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Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

"I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will."
Antonio Gramsci in a Letter from Prison (December 1929)

Antonio Gramsci

"You must realize that I am far from feeling beaten…it seems to me that… a man out to be deeply convinced that the source of his own moral force is in himself — his very energy and will, the iron coherence of ends and means — that he never falls into those vulgar, banal moods, pessimism and optimism. My own state of mind synthesises these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and will power to overcome every obstacle."

The Honourable Kim Beazley AC, Governor of Western Australia

"Anton Gramsci once said the correct position for a social democrat like myself was pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will. Optimism without realism handicaps a society. Realism without optimism defeats it. In the confused world we inhabit it is the optimists who seize every opportunity for a constructive outcome. As a friend said of Winston Churchill's view in 1941 when all seemed bleak- his stance was " something will turn up. Fight on and give it a chance"."

Professor Roy Green, University of Technology Sydney

"I share with Antonio Gramsci an optimism of the will combined with pessimism of the intellect. There is no point in optimism unless it has some basis in reality, but likewise there is no point in the intellect unless it is directed towards a wider human purpose."

Simon Basketter, Journalist

“The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that revolutionaries must stare reality in the face and find ways to push the class struggle forward. He borrowed the phrase, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” to deal with the problem.  As a phrase it is a powerful warning against wishful thinking. And at the same time a cry against resignation. It proposes a determined, open-eyed engagement.”

Mike Marqusee

"To make hope real, to exercise an optimism of the will, you have to invest in it: your time, your energy, your sense of self and your role in the world. Without that, movements cannot move."

In "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” 2012


Gary Olson

"In terms of optimism of the will, Gramsci means that humans have the capacity to overcome new challenges, to courageously move forward and create a better world in the face of very long odds. We can’t predict the course of history but human agency is paramount and history is made by human will."

in "Pessimism, Optimism and the Role of Intellectuals" 2019

Mick Hume, Columnist

Optimism of the will need not be some sort of quasi-religious blind faith. It is based instead on historical realities, on the fact that the application of human ingenuity and struggle is what has brought us from the caves to something approaching civilisation, and created a modern world in which people’s lives in almost every corner of the globe are now longer, healthier and wealthier than ever before.

Yet that optimism of the will seems to be in short supply today. Many have lost faith in humanity as a history-making agent.

in "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" 2010

Mick Hume: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will


Steve Hsu, Physicist

"Optimism of the Will means, have the courage to attempt difficult things. Sometimes, Will can overcome the odds."

in Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will (2009)

Azra Raza, Oncologist and Author of The First Cell

“Antonio Gramsci famously imparted: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” In other words, see the world as it really is, warts and all, but still forge ahead with courage, tenacity, persistence, acceptance. The will can overcome many challenges if hope remains alive.”

John Hume, Director,  Michigan Economic Center

"Research shows pessimists see the world more accurately, but optimists get more good things done!"

Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian columnist

"Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will: such is the perennial brief of the liberal realist. Expect the worst, work for the best."

In "We remainers must now aim for Britain to do well – and the EU even better" (January 2020)

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