Prompt: How important has the theme of optimism been in the development of western literature since 1493?
To get a full perspective of literature I like to look to the life and environment the author resided within. It shouldn’t be a shock to many that everyday life for the people of the past was full of many discomforts and heartaches: plagues, government funded torture, mass paranoia, unstoppable natural disasters, murderous raiders, religious extermination, forced slavery, and undeveloped medical technology to name a few. Because of these many horrifying realities humanity needed somewhere they could look to find the hope and community driven warmth they desired, so much like today’s society many of them looked to religion.
Before the literature of Luther and Foxe arrived to break down the pre-established laws of the catholic church, the catholic church was many peoples source of optimism. The fear of the unknown abyss of death put a universally difficult toll on peoples shoulders, so to compensate humans have always been fond at speculating a pleasurable alternative to the bleak presumption of the spiritless void. “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” In other words its a lot easier to imagine your plague smitten relatives sharing a cold one with Jesus up in the clouds, at least while you’re watching their 14th century corpse burn in the communities plague pit. Introducing the catholic church, a one stop shop for all your spiritual comforts. That is assuming you’re not a herbal medicine woman or a 14th century gay man, for both of these could have won you the label of possessed and consequently gotten you a trip to your own personal hanging tree. Starting to see the psychological importance of optimism?
As the catholic church developed and pulled in more followers than a modern day superbowl, the pope began to think of ways his followers could assist him in the financial aspect. There was a fair amount of tithing and donations already, but the pope had become fond of this particular money stash and would rather think of an alternative way to fund the building of St Peters Chapel. Introducing indulgences! Don’t wanna be punished for thine sins? Throw us a dime and let the good times begin! Got a sneaky secret you’re too embarrassed to admit? Why, just pay us money and God shall forget. Indulgences were a way for priests to get around emptying their personal pocketbooks, and they doubled as a way to lesson the religious guilt pumped on the public at the time. Some folks were into it, some against, but no one was willing to go against the popes wishes and risk losing a vital organ or two.
No one that is, except a sly theology expert/monk known to the world as Martin Luther. Martin Luther viewed indulgences as a total fraud, a sinful lie promising the removal of sins. His belief was that people were being tricked into damning themselves, that the pope and his army of avarice were milking the followers dry while simultaneously dragging them towards the hellfire. Luther, as you’d probably guess, was not enthused about the idea. But he was smart, and he knew that questioning the pope was enough to be prosecuted for blasphemy. So, he became the expert of backhanded compliments, managing to praise the pope while at the same time critically pointing out the faults of roman catholic church. His magnum opus took form in his 95 Theses, a list of questions and propositions meant to spark large scale debate about the catholic church and their indulgences. This was purely passion based, as to Luther the exposure of the underbelly of indulgences was the only way to save people from an eternity in hell. Indulgences were meant to bring optimism (as well as a few extra coins), but Luther turned the idea on its head and sparked a wave of religious revolution across Europe.
Thomas More was also a 15th century writer, but he specialized in economy and government structure rather than religion. His work Utopia tells of a traveler named Rafael. Rafael had traveled the world, and had seen a fictional society which he calls utopia. In this utopia private property, recreational drinking and gambling, and money have all been completely abolished. If someone needs something they go into town and receive it, no payment needed. The government manages the economy and everything that goes into the production and distribution, and people can act much more efficiently because they aren’t able to make financial blunders. This society Rafael describes is the product of pure optimism, which More explains is not realistic. More states that the absence of capitalistic competitivity will create sloth, as people will become too dependent on the government and look for any excuse to get out of doing the work themselves. If everyone receives the same, there’s no draw to work harder. This is an example of how a purely communistic society is overly optimistic. It expects the greed and sloth that exist in everyone to simply disappear with the push of a button, and doesn’t give any solution for the realistic issues that would arise from economical equality. Sometimes being too optimistic can lead to societies downfall.
Lets take the outcomes of becoming overly optimistic and apply them to a spiritual sense. Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus does just this. Doctor Faustus was a man who was raised as a christian, but he rebelled against his upbringing and called on the Devil to discuss a contract. A demon named Mephistopheles told the man that if he sold his soul he would live 24 years of pure pleasure, not having to worry about money or work and receiving any and all he desired. The demon filled him with over optimism, promising hell was not as bad as the christian faith said. He fed on Faustus’s greed and sloth, petting his ego and applying optimism to what would otherwise be fear. Faustus agreed and sold his soul, but although he had all the wine and wealth he could ever want he was utterly consumed by fear. By relying on false optimism he had damned himself, and holding the demons words higher than he had held his previous faith had completely destroyed any chance he had at salvation. On the night before his demise Faustus called all of his friends for dinner and told them the horrible news. They told him to plea for mercy the whole night through, and if he was lucky God would have pity on him. But when he sat down to pray he found he was too far gone. He had already committed true blasphemy and promised himself to Satan, there was no going back. His body parts were found littered around his wealthy estate the next morning.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a story about a nobleman who is given a prophecy by three witches. This prophecy states Macbeth shall become king, and his companion Banquo shall father the next line of kings. Macbeth sends a letter of this news to his wife, who convinces him this is proof that his destiny is to kill the current king and take his throne. With some persuasion Macbeth agrees and does away with the current king. Macbeth becomes king, but the paranoia that a cousin or sibling may murder him for the throne is constantly at the back of his mind. During Macbeth’s inauguration Macbeth notices that Macduff, the Thane of Fife, has not attended. Macbeth’s suspicion (combined with his lingering envy over Macduff’s ability to spawn offspring) drives Macbeth to send an assassin to murder Macduff’s wife and children. Macbeth is also worried that Banquo’s son will fulfill the prophecy and replace him, so he murders Banquo and attempts to also murder his son. Lady Macbeth begins to feel guilty to the point of sleep walking and sleep talking. She rubs her hands in her sleep, as if shes washing them. She says to herself no matter how hard she tries she cant seem to wash the blood off them. A doctor is called for her, but he says the only way she can cure her guilt is to be forgiven by God. After this Macduff takes stage, carrying Macbeth’s disembodied head. Macduff becomes the hero who slayed the barbarian, and Macbeth is known from then on as the barbarian who killed the previous king. The connection to optimism in all of this is optimism drove Macbeth to kill. He was honest and kindhearted prior to the prophecy, but once given a heavy dose of political optimism he became paranoid and power hungry. Believing your destiny is to murder the king and take his place is a form of optimism so overly thick that it blinds Macbeth to the ramifications of his actions. His optimism has stolen away his logic, and because of this his name was damned and he was remembered as a tyrant.
Moving from fiction to philosophy i’ll now speak a little about the works of Francis Bacon. Bacon was an English politician and writer, and although he had immense experience in the genres of his literature he rarely chose to bring up personal matters. He wrote Of Fortune and Of Expense, two works discussing financial prosper and decay. But the work I personally find the most philosophical wealth in is his work Of Envy. I’ve always been fascinated by human envy, both because of its ability to easily infiltrate a seemingly virtuous person as well as its ability to stick around and fester long after its welcomed. Envy is like an autoimmune disease, it arises from our internal instinctive longing to better ourselves and continuously causes us damage from the inside out. We feel desperate to improve ourselves, and this not only creates spite towards the advanced but also ironically drags us away from our goal in the process. It’s the emotional equivalent to cancer, it applies so much overcompensation to a damaged area that it further damages it. Like a dog chasing its own tail, when it finally catches what its been chasing it finds that its only biting its own being.
Bacon brings up several truths about envy that can further help us dissect the sin. The first is we hardly ever envy what is utterly unattainable. For example we wouldn’t envy celebrities, not for very long at least. They have climbed the social ladder far higher than the majority of us strive for, and since its such a distant fantasy most of us admire their accomplishes rather than envy them. Why waste spite on something unreachable? Our peers on the other hand are a prime breeding ground for envy, since they are often the people we compare ourselves to. Bacon says on the matter: “Near kinsfolks, and fellows in office, and those that have been bred together, are more apt to envy their equals when they are raised.” When a celebrity accomplishes a goal far away in an ivory tower we praise their workmanship. When a neighbor accomplishes a goal (a goal we longed to accomplish but failed to do so) we feel a bubbling river of spite rise up through the now envy soaked ground of our subconscious. Its a strange phenomenon to examine, the phenomenon of envy being linked with relative proximity. “Again, envy is ever joined with the comparing of a man’s self; and where there is no comparison, no envy; and therefore kings are not envied but by kings.”
Envy is very amicable when immersed with one or more other sins, it hardly ever shows up completely alone. Lust can easily trigger it; a comrade obtaining a love interest while you’re left alone can draw up envy like an artist draws up cartoons. Greed pairs with envy like a second cousin, both their bases are composed of unusually similar components. Craving something that isn’t yours, that is. Pride can make envy explosively aggravated, in fact excessive or unwarranted pride usually calls up both envy and wrath. These two sins often work as a team, fueling one another in their violent internal battles for undeserved compensation. Gluttony and sloth are the only two sins who aren’t generally paired with envy, mostly because these sins are focused on overindulgence while envy is the initial want for basic indulgence. The slipperiest part of envy is its ability to blind someone from their blessings. It can make one forget what they wanted in the first place, so even if they obtain it they still feel the need for more. Its as if envy wants to stay within us so badly that it creates a treadmill of desire for us to eternally run on. We forget what we want as soon as we gain it, and our envy forces us to move our avarice on to the next desire. We run in circles, and our envy watches and laughs.
This is a good place to transition to our next topic: John Milton’s work Paradise Lost. In this Milton tells the story of an angel who was corrupted by jealousy. Gods most favorite angelic creation was the angel of light, if translated from Latin to English his name is Daystar. Though a more famous name linked to this angel is Lucifer. Lucifer was created to be God’s right hand man. He was made to protect, guide and enlighten all of God’s mortal creations. This also meant he got to watch God create, and he had to live with the knowledge he would never create as well as the knowledge that he would never rival humans as God’s favorite. In a moment of weakness Lucifer’s holy shield was pierced by a thorn of jealousy, both towards God and his humans. Lucifer wanted the power to create the universe as he saw fit, who says God should be the ultimate sovereign? He also didn’t see the point of God giving his energy to these puny humans, why should he serve that which is so far beneath him? Lucifer’s jealousy intensified, and he shared his spiteful opinions with his angel brethren. Those who chose to listen were also corrupted, and eventually Lucifer had created a large enough army to rebel against God. But obviously this didn’t work as smoothly as Luci had hoped, and sorrowfully God was forced to banish his favorite angel and his jealousy fueled army.
Now Lucifer was stuck on Earth, surrounded by the humans he viewed as lesser. Hatred of these puny blood bags bubbled up from deep within Lucifer, and his hatred slowly and painfully mixed with his now deep rooted jealousy. This cacophony of spite and disappointment climaxed into an unholy being of rage and sadism, a being known as envy. The differences between envy and jealousy are that while jealousy has a goal it wants to seize through spiteful methods, envy’s only goal is to exaggerate those spiteful methods. In other words envy exists only to create pain within those it envies, its sadism is its only reward. So you can imagine this new scenario of a deity fueled by envy of humans living among humans didn’t work out too swimmingly, and Lucifer was banished even farther down. He was banished deep within the earth, for if he couldn’t live peacefully on the surface he could suffer alone in the boiling magma of the earths core. Well, he wasn’t entirely alone. He had his army of corrupted angels by his side, who over time were so exposed to hatred and suffering they transformed into demons. These demons managed to slither up through the cracks in the earth, and became Lucifer’s only connection to the above ground world. Lucifer vowed that if he couldn’t rule the universe and the mortals that reside within, he would instead drag as many of them down with him as possible. To this day the battle of light vs dark rages on, and the demon envy continues its immortal cycle of smooth tongued seduction and sadism. This is an example of what happens when optimism is consumed by negativity. Lucifer’s light was eaten away by sin, and he became trapped within his own hatred.
Daniel Defoe’s fictional autobiography The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe tells the story of what can happen when ones optimism blinds them from reality. The title character Robinson Crueso craves to leave his home and set sail on the hunt for adventure. His family and friends are understandably against this, the danger is immense and they’re worried for his survival. But Crueso’s optimism manages to speak louder than his family, and he boards a ship. That evening an enormous storm approaches which threatens to tear his ship apart; Crueso prays to the universe that if he survives he will head straight home. The storm clears, and Crueso forgets the severity of his promise. Once again he is blinded by optimism, playing the storm off as just a coincidence. He refuses to return home, and that night an even larger storm arrives which manages to completely destroy his ship. By some miracle Crueso survives and is washed back onto shore. You’d think having your ship torn apart by a storm would disencourage anyone, but once again Crusoe’s optimism sways his better judgment and he returns to the sea. A mixed variety of misadventures occur because of Crusoe’s choice to set sail, but they end with him becoming shipwrecked alone on a deserted island. In this story optimism can be viewed from a different perspective. Optimism is what pulled Crueso away from his home and his family, and optimism is what eventually led to his isolation away from the rest of society. It just goes to show that as much as the human race needs optimism, it can’t allow itself to become blinded by it.
The last author I want to write about is the rather famous Hans Christian Anderson. His stories have been read, beloved, and adapted into theater and film throughout the decades. Although his original stories tend to be a lot more dark than their film counterparts (for example no mermaids turn to seafoam in the Disney adaptation), Anderson’s work still carry enough optimism and positive themes for children to get immersed. One of Anderson’s tales is The Princess and the Pea, which contains some questionable but still very optimistic values. This story tells of a prince who is seeking a princess to marry, so he goes on a journey around the world to find a suitable one. But every woman he meets he finds something wrong with, and he eventually returns home disheartened. One dark and stormy night the king hears a knock on the door, and he opens it to find a beautiful young woman who claims to be a princess. This is where the story starts jumping the shark for me, for its never explained what this princess is doing wandering around at night through the rain. Nevertheless the woman is invited inside, and the queen wants to test if the girl is telling the truth. So she does what any reasonable person would do: she stacks up twenty mattresses, puts a hardened pea beneath them, and gives this bed to the maiden to sleep in for the night. The next morning when asked how she slept the girl confesses that she slept very badly. She says she is black and blue, the pea being so uncomfortable that she became bruised. Because of this they conclude that she must be a princess, simply because of how sensitive she is. They prince marries her, and they live happily ever after.
Like most fairy tales this story has several leaps of logic within it, but nonetheless it’s still filled to the brim with optimism. Firstly being the girl just showing up at their door. This prince has just spent the last few months traveling and meeting all the neighboring princesses, but somehow this princess they don’t know just shows up at their door wanting shelter. That’s unrealistically optimistic. Secondly the queens brilliant plan to uncover this chicks ruse is to test how physically sensitive she is, and it actually ends up working! So I guess if ones ruling qualifications are based on the amount of bruises wracked up from sleeping upon a dried up seed this story is very accurate. Election who? We use dried peas to decide our countries political representation. I’m clearly joking. Anyway, despite the leaps in logic this story has become a household tale. Most children grow up reading it, I certainly did. Because of its popularity the unrealistic optimism it contains has soaked into our culture. Wishing upon stars has become the norm, and most everyone wishes their prince or princess will just show up at their door. Its debatable whether this message is helpful or harmful to humanities majority, but there is no debating that it has certainly left its optimistic mark.
Another of Anderson’s stories is the tale of Thumbelina. In this work a woman desperately wishes for a child, so like anyone would she makes her way over to the neighborhood faery. This fae sells her a barleycorn seed, which she is instructed to plant. She does as shes told, and a flower grows from the seed. Within this flower is a tiny maiden, no bigger than the woman’s thumb. She is named Thumbelina, and she and the woman become very close friends. But one night while the woman is sleeping a mother toad spies Thumbelina through the window, and she captures her so that Thumbelina can marry the toads son. Thumbelina weeps when she hears her fate, and her cries are overheard by some friendly fishes. The fishes help her escape, but winter soon hits and Thumbelina is still lost within the freezing woods. She meets a kindly old mouse who offers her shelter through the winter, and deep within the tunnels of the mouses home she discovers a bird. The bird is on the brink of death, but Thumbelina nurses it back to health and sets it free into the world. The mouses neighbor is a mole who often visits to tell stories, and he falls in love with Thumbelina and asks the mouses permission to marry her. The mouse agrees, but Thumbelina is less than pleased to be married off. You see the mole lives underground. He hates the sunlight and flowers of the above ground world, and these are things Thumbelina can’t live without. So on their wedding day Thumbelina goes above ground to weep, wanting to see the sunlight one last time. Out of the sky flies the bird she rescued, and he offers to fly her away to the warm country. She agrees, and when they arrive Thumbelina is introduced to the king of the faeries. They fall in love, he gifts her a pair of wings, and together they live happily ever after.
A reoccurring theme in many of Anderson’s stories is the concept of happily ever after. In our society this has become a household concept, especially for children. Children grow up believing in happily ever afters, they grow up believing that if you push through the hardship one day you will find yourself in a situation with no troubles whatsoever. You will find a happy end, and your story will be over. In a strange way I can link this to peoples belief in heaven. If you work hard enough and maintain good morality one day after you pass on you will be rewarded with your own happily ever after. The end is an extremely difficult concept for people to think about, and so through the centuries many have built up their optimism specifically around their version of “happily ever after”. Whether its in a religious sense of your soul eventually joining with the heavenly creator, or in a nihilistic sense of exiting out of existence completely. Both of these, in their own ways, are versions of the concept of happily ever after. They are ways for people to not feel so inescapably helpless in this crazy game of life. Throughout the centuries humans have always had to go through suffering, and we’ve always had to deal the existence of death. We are one of the only animals who live their entire lives knowing that one day, undeniably, we will die. That is why optimism has been so urgently needed in the development of western culture, its our only mental rope that holds us back from existential devastation. Its why we’ve created religion, why we’ve created morals, why we’ve collectively kept pushing forward through the pain of life. Because one day we hope, in the deepest caverns of our hearts we hope, that the pain will subside and we will find spiritual bliss. That is how important the theme of optimism has been in the development of western literature, its the very backbone of our collective will to keep trying. If we had no optimism, many of us would simply give up. We keep trying because one day we hope to receive our own happily ever after.
But the way I see it is that there is no end, there is no final spiritual bliss. This life we are living, right now, can be like heaven if we make it so. We have the here and now, we have this earth and we have each other. We don’t have to sit and hope for things to get better once we are dead, we can take a stand and make things better for those who are still alive. If each of us use our optimism to improve the present, rather than just wait for the future to provide us with our own “happily ever after”, I believe that we can create a world that no one feels the need to escape from. We can create a world where there is no need for hopeful optimism, because we’ve already reached nirvana. We have the power to make this planet we share a living heaven, we have the power to create our own paradise. We need to stop looking to the future as a cure all for our problems, and start solving those problems now so by the time we reach the future we’ll have set ourselves up for true happiness. You don’t need to rely on optimism, you can be the change you want to see in the world. Heavens waiting right outside, just reach out and take it.