Optimism, Hope, Pessimism and Cynicism

Optimism, Hope, Pessimism and Cynicism


Howard Adelman

This blog is dedicated to Rabbi Dow Marmur on his 80th birthday. May he have many more! It is a blog that hopes to throw some light on Dow’s worldview and on the concepts in the title. And it is a blog that italicizes Dow’s use of “hope” to highlight both his attachment to that attitude and to focus on his usage to allow us to understand the attitude he brings to issues.

First, a very brief introduction to Rabbi Dow Marmur for the few who do not know anything about him.

Rabbi Dow Marmur, Rabbi Emeritus at Holy Blossom Temple, was born in Poland in 1935 and spent the years of World War II in the Soviet Union before returning to Poland in 1946. Two years later, he emigrated to Sweden, where he went to school. In 1957, he moved to London, England to study for the rabbinate at the Leo Baeck College, from which he graduated in 1962. Before becoming Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom in 1983, Rabbi Marmur served two congregations in Britain. He retired from his position of Senior Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in 2000.

A personal note. Though Rabbi Feinberg, the “Red” rabbi, who had been senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple when I was still a student, was a close associate of mine in both the peace and civil rights movements in the sixties, and although Rabbi Gunther Plaut, Dow Marmur’s predecessor as senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple and a very esteemed Torah scholar, was a friend and colleague in the refugee movement in the late seventies and early eighties (he officiated at my marriage to Nancy), I only joined Holy Blossom Temple after Rabbi Marmur became senior rabbi. It was not because he asked me or invited me to become a member. It was because I met him at a talk where I had offered some critical comments to the speaker. He approached me in the informal part of the evening to comment on my comments. We then quickly became friends and I started attending Holy Blossom to hear his sermons. Soon thereafter, my family joined Holy Blossom Temple.

I have read two of his books, but I did not join because I revered his scholarship or his thinking. Aside from his delightful and wry sense of humour that was always there in inter-personal contacts, but was usually bracketed when he mounted the pulpit, I joined because I loved the way his mind worked and how his attitude and approach to all issues infused his thoughts. The key part of that attitude was “hope” as the dialectical intermediary between optimism and pessimism and the bulwark he sustained against despair and cynicism. It is that dialectic that I want to analyze using the recent material on his twice or thrice weekly 500 or so word blogs on the approach to the Israeli elections.

His emails to which his blog is attached will often have a covering note: “I hope the attached makes sense.” The concept of “hope” permeates the blogs as well. Not only about himself, but about others with whom he does not identify. For example, he wrote of Arieh Deri, the leaders of Shas, that he showed little interest in defense and much more “in better conditions for the poor, many of whom he hopes will vote for him.” Based on that analysis, Dow hoped that Shas would join a Herzog-Livni coalition rather than one led by Netanyahu. He then generalized on that particular hope. “Is it too much to hope that the next government will in no way compromise on defense to assure Israel’s survival, yet at the same time pay more attention to the survival needs of its poor citizens?”

Dow expressed his intention to vote for Meretz, the party on the left in the political spectrum in Israel. Why? “To help make sure that Herzog doesn’t abandon all the social-democratic ideas that Labour once stood for, I intend to vote for Meretz, which is left of the Herzog-Livni Zionist Camp. If Herzog becomes prime minister, Meretz will almost certainly be part of his government. I hope that it’ll hold him to at least some of his lofty promises even after he’s elected.” He placed his hope not in a party of deeds and leadership, but in a party that would play the role of a superego to try to assure that social ideals are upheld. He then went on to express the following:

And I hope that he [Herzog] will be elected because I believe that a government under his leadership would have the means to do inter alia:

Herzog has the people to fill these and other positions. That’s why even a pessimist like me need not be without hope that Buji, not Bibi, will get in.

Dow supports one political party because he hopes it can serve as a superego. He, then, hopes for the victory of another political party because he believes it will not only defend social justice but provide leadership to move forward on the peace negotiations. But he defines himself as a pessimist, who always wants – needs? – to retain some hope. Hope is not his natural state. Pessimism is. However, hope is what keeps him afloat and from sinking into despair and cynicism. This is clear in the ending of another blog. “All we hapless bystanders can hope for is that the worst of these cynical predictions won’t materialize and that decency and common sense will win in the end. I continue to be in search for support for such.”

One blog he entitled, “TOO EARLY FOR OPTIMISM?” It ended with a question mark because he wanted to put his big toe into the water of optimism without taking his other foot off the hot but sand of pessimism. Hope propelled him to this precarious state, especially precarious since Dow is anything but an outdoorsman.

If hope for Dow mediates between pessimism and optimism, it need not necessarily do so. Hope for a cynic is merely an expression of instrumental planning and manipulation. “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hopes to conquer America. As a first step he defied the president of the United States. Reports have it that Obama asked Netanyahu not to accept the invitation to address both houses of Congress…days before the elections in Israel – and thus refrain from openly challenging the president’s refusal to impose more sanctions on Iran in view of the possibility of an agreement about nuclear weapons.”

I always read Dow’s blogs. Sometimes I congratulate him. Other times I chastise him when I believe his thinking is confused. But either of these responses are rare; I generally simply appreciate his blogs in silence. However, the odd time I will engage in a more extensive exchange, though if I try to imitate Dow’s own subtle wry humour, I usually fall flat on my face.

What follows is one exchange beginning with my response to his blog followed by his response to my comments. I repeat it in full so the reader can grasp its full flavour.


“What is happening to you? With today’s blog you almost sounded optimistic. I am worried about you. Just in case you are shifting away from your generally healthy pessimism, here are a few questions about the elections for you to answer:

  1. Why should the fall-off in Bibi’s popularity benefit Herzog-Livni when the voters can shift to Naftali Bennett?
  2. This question is reinforced by the polls that show the Israeli electorate continues to shift right in spite of the social justice issues on which the Herzog-Livni team are campaigning. How do you read those polls?
  3. Even if the Herzog-Livni team are closing the gap and running neck and neck with Bibi and may even lead Bibi as Livni once did, won’t Bibi be in a better position to form a coalition?
  4. Given that Feiglin is off the Likud list and, in fact, for a right wing party, the Likud is looking surprisingly relatively moderate having tossed its [I should have written “most”] extremists overboard, so won’t that help Bibi?
  5. Even though the marriage on the left has rallied hope in all of us progressives about the possibility of returning to power, and even though the Herzog-Livni marriage seems reasonably strong, its big weakness is still the worry of the average Israeli voter, including those on the left, that neither will be a strong enough PM to deal with the security issues. After all, since Begin won, the left only wins when it is led by an IDF ex-commander. Does this not raise your pessimistic hackles?
  6. In the current Knesset, the following breakdown on the centre left is as follows:

Yesh Atid             19

Labour                  15

Hatnua                    6

Meretz                     6

Kadima                    2

Total                     48

If Avigdor Lieberman’s party is imploding, all his flirtation with the centre may be for naught, and the centre-left cannot count on him. Moshe Kahlon is an ex-Likudnik and more likely to make up with Bibi. Further, Lapid is falling in the polls and working like a dog to attack the centre-left, in particular, Herzog, so how will it be possible for him to be a minister in the Herzog-Livni camp? Is he now not more comfortable in a Bibi cabinet? The only positive news on that front is that Mofaz, who is a triple hitter with his security background, Middle Eastern origins and Likud credentials, has a safe position on the Herzog-Livni list.

Nevertheless, how do you add up the numbers to get a majority?”

I ended, “Dow, I just miss your pessimism”

Dow replied:

“Even pessimists have lapses. Here are some of the reasons for mine in answer to your points, one by one:

  1. Bennett’s base is in the settlements, but he’s not a popular character. He’s trying hard to shed the modern Orthodox-ultra nationalist image by trying to find outsider candidates, if possible women, but it’s not clear that they have sufficient popular appeal. And Bibi’s handlers direct his ire to Herzog-Livni, not to Bennett, even though not much love is lost between them.
  2. Yes, the Israeli electorate continues to shift right. Hence the Herzog-Livni alliance which isn’t exactly Labour. And that’s why Bibi goes out of his way to describe them as lefties. I’m not sure that the electorate believes it.
  3. The present rules are that the party with the most mandates is asked to form the government. Hence Bibi’s new initiative to change that if he’s re-elected. If Herzog-Livni get more votes than Bibi, they’re in.
  4. At least one extremist, Feiglin, is off the list, but others are still there and high up, e.g. Danon, Regev and Elkin.
  5. There’re signs, I believe, that social justice is a strong competitor to security, in view of the alarming poverty statistics (1.5 million?) and news about army waste of money, sexual abuse, etc. Bibi tries to tell us that only he is strong whereas Herzog and Livni are just nice, but in my less pessimistic moments I’m no longer persuaded that the public believes him. Last summer’s Gaza war shattered many illusions.
  6. Difficult to calculate numbers as yet. Please remember that Herzog-Livni would probably get the ultra-Orthodox into the government like in the old days. Their absence from the last government hasn’t liberated Israel from Orthodox domination. It’s not even certain that the army is very happy conscripting the ultras. There has even been talk of late of doing away with conscription in favour of a professional army.

Don’t panic, the pessimism will return, but as things look today, it seems marginally less warranted than on other days.”

And pessimism did return. What becomes clear is that the dialectic of hope mediating between optimism and pessimism are the ballast that keeps him from sinking into the cynicism and despair he attributes to both Netanyahu and the leaders of the Palestinian authority. Those sworn enemy leaders are not only united in their cynicism, but “sworn enemies can end up on the same side for seemingly mutually exclusive reasons.” Cynicism not only united them in their attitudes, but may make them de facto allies and partners.

Hope is minimal. Despair and pessimism are overriding. And the ratio has been determined by cynical political behaviour exacerbated by even more cynical commentary. To keep his spirits above water, Dow often adds levity, even telling an old joke again. “In the early days of Israel, when the country was in dire economic straits, it was suggested that the Jewish state should declare war against the United States. The Americans would win, of course, and thus be obliged to provide for Israel. That was the optimistic view. The pessimists said: “And what if Israel conquers America?”

To understand the dialectic between optimism and pessimism mediated by it helps to clarify the differences among the three terms.

Optimism is standing outside a tunnel and basking in the glorious sunlight. Hope is living in the tunnel and believing that one sees a glimmer of light in the distance. Pessimism is the recognition that the light seen at the end of the tunnel will turn brighter and brighter and reveal itself to be the headlight of an oncoming train. Cynicism is to be the driver of that train. Turned upside down, optimism is the belief that you are not and never will be in a tunnel, and that if you find yourself on a train track with a light coming towards you, you can step aside and then jump aboard the train. Hope is the belief that the light you imagine coming towards you on the track is really the rising sun, but, if it is not, you can jump out of the way in time. Pessimism is the belief that you are trapped in the tunnel and there is no escape from the oncoming train. In despair, you lie down on the tracks and the cynical engineer runs you over.

Alice Auma (Lakwena), leader of the Holy Spirit Movement in Northern Uganda in 1986, taught her followers to anoint and cover their bodies with shea nut oil that would protect them from bullets. Lakwena was NOT a healer, spirit medium and diviner; she was simply an optimist. Of course, sometimes an optimist, like Ronald Reagan, gets elected to be president of the United States and, supposedly, with one magic bullet, helps destroy the Soviet Union. At the same time, his inventive spirit leads to the creation of Iron Dome. Optimism is based on the illusion that, if you just work and try hard enough, not only is anything possible, but you can help deliver the best of all possible worlds. Of course, for those who are positivist boosters of optimism and not pessimists in characterizing it, optimism is simply the recognition of the possibilities that are present in a situation. Experience from the past and the present can be extrapolated to provide a better future. Optimism is founded on a deep faith the human ingenuity will always enable us to overcome our challenges and create a better future. Optimism allows a person to become captain of his or her future primarily because they feel good about themselves and the world.

Hope is a different matter altogether. As Vaclav Havel described it, hope “is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.” Though hope and optimism share an orientation towards the future, though both anticipate the possibility of improvement, hope is held in high esteem in spite of, not because of, the past, in the face of experience, not based on it. For one has hope despite a history of human horror. Hope does not ignore genocides and massive ethnic cleansing. Hope works for a better future in spite of the Shoah. Hope through tikkun olam, mending the world, is about righting the wrongs of the past and not simply seeing that past through rose-coloured glasses. If Reagan was a president of optimism, Obama is a president of hope, not simply because he wrote an autobiography called, The Audacity of Hope. Hope fights on in spite of human mindblindness, in spite of institutional obstinacy, in spite of ignorance and prejudice. Hope refuses to sink into deep grief and allow the obscenities that humans can perpetrate on one another to sink one into deep grief.

Hope insists on honesty. Hope is deeply heartfelt and is, in the end, not a rational result of experience, but ultimately rests on faith. How then is it that what might be regarded as a totally unrealistic vision of the world, a belief that we can stare directly at the sun and not only not go blind, but can see the future, how is it then that optimism, more often than not, brings about the more major changes in the future and radical leaps forward, while hope only seems to bring about incremental improvements, if it does that? However, as Vaclav Havel described it and to repeat, hope “is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

As Havel also wrote, “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Hope is based on outcomes we wish for. Optimism is based on outcomes we will. The latter requires confidence. The former requires stamina. Optimism depends on faith that good will triumph over evil. Hope depends on the longing that evil will not triumph over good. Both hope and optimism direct us to change the future for the better. However, without hope, despair takes over; most significantly, it can manipulate hope. In contrast, optimism and despair can easily form a partnership of opposites. But both optimism and hope refuse to surrender to a sense of helplessness, though those rooted in hope tend to be more passive and see themselves more as bystanders than activist optimists.

Pessimism is the inverse of optimism and is suffused with a sense of the primacy of the tragic. So a person like Dow Marmur, who is fundamentally infused with pessimism, faces the future with fear and trepidation that once more bad and even evil will prevail, but insists on walking towards the force of that gale of evil with a smile on his face. That is his hope, set in place to offset his fundamental pessimism, that celebrates the virtues and joys of the living, while fearing that the vices of a Darth Vader will prevail. Pessimism and hope both rest upon a tremendous love of life and delight in the grandeur and wonder of the world. But a pessimist always focuses on the one small black cloud in the sky than the vast stretch of blue or the billowy white clouds on the horizon.

The bogeyman of hope is despair — desperation, depression, despondency, and total disillusionment. Despair comes from Middle English despeiren, from Old French desperer, each in turn from Latin desperare, to be without hope, from de-, without, and sperare, to hope. It is the belief and feeling that there is no hope and that you are totally impotent to do anything to improve a threatening situation. To despair is to lose both hope and the confidence of the optimist. Optimism, however, is only able to counter despair by converting it into cynicism while hope fights off despair ironically, by choosing pessimism over despair. Pessimism becomes the bulwark against despair.

Let me end by stealing an analogy from Plato’s Republic, that of the divided line. Envision a vertical line divided into two unequal portions. Then envision each of these two unequal portions divided in turn using the same proportions as the first division. Though it is not explicitly mentioned in Book IV of The Republic where this analogy is offered, Plato required that all students in his academy be thoroughly versed in geometry before attending the academy. All the students would have known the relevant geometric laws, which I will represent here arithmetically. If a line is divided into two unequal proportions and those initial divisions are divided again by the same proportion, the two middle sections will always be of equal length.

Therefore, a line 18” tall would be divided in the following ratios, this time inverting the usual presentation by placing the largest section at the bottom rather than the top. The ratio of the initial division from top to bottom would be 6:12 and of the second division of those two parts in the same ratio would be 2:4:4:8. Instead of the two major divisions representing the metaphysics of the world, the intelligible (the larger section) versus the visible world (the smaller section), or the four sections representing different epistemological modes of grasping the world (opinion, observation, understanding and reason), or even each section representing corresponding characteristics of the soul, conceive of the line as representing different possible personal attitudes distinguished from top to bottom as follows:

Attitude                      Ratio

Optimism                    2

Hope                           4

Pessimism                   4

Despair                       8

The dialectic of hope and pessimism works as follows. Despair at the bottom exerts an enormous gravitational pull on everything above, pessimism directly, and hope mediated by pessimism which is used by hope to keep despair in abeyance. Optimism, on the other hand, is so removed from despair that it does not even recognize it in its transmuted form as cynicism. That is why cynicism and optimism can so often be found together as partners. Further, hope is always trying to keep the attractions and inducements of optimism also at bay, since in many ways, hope shares with optimism a similar orientation. But hope recognizes that if it is sucked into optimism’s rather than pessimism’s orbit, the risk is very high that it would be deluded and the result could be crashing down onto the cave floor and never being able to get up again. So an individual like Dow Marmur tries to keep hope and pessimism in balance, always walking a tight rope between the two.

That is Marmur’s underlying dialectic that underpins his blog.

Happy Birthday!