lunes, 20 de diciembre de 2010

Optimismo y Pesimismo llegaron anteayer

Optimism and the Origin of Pessimism, Take 2

The etymological origin of pessimism is unclear, though some of its earliest occurrences date to the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries and are made in conjunction with optimism, which is to say the historical occurrence of the two terms coincide. Note, too, their conventional significance is connected, one being the thesis, the other the antithesis. For these reasons, given the origin of optimism in English is more or less known, I assume ceteris paribus it can stand in as a surrogate for the etymology of pessimism. The most famous turn of phrase in Gottfried Leibniz’s Théodicée of 1710 is undoubtedly, “le meilleur (optimum) parmi tous les Mondes possible,” which philosophy students will recognize as ‘the best of all possible worlds’. The parenthetical occurrence of Latin optimum, meaning ‘meilleur’ or ‘best’, is overlooked in the popular rendition. This is perhaps unfortunate, as it was optimum that occasioned the Jesuit mathematician Père Louis-Bertrand Castel to neologize optimisme, or ‘optimism’, as happened in the February 1737 issue of Journal de Trévoux, the pertinent phrase being, “le système de l'Optimum, ou l'Optimisme,” meaning ‘the optimum system, or optimism’. Then in 1759 came Voltaire’s “philosophical novelette” Candide, ou l’Optimisme, in which Leibnitz, caricatured as “le Philosophe Pangloss,” and his ever cheerful outlook (optimisme) were famously ridiculed. By 1773 an English translation of Candide was in circulation, entitled Candidus: Or, All for the Best, and so the French term optimisme passed into English as “optimifm” – the letter ‘f’ in the first mass produced English manuscripts sometimes standing in for the letter ‘s’. With this came pessimism, the earliest instance found in a letter addressed to Robert Southey from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, dated Wednesday, December 17, 1794: “Why, ‘tis almost as bad as Lovell’s ‘Farmhouse,’ and that would be at least a thousand fathoms deep in the dead sea of pessimism.” While Coleridge may have coined the term, early nineteenth century periodicals suggest a popular identification of Candide with both optimism and pessimism. Take the following two instances: “…for, although we are far from countenancing the Optimism of Dr. Pangloss, we yet must take a middle place between that and the Pessimism of Mr. Fearn.” “Their first Essay…set out with maintaining the doctrine of a sort of state Optimism – the dogma of a very political Pangloss: their last Essay turns cat-in-pan, and amuses us with a kind of Pessimism….” While the etymological origin of pessimism is altogether unclear, what is known is that it sprang into use in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries alongside optimism. Also known is that these early occurrences were sometimes associated with Voltaire’s Candide, the salient antecedents of which were Castel’s optimisme and Leibniz’ optimum.


God. Guil. Leibniz, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal [1710], nouvelle édition, (Berlin: Chez G. Eichler, 1840), 133.

André Lalande, “Optimisme,” in Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie [1926], third edition, three volumes (Paris: Librairie Felix Alcan, 1932), 2: 543 – 544.

Voltaire, Candide, or All for the Best [Candide, ou l’optimisme, 1759], translated by Walter Jerrold (London: George Redway, 1898), xii.

M. de Voltaire, Candidus: Or, All for the Best [Candide, ou l’optimisme, 1759], translator unknown (London: B. Long and T. Pridden, 1773). Optimism, or rather “optimifim”, occurs in op cit. 7, 100, 189.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, two volumes, edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge (London: William Heinemann, 1895): 1:115.Voltaire, Candide, ou l’optimisme (Paris: Sirene, 1759), 34, 48.

Dr. Reid and Professor Stewart, Review of Fearn’s An Essay on Immortality, “Article VIII” in Monthly Review LXXXV (Jan. to April, 1818): 304.

W. J. Worthington, “Edinburgh Reviewers,” Cobbett’s Political Register XVII (Jan. to June, 1810): 530 – 532.

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