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A Time for Optimism

April 30, 2020 | By: Jon Budington

We are in desperate need of optimism today. I believe it could save us. Now, I’m not talking about blissful ignorance or feelings of hopefulness towards future events. We need the kind of optimism focused on the half empty glass in front of us. The one that needs filling. We need optimism focused on today—not a distant future. We need philosophical optimism, and to understand this idea, we must understand the origins of the word. The story of optimism begins with a world in disarray—a European continent that reformed its views on Christianity and fought the Thirty Years War to settle things. In the process, it grew  pessimistic and lost its faith.

The Rise of an Optimist

Gottfried Leibniz

In 1646, as the war concluded, Gottfried Leibniz was born into a Lutheran family in Leipzig, Germany. He was unquestionably a genius. At age 6, he inherited his father’s extensive library. Following in his father’s footsteps, he earned a degree in philosophy at age 16. With his star on the rise, he was selected to go to Paris for negotiations with King Louis the XIV.  His task was to secure Germany’s postwar position in a newly formed Europe. And while there, Leibniz realized his knowledge of math was lacking. He began studying with Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens and invented a new math called calculus—the math of movement; the math that explains how things change. 

Math, God and the Best Possible World 

Theodicy by Gottfried Leibniz

Upon returning to Germany, Leibniz found himself in a world that hadn’t spiritually recovered from the conflicts of the Reformation. This was a problem for the devout Lutheran. In 1710, he combined his newly attained math talent with his philosophy education to publish Theodicy, a groundbreaking work with a mathematician’s proof explaining the existence of evil in a world created by a perfect God. He believed that God oversaw multiple universes, and this world, the one we all live in, was chosen for us as the “best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz believed evil is necessary for us to understand our mortal imperfections and provide a contrast to human “true good.” Leibniz created the word optimism to describe this new idea. Optimism reconciles a world with both good and evil—a dichotomy he believed necessary for humankind.

Change is Inevitable. Embrace it.

Our imperfect world has changed a great deal since Leibniz’s time, especially over the past couple of months. So must our understanding of the word optimism. The definition has evolved to describe a feeling of ignorance—one who blindly believes good will come in a future state of the world. This is unfortunate, as the philosophical idea in modern secular terms is powerful. Philosophical optimists understand the coexistence of both bad and good in their lives, the challenges and the opportunities presented by change. Optimism drives us forward, even through difficult times. 

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are going to be with us for some time, and we most likely won’t be returning to a pre-COVID world. History has proven that change is constant.  As optimists, our job is to address the challenges in front of us, and to adapt to this new “best possible world.” We’ll do just that. We always do.