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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Optimism and Pessimism
Philosophical and theological systems according to which this world and human life are considered as essentially good or essentially evil. Plato, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Nicolaus Cusanus, and especially Leibnitz, Wolf, and Mendelssohn, are among the exponents of optimism, while Buddhism may be said to be the religion of pessimism and Schopenhauer's system its philosophical exposition.
Judaism must be said to be fundamentally optimistic. Genesis 1 proclaims that all that God made was good, very good. Man alone of all creatures is not so described. He is endowed with the freedom to choose evil or good. Hence the evils of life are not inherent in the nature of things, but are consequent upon man's conduct. This is the theory worked out in Genesis 2 These two basic concepts—the essential goodness of Creation and man's moral liberty, in which is involved his freedom to sin and thus to bring upon himself both physical and moral suffering as the wage of sin—recur, though in various forms, in the successive developments of Jewish thought. According to this theory happiness and goodness must be coincident. This simple faith was rudely shaken by abundant observation of both public and private experiences to the contrary (Habakkuk 1:3-4; Isaiah 49:4; Jeremiah 12:1-3; Malachi 2:17, 3:13-15; Psalms 44 and; comp. Ber. 7a). The Messianic hope, however, or the ultimate manifestation of the all-harmonizing retributive power of God, was urged as the solution of the perplexity (Psalms 37:10-22, 92:13-16; Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:9; Malachi 3:18, 4:1-3). It is characteristic of these Biblical attempts at a theodicy that no reference is made to retribution or recompense in the hereafter (but see Ibn Ezra on Psalms 73).
Job and Ecclesiastes.
The Book of Job is devoted to an exposition of the problem. The poem positively rejects the equation between suffering and sin, but has no explanation to offer for the often unhappy lot of the righteous. Moreover, the vanity of human life finds frequent enunciation (Job 7:1-9, 14:1-2), a thought which is also a favorite theme of the Psalms (62:10, 89:45 et seq., xc. 9-10). This idea is dominant in Ecclesiastes—a work of post-exilic origin, and it is by no means clearly established that its author points to divine retribution in the hereafter as the solution of the problem (comp. 3:17, 12:7). Yet, even in Ecclesiastes optimism is not silent; the world is good even if life is vain (3:11; comp. Shab. 30b).
During and after the Exile the idea of immortality led to a modification of the relations between optimism and pessimism. In Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), for example, a practical pessimism is joined to the fundamentally optimistic assurance that ultimately harmony will result. Moral evil is not caused by God, but is involved in man's freedom (10:21-22, 15:14 et seq.). Physical evil is purposed by God for the undoing of the wicked (2:5, 11:14, 39:33-36). Yet God's work is good (39:33 et seq.).
Optimism is the fundamental note in Philo's theology. God's goodness is more original than His power. Evil originates in matter, which, he declares, is not created by God. See Philo.
In the Talmud.
The question of life's worth and the inherent value of the world as it confronted post-Biblical Judaism under the stress of persecution and suffering had not merely a speculative interest. The contrast between the other-worldliness of the nascent Church and that of the Synagogue is significant for the latter's optimism. Of discussions on the problem of life's value only those between the schools of Hillel and Shammai have been reported ('Er. 13b). The conclusion is given that, abstractly, it would have been better for man not to have been born; but as he has life he should strive after moral perfection. In the darkest days of national or individual affliction the Jews sought and found solace in the study of the Law, which they made the one abiding aim and interest of life. Nahum of Gimzo's motto, "Gam zu le-ṭobah," is characteristic of the irrepressible optimism of the Jewish world-conception (Ta'an. 21a). That the future will bring about a compensating readjustment of present ills is the conviction of such books as the Apocalypse of Baruk (comp. ch. ) and the Fourth Book of Ezra (, 4:2 et seq., and especially 6:6, 7:1 et seq., 15-16), while the Book of Tobit argues that evil, in truth, is unreal and always turns out to be good for the righteous.
R. Akiba's contention that whatever God does is done for good (Ber. 60b) may be said to be the summing up of what was Israel's belief in his time. Suffering is disciplinary (Sifre, Deut. 32; Ber. 5b); "Man must bless God for evil as well as for good" (Ber. 54a, 60b). R. Meïr advances the same doctrine (Ber. 60b, "ṭob me'od" = "ha-mawet"; Gen. R. ). This position may be said to be that of the medieval Synagogue. The Messianic hope and the belief that divine judgment will bring about justice "in the world to be," giving to its doctrine the character of transcendental optimism, though practical pessimism in view of life's deceptiveness (Eccl. R.; Ber. 61b; et al.), is never altogether absent.
Among the Medieval Philosophers.
Among the Jewish philosophers this optimism reappears as the theme of argumentation and demonstration. Saadia argues that evil is negative as far as God is concerned; it arises from man's liberty ("Emunot we-De'ot," ). This life is incomplete (ib. ). Hence evil is a mighty lever to influence man to strive after the completer, purer life (ib. , ). Suffering may be the consequence of sin, but it may also be disciplinary (ib. ). The seeming prosperity of the wicked is not an argument against God's justice or His goodness. On the contrary, God is long-suffering, and even rewards the wicked for any good deeds he may have done. Saadia's theodicy culminates in the doctrine of future retribution.
Joseph ben Jacob ibn Ẓaddiḳ inclines toward pessimism. He denies teleological intentions to be determinant of Creation. Evil is caused by God, though Creation is an emanation from God's goodness. But evil is disciplinary. Still, he who takes cognizance of this world must hate and despise it and strive for that (other) world which is of eternal duration. For good is something exceptional in this world; this world is only endurable as preliminary to another and a better (see his "'Olam Ḳaṭan," passim).
Judah ha-Levi, in his "Cuzari," states very clearly the difficulties of the optimistic view (comp. , § 11, for instance), but he takes refuge in the direct statement of revelation that God's doings are perfect. Human mental limitations are at the bottom of the assumed imperfections in God's work (, § 20). The fulfilment of God's Law is Israel's destiny. In this, life's contrasts will be adjusted. This life, if well lived, prepares for the higher world.
Abraham ibn Daud proceeds from the position that evil can not originate in God ("Emunah Ramah," Introduction). God is not, like man, a composite being. As a composite being man is able to do both good and evil, but good issues from reason and evil from desire or passion. The simplicity of God precludes His being the source of two antithetical forces; He can produce only the good. Evil in the world is due to matter, which is antipodal to God. But as matter is largely the negative principle, so in evil inheres for the most part no positive quality. Negations are; they are not produced. Hence God, the Creator, has no share in the being of evil. Moreover, the proportion of evil to good in Creation is so small as scarcely to be worth noticing; and even as such, evil proves to be but good in disguise (see "Emunah Ramah," passim).
Views of Maimonides.
Maimonides also contends that from God only the perfect can emanate. Evil is caused by matter, and as such it is privative, not positive. Evil is found only in sublunar things and is always accidental. Man's soul is free from evil. How far this ascription of evil to matter serves to establish a theodicy depends upon the view taken of matter. If it, too, is ultimately the work of the Creator (and this is Maimonides' opinion), evil still is the creation of God. Another difficulty is apparent. Metaphysically evil may be nonentity, a privative negation; but physically it is fraught with suffering. Even so, according to Maimonides, evil is an infinitesimal quantity compared with the preponderating good in the world ("Moreh," 3:12); and, besides, moral evil, rooted in the freedom of man, is the parent of most of the physical ills, but it is bound to diminish in measure as the active reason is put in control; and this ever-enlarging dominion of reason is preordained in the nature of things. The deeper the wisdom of men becomes, the less ardent will be their (foolish) desires; and wisdom is as inherent in man as the power to see in the eye. With the wider and fuller spread of truth, hatred and discord will vanish from among men (ib. 3:11). Man is only a small part of the universe, not its main and only end. Even if it were proved that in human life evil and suffering exceed the good, this would not demonstrate the essential evilness of Creation. Most ills to which man is heir are either beneficial to his race or are directly traceable to his own conduct, and therefore are accidental and avoidable.
In Crescas' system evil is not regarded as something negative. It is apprehended as real, but still relative, that is, as something which, from the higher point of view, is seen to be good. Later Jewishthinkers have added but little to the elucidation of the problem. In modern theological literature the question has not been extensively discussed. Samuel Hirsch ("Catechismus," p. 100) contends that, in reality, evil has only the power to deceive and destroy itself, while the physical or moral suffering entailed by evil on the doer or on others is to be regarded as probationary and disciplinary. Man's relation to things decides their characterization as "evil" or "good." For the righteous even pain is a blessing.
Judaism, therefore, never advised passive resignation, or the abandonment of and withdrawal from the world. It rejects the theory that the root of life is evil, or that man and life and the world are corrupt as a consequence of original sin. Its optimism is apparent in its faith in the slow but certain uplifting of mankind, in the ultimate triumph of justice over injustice, and in the certain coming of a Messianic age.
- Dr. H. Goitein, Der Optimismus und Pessimismus, Berlin, 1890;
- A. Guttmacher, Optimism and Pessimism, Baltimore, 1902.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Optimism and Pessimism'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/o/optimism-and-pessimism.html. 1901.