The Wisdom of Pessimism

2 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Pessimism

  1. Daniel45 February 5, 2017 at 21:32 Reply

    Hello Francois,

    I realize there is absolutely nothing new or original here but I wanted to share my own little summary of pessimism.

    While pessimism has been defined in numerous ways, I think most will categorize the pessimist as holding one central conviction: that although human beings have been highly successful from an evolutionary standpoint – able to adapt to and survive in a staggering variety of environments – when it comes to the attainment of a life not dominated by suffering and dissatisfaction, human beings are failures.

    The figure who most comes to mind when one thinks of pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer, conveyed this point by saying:

    “If the immediate and direct purpose of life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world”

    Commencing in the 18th century with the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who is often heralded as the first modern pessimist, there emerged a number of pessimistic thinkers who sought to discover the source of the misalignment between us and the world we inhabit.

    While these pessimists differed in their diagnosis, as Joshua Dienstag noted in his excellent book, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, a common theme pervaded their thought. Human existence is so ripe with suffering and misery, they maintained, because of the burden which our uniquely human awareness of time places upon us. The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists, Mr. Dienstag argues, is in how they view time. Optimists see the passing of time as a canvas on which to paint a better world. Pessimists see it as a burden. Time ticks off the physical decline of one’s body toward the inevitability of death, and it separates people from their loved ones. “All the tragedies which we can imagine,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil, “return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time”

    Some pinpointed “the demonic character of time” to be a fundamental problem for human beings. Both our awareness of the past and future, the pessimists agree, are responsible for much of the anxiety, fear, regret, and feelings of guilt which pervade and in a sense define the lives of us all. Nietzsche was especially sensitive to the burden which our awareness of the past places upon our being, referring to the past as “the stone ‘it was’”, which cannot be moved or changed no matter how hard we try.

    We carry our past mistakes, regrets, and disappointments with us, and feelings of guilt arise over the things we are impotent to change. Even joyful memories carry with them a sharp tinge of nostalgia and sorrow, for what has past is forever lost, never to be again.

    As Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the past is such a heavy weight on us precisely because it forever remains out of our reach, immoveable and unchangeable. To escape from the weight of the past, many people direct their awareness towards the future, in hopes of better things to come. However, the pessimists thought there were two major problems with expecting too much from, and depending too heavily upon the future. Firstly, by placing too much emphasis on the future one in a sense degrades the present moment. In doing so, instead of figuring out how to gain some semblance of satisfaction in the moment, one justifies their current misery by telling themselves they’ll be happy when the future comes.

    The second problem the pessimists saw with relying too heavily on the future stems from their belief that although the world is ordered, it also contains a fundamental chaotic element, which we are at the mercy of, and which can at any moment erupt into our life and either destroy or drastically alter all our plans, dreams, and expectations. While we can influence, shape, and partially mold the future through our intentions and actions, ultimately we are transcended by much larger forces which do not seem to care for our wishes. An unforeseen sickness, tragedy, or betrayal at the hands of someone we trusted, can arise at any moment, completely destroying our conception of what we thought the future would hold for us.

    Finally, if the burden which our awareness of the past and future places upon our shoulders were not heavy enough, our awareness of time also grants us knowledge of our ever impending death.

    We all repress and deny such knowledge in a myriad of ways, but there arise lucid moments in our life when the chilling realization that nothingness awaits us hits us with a sudden unrelenting force.

    One may surmise that an antidote to the burdens which our awareness of time places upon our existence is to live fully within and extract as much pleasure and joy as possible from the present moment. Emil Cioran advocated this approach to life early in his writings.

    “Suffer, then drink pleasure to its last dregs, cry or laugh, scream in despair or with joy, sing about death or love, for nothing will endure” (On the Heights of Despair).

    Cioran later discarded this ‘escape’ from the burdens of the awareness of time. For the present moment is fleeting, always in flux, and even the most joyful and ecstatic of moments will soon disappear into nothingness, leaving in their midst nothing but ever fading memories. Referring to the mode of life in which one lives for the present moment alone, Schopenhauer wrote:

    “But you could just as well call this mode of life the greatest folly: for that which in a moment ceases to exist, which vanishes as completely as a dream, cannot be worth any serious effort.”

    “The perishability of all things existing in time”, as Schopenhauer put it, stimulates in one who lives for the present moment a haunting recognition of the transitoriness and fragility of all things, and a feeling of continual loss as the present moment continually vanishes forever into the past.

    It is no wonder that the ancients depicted Cronus, a personification of time, as devouring his children. Time has a destructive effect on all living beings, but we as human beings alone are burdened with a lucid awareness of it. It is this awareness, to reiterate, which is primarily responsible for the suffering and misery which is so endemic to the human species, according to the pessimists.

    Given the inevitability of frustration, suffering and misery for human beings, Arthur Schopenhauer condemned existence as a whole, thought we would have been better off had we never come into being, and advocated a life of ascetic resignation in response to the harsh realities of life. We will suffer hardships great and small until we reach the grave, he surmised, but we can minimize the frustration and pain we experience if we castrate all our desires, seek and expect nothing, and build a fortress around our self to protect us from the demonic world:

    “It is really the greatest absurdity to try to turn this scene of woe and lamentation into a pleasure-resort. . . . Whoever takes a gloomy view regards this world as a kind of hell and is accordingly concerned only with procuring for himself a small fireproof room; such a man is much less mistaken”

    Would you add anything to this summary?



    • Francois Tremblay February 5, 2017 at 21:44 Reply

      It’s already long enough, I don’t think there’s any reason to add anything!

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