Does reading great literature make us pessimistic?

Here’s what David Carl, a teacher at St. John’s College, answered in an email message to one of his students:

In general, our encounter with great works should tend to make us hopeful, and therefore optimistic. I have the words of several authors in mind when I assert this, such as Montaigne (“The profit from our studies is to become better and wiser men”) and Wallace Stevens (“It is not what I am but what I aspire to be that comforts me”). So long as we believe that we are capable of becoming better people in the world through the work we do (whatever that work happens to be) it is difficult to have a fundamentally pessimistic view of our own existence.

If we believe that progress and development and improvement are possible for us as individuals (that it’s possible for me to become better than I currently am, whatever I mean by “better”) and we also believe that the work we do (the reading, the studying, the talking, the writing, etc.) can contribute towards that goal of “being better”, then I think it’s difficult not to be optimistic about the books and our work at the college. And if we don’t believe that we can become better than we are, then I’m not sure why any of us are here (or anywhere else) in the first place.

I would only add what Socrates says in Plato’s dialogue, ‘The Meno’ (tr. W.R.M. Lamb):

Most of the points I have made in support of my argument are not such as I can confidently assert; but that the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better and braver and less helpless than the notion that there is not even a possibility of discovering what we do not know, nor any duty of inquiring after it—this is a point for which I am determined to do battle, so far as I am able, both in word and deed.

Thanks to Mr. Carl for permission to quote him.

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