Saturday 15 May 2021 | 12:27 | SYDNEY
Saturday 15 May 2021 | 12:27 | SYDNEY

The wisdom of pessimism


Sam Roggeveen


12 July 2011 16:04

Brilliant lecture from philosopher Alain de Botton:

De Botton's theme is that we ought to embrace the idea of human beings as 'fallen creatures', whose default settings are sadness and tragedy. The modern obsession with self-esteem and happiness, argues de Botton, is a quite damaging departure from the historical norm, and resigning oneself to the tragedy and unfairness of life is ultimately a much more satisfying path. As de Botton acknowledges, this is quite a confronting proposition for modern Westerners, who are apt to believe that with sufficient good will and application, all obstacles can be overcome.

What immediately warmed me to this lecture is that it begins with Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne'. As I have argued previously, Cohen is one modern artist who resists the relentless optimism of our age and opens our imaginations to the possibility of tragedy.

That may sound like a grim task, but as de Bottton shows, pessimism is not fatalism, and there are always hints of redemption in Cohen's music. 'There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in', Cohen sings in Anthem, a sentiment which beatifully juxtaposes our fallen nature ('there is a crack in everything') with the possibilities for enlightenment this offers ('that's how the light gets in').

Call it 'the liberalism of imperfection'.