this: every morning, close your eyes and imagine that you and your loved ones will die later that day. That’s all. Hopefully, you will face that day in great spirits, since the grave wrongs done unto you by your dimwitted coworkers will be bleak in comparison to the dark morning phantasms of impending doom. This strange morning exercise should (ironically) make us more down-to-earth people; more moderately tempered, better equipped to cope with the struggles of life.

Much like those struggles of life, the realm of politics is filled with inevitable setbacks, caused by either mistake or mere misfortune. Expect any different and you will be gravely disappointed. As a general rule of thumb, it’s probably wise not to demand too much of politicians. That isn’t apathy, it’s realism; the issues are complicated and the humans dealing with them are, well, humans. It goes without saying that we should be highly critical of our elected officials, but don’t expect them to move mountains. This matters, because when you demand too much you’re setting yourself up for disappointment – which is dangerous. Disappointment can foster resentment and cloud our judgment. Sometimes this leads to the flat out denial of pressing issues, like climate change or an impending military threat. However, advocating for pessimism doesn’t mean cheering on apocalyptic visions of climate doomerism, nor does it force us to imagine World War III every morning.  The type of pessimism I’m advocating is a rather mild one, very similar to the moderate pessimism of the late Roger Scruton. (He actually wrote a short book on the subject. Spoiler alert: expect the worst.)

As an example, we should probably be mildly pessimistic about the political views of our fellow citizens. Chances are they won’t vote the way we would like them to. Polls (and sometimes, elections) show that a significant amount of people hold wildly undemocratic views that contradict even the most basic democratic principles, such as universal suffrage. These people, however, are here to stay. Wishing them away or treating them like obtuse children is likely to be counterproductive, regardless of whether they deserve it. Granted, this doesn’t mean that we should lose all hope for long-term progress – and criticizing the views of others is a part of that process. But progress tends to be slow, and if it’s not, something terrible probably happened that caused the progress to speed up. Besides, I refuse to believe that we can only be happy living in a perfectly liberal democratic utopia. 

To be perfectly clear, I think Scruton was a bit of a hyperbolic reactionary, captured by oversimplified ‘us-vs.-them’ thinking. And, ironically, he flirted politically with several populist messiahs who sold fairy tales of promised lands to disappointed voters. Instead of endorsing Scruton, I’ll end with a quote from another Brit; Michael Oakeshott, who's following words capture my preferred type of pessimism elegantly: “…to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” Words to live by.


Franklin, J. H., & Oakeshott, M. (1963). Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays. The Journal Of Philosophy, 60(26), 811. 

Scruton, R. (2010). The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope.

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