The love affair of Western society with technology has reinforced its tendency to optimism. We believe that unhappiness is a curable condition and the application of intelligence will solve every problem. We employ a large number of scientists to discover how the world operates and, if necessary, to devise ways to correct it.
Our self-confidence is so momentous that some researchers have recently declared aging to be a disease. Once we are cured of it, we can look forward to living for hundreds of years. Pills that keep us vigorous and cheerful promise a heady utopia; soon, no one will have to grieve or die.
The message of pragmatism, the authentic philosophy of North America, is not this extreme, but it is committed to the steady improvement of the human lot. John Dewey, its greatest advocate, maintained that growth is the ultimate value by which we must measure our achievements. Growth is development in the direction of longer and richer life or, what comes to the same thing, improved control over the consequences of our actions.
The optimism that pervades Western society and that is so well expressed by the pragmatists, seems to fly in the face of the hard economic times that prevail today. But, except for some professional alarmists, people don't really believe that our problems are lasting. Their underlying conviction is that ingenuity and hard work will always yield victory, and soon home values will soar and jobs will be available again.
This boundless confidence is all the more remarkable because it is surrounded by all the signals of human finitude. Even though average life expectancy has nearly doubled in the last hundred years, we see our friends and loved ones die. Social effort achieves much, but what any one of us can do is sharply limited. Private pain, frustration, disappointment and sorrow have not been eliminated, and mental illness is more rampant than it has ever been.
The most telling sign of human limitation is medical futility, that point in the treatment of disease when doctors can offer nothing further of value to their patients. When this stage is reached, growth and development are matters of the past and the soul is left all alone to deal with its mortality. The hope for future cures is then a mocking reminder of their absence today, as we recognize that social optimism does nothing to lessen private grief.
The long history of philosophy has provided resources to deal with such problems, even though the virtues required are in disrepute. The Greek and Roman Stoics taught that human shipwreck is unavoidable and must be borne with dignity. They recommended calm and unclouded vision of the facts, leading to the recognition that our power is easily overwhelmed and our lives are quickly ended.
Stoics acknowledge human weakness and yet take pride in their strength when it comes to controlling useless and debilitating emotions. Grief over one's fate is unbecoming for people who have learned that disaster targets everything alive. It is best to practice the arts of acceptance and match medical futility with recognition of the futility of fighting everything inevitable. The result is the admirably rational person who understands and in the process enjoys equanimity through life.
The problem of pragmatists is that they never give up striving. The problem of stoics is that they give it up too soon. If we could combine the two views---vigorously seeking improvement so long as our energies have a chance to prevail and graciously surrendering when the world strikes us down---we would have the makings of a sound philosophy.
Contrary to what recent generations of thinkers have preached, the grand task of philosophy remains the exploration and recommendation of sensible ways of life. Stoic pragmatism stands out among these as perhaps the best approach to a satisfying existence. It may not offer a perfect method for dealing with the baffling complexity of our problems, but for thoroughly limited beings such as ourselves, it is good enough.