Skepticism of the Will

Photograph Source: Marko Kafé – CC BY-SA 4.0

The formulation, often attributed to the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci – “pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will” – actually originated with the French writer and pacifist, Romain Rolland. Rolland, along with many other well-known pacifists, had opposed the slaughter called at the time, the “Great War,” and, later designated, the First World War, in the aftermath of another even worse mass slaughter. In reflecting on WWI and its immediate aftermath, Rolland may have invested his hope for the repudiation of nationalist delusions that led to war.

Rolland lived through most of the Second World War (dying in 1944) without, as far as we know, revising his formulation. However, given the persistence of war and the additional affliction of ecological devastation, it may be necessary to address the whole matter of “optimism of the will.” Without abandoning the first part – “pessimism of the intellect” – I believe we need to delete the reference to “optimism” in all of its meanings when applied to our collective will.

Most immediately we can eliminate the kind of blind optimism that Voltaire ridiculed in his classic novella, Candide. Against the backdrop of the wars of the 18th century and the catastrophe of the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire literally and figuratively dismembered the optimism of his fictional philosopher, Pangloss, who pronounced this “the best of all possible worlds.” Piling tragedy upon tragedy, Candide is reduced to doing nothing more that “cultivating” his own garden.

It is this retreat to a vision of an Edenic garden that fueled so many utopian visions in the 19th and 20thcenturies. One expression of seeking refuge from the terrors of the world can be found in Joni Mitchell’s song about Woodstock with its repeated line that “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” It is there apparently where the “bombers in the sky will all turn to butterflies.” Alas, there is the ever-present “nation” that is a reminder to those cultural rebels of the Sixties that escape can never be complete or pure.

So, where does this leave us? Maybe our only hope, according to Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Galapagos, resides with a few survivors of a global holocaust devolving back to mammalian sea creatures. As such, they will no longer be cursed with the opposable thumb that Vonnegut pronounces as the source for so much of the devastation wrought by our species. It’s clear that Vonnegut, a prisoner of war in Dresden during the horrific firebombing of that city, has no illusions about “optimism” and human will.

If the persistence of war, whether in the Ukraine, Sudan, or Israel/Palestine, challenges any belief in optimism and human will where does that leave us, especially those of us who advocate for peace. As Stephen Eisenman’s article notes in his unfortunately revealing title from the September 1, 2023 online edition of CounterPunch: “Some People Will Hate Me for Writing This: End the War!” But, of course, as he grimly points out about the Russian war on Ukraine: “Both nations are losing but neither will stop the fighting. They are stuck in a bloody stalemate with no clear path to victory and no impetus to negotiate. They have committed too much blood and treasure – and spent too much political capital – to accede to each other’s demands.”

As Vonnegut would often write: “And so it goes.”

Added to this is a kind of moral blindness that leads many to overlook how those seeds for war are sown by nations and political forces often invisible in the moments of any terrifying conflict. For example, as Keith Gessen wrote this past summer in The New Yorker about the situation in the Ukraine and the “Russian monster:” “Having participated in the creation of the Russian monster, we are now forced to become monsters to battle it, to manufacture and sell more weapons, to cheer the death of Russian soldiers, to spend more and more on defense, both here and in Europe, and to create the atmosphere and conditions for a second Cold War, because we failed to figure out how to secure the peace after the last one” (June 19, 2023, 64). (This interpretation of the West’s complicity in the co-production of Putin’s Russia should not be read as absolving Putin of his illegal invasion of Ukraine and subsequent war crimes.)

In the face of such failures, how can optimism be a guide for anything? So, given how human will continues to repeat and expand on its flaws, we can, at best, apply a healthy skepticism. There is no law or logic of history that will save us, nor even a biological predisposition to protect us. It may be that a particular form of fear, rooted in the pessimism of our intellect, will move us to end the plague of war and diminish violence and injustice.

Writing in the midst of the anti-nuke protests of the early 1980’s, the German activist Petra Kelly argued that “fear itself may perform a useful service by being transformed into a creative force. We need a courageous kind of fear, a vitalizing fear, which instead of making us seek the safety and security of our homes, will send us into the streets. It is a loving fear which is not simply concerned about what might happen to us, but reaches out to the whole world” (Fighting for Hope, 74).

Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.