Friday, 22 February 2013
The Great Day of his Wrath

Being in France again, I read Le Monde. On Saturday 9 February, my eye was caught by a little notice at the top of the front page of the Ideas & Culture section advertising an article on pages 4 and 5 in the same section. The notice read:

  Paul Ehrlich preaches in the wilderness: the American biologist predicts the collapse of our civilisation. Studies that agree are multiplying. But no one does anything.

Could this be the same Paul Ehrlich who, in 1968, wrote ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines, hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programme embarked on now’? Reader, it could be, and it is.

This set me thinking about the typology of pessimists. Naturally I prefer pessimism to optimism, largely because optimists have no sense of humour; and since I have a sense of humour, I must be a pessimist.

But of course it does not follow from the fact that people with a sense of humour are pessimists that pessimists have a sense of humour. This is because there are two main types of pessimist, the existential and the apocalyptic. The former is pessimistic because he knows that Man is an imperfect being, inclined to do wrong for its own sake, often blind where his own best interests are concerned, ridiculous, self-destructive and self-defeating, and endowed with contradictory and incompatible wishes and desires. He knows that life will never be right.

The apocalyptic pessimist is different. He is so earnest that he could almost be an optimist. He believes that the end of the world is nigh, and secretly is rather pleased about it. If he is of a scientific bent, he does the following: he takes an undesirable trend and projects it indefinitely into the future until whatever is the object of the trend destroys the world. For example, he might take the fact that Staphylococci reproduce exponentially on a Petri dish to mean that, within the week, the entire biosphere will consist of Staphylococci and nothing else. Man will be crushed under the weight of bacteria.

Paul Ehrlich is of that ilk. His belief in the end of the world precedes his belief in any particular cause of it. When the end fails to happen as previously announced, his faith is undented. The End of the World has not happened. Long live the End of the World!     

First published in Salisbury Review.

Posted on 02/22/2013 7:25 AM by Theodore Dalrymple
22 Feb 2013

Dalrymple's philosophizing is way off.  Except in pathological cases, man doesn't do wrong as he sees it "for its own sake": there is always an intelligible purpose, even if it's not always intelligently pursued.  Blindness to your own interests is an impossibility, because what your interests are is inseperable from what you think they are.  (That's why I can make no sense of all the talk of "national interests" as though these had objective reality apart from the hopes and purposes of particular human beings.)  Man is ridiculous only to the extent that others, affecting superior understanding, laugh at him to feel good about themselves.  (See, e.g., Theodore Dalrymple.)  And, as far as I know, not even Marx (Comte, Diderot, etc.) claimed that man was "perfect."  What Dalrymple wanted to say is that man is not perfectible, itself not an obvious proposition.  Always glad to be of help, doctor.

28 Feb 2013
Send an emailDavid

Wow, what an insufferable snob you are! No one asked for your 'help'. I think I should take me own advice and just read the post and skip the comments. And you're wrong BTW. There is something that is objectively better for a person that he is aware of that is separate from what he wants. That's what he meant. Oh, and you're welcome!