Paul Ehrlich’s False Gospel

One interesting aspect of Dalrymple’s career is the difference between the image some have of him, through a misreading of his writing, as a dour and unhappy man and his actual personality, which is friendly and humorous. Daniel Hannan remarked on this in his interview of Dalrymple. People mistake his pessimism for bitterness, when actually pessimists are often happier people because they are less prone to disappointment. If your expectations are low to begin with, the world is not as much a source of constant frustration. In a new piece at the Library of Law and Liberty, Dalrymple distinguishes his own “existential pessimism” from both “catastrophist pessimists” like Paul Ehrlich and “radical optimists”, two seemingly opposed attitudes that both tend toward frustration and unhappiness. In so doing, he gives one of his most forthright explanations of his own outlook:

The existential pessimist is light-hearted, for he knows that human life is not perfectible, and can therefore enjoy what it has to offer without any sense of guilt that he is not spending his every waking hour averting disaster or bringing perfection about. He does not deny that many diseases currently incurable will one day change their status and that this is a good thing, for taken in the round more life is better than less; but neither does he expect that, when formerly incurable diseases have become curable, human complaint and dissatisfaction will become things of the past. Golden ages in the future are just as mythical as golden ages in the past (except, perhaps, in isolated fields, as exemplified in Dutch painting).

Read it here

2 thoughts on “Paul Ehrlich’s False Gospel

  1. Gavin

    I think you make some excellent points in your introduction. The former kind of pessimist irk me – those who, when you remark that it’s a lovely day (which they never do), reply, downtrodden, “Yes, but there’s a cloud up there”. I suppose they’re actually depressed. The trouble is they can be a liability for others who agree that, yes, life does not often deal a fair hand, but we’re here so we had better get on and try to make the best of it!

    The “existential pessimist” could perhaps also be described as simply a realist. As you say, such a realist should, in a sense, be less likely to be unhappy since his expectations are low to begin with. I certainly find this to be the case in my own life!

    It is quite possible, though, to be a realist and still be able to acknowledge the good things in life and be distracted by them and enjoy them (even while highlighting the bad things which perhaps outweigh the good, as TD does and as is a moral thing to do).

    I suppose a certain degree of pessimism is the same thing as realism, which is rational. Optimism is irrational and may lead to sadness (how can the optimist remain optimistic?!). Fatalism is also irrational, and somewhat annoying and dangerous, because it runs the risk of being self-confirming.

    Finally, in my experience you are of course quite right about Dalrymple’s demeanour. How little his opponents know him!

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    1. Steve Post author

      Gavin, those are all good points. Yes, I do think pessimists are realists. Clint once pointed out a scientific study he read about that found that pessimists are far more accurate in their predictions than optimists.

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