The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Optimism and Pessimism

  • F. C. Montague
Reference work entry


The term optimism is difficult to define. Strictly it should signify the belief that everything which exists is the best possible. But as there is scarcely any pessimist who denies absolutely the existence of good, so there is scarcely any optimist who denies absolutely the existence of evil. Optimism therefore can describe only the belief that good greatly preponderates in the world, or that evil admits of being resolved ultimately into good. Such a belief may be the result either of temperament or of a process of logical inference. In so far as it is the result of a happy temperament, it cannot be communicated to those whose disposition is less cheerful. In so far as it is the result of logical inference it may take various forms. All who regard the universe as the work of reason, in other words, all theists, must be optimists in one sense or another. But among theists even within the bounds of the Christian church there may be wide differences in the nature of their optimism. Some may concentrate their minds on the corruption of man and others upon the benevolence of his Creator. St Augustine or Calvin would hardly be termed optimists in the ordinary use of that word. Paley was an optimist in every sense. Now one of the characteristics of the period in which modern political economy took its rise, the period between the close of the Thirty Years’ war and the outbreak of the French Revolution, was a general optimism. Religious wars and persecutions had impressed the most active minds with indifference or disgust for the theological views which came down from the middle ages, and which were permeated with distrust of human nature and aversion to the pursuits of the world. In contrast to these views the antique conception of nature kept alive by the Roman law again attracted philosophers and became the germ of new moral and political theories. Natural religion took the place of revelation, and natural goodness of asceticism. Natural instincts were again regarded as innocent and deserving of gratification. Much stress was laid on those amiable and social instincts which find their fulfilment in promoting the happiness of others. Providence, it was held, had so ordered the world that each man in seeking to satisfy his own desires contributed to the general welfare. Virtue was identified with the rational pursuit of happiness, and thus was made to appear easy and natural. From these first principles the inference in favour of freedom was irresistible. Restraint or compulsion was in itself an evil because it was painful, and in most cases restraint or compulsion was unnecessary, since human instincts harmonized by divine wisdom tended of themselves to bring about the good of mankind.

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • F. C. Montague
    • 1
  1. 1.