If anything, pessimism is most closely related to skepticism, says Sim. Having laid out a well-articulated argument for a pessimistic outlook toward life, Sim spends the bulk of his book combing through the history and culture of the western world offering examples of the many other people and things that also reflect a pessimistic approach. He seeks it out in historical belief systems Calvinism, Islam, entropic theory, the Gaia principle, war and crime, structuralism, French feminism.
He seeks it out in economic and political theory ripping the optimistic blinkers off both neoliberal capitalism and Marxism alike. And he seeks it out in the arts, exploring the aesthetic expression of a philosophy grounded in pessimism. It emerges in painting and visual arts Goya, Munch, Picasso ; in film Bergman, Lynch, Kubrick, Stone ; and in music classical, opera, blues, country and western.
Sim offers a thoughtful and well-articulated sampling of pessimism in western culture. Of particular interest is his discussion of pessimism among American crime writers, a genre which is often excluded from intellectual and philosophical discussions of this type, but which offers a tremendous vantage into the motivations and cultural particularities of the society which produces it. How precisely has pessimistic literature influenced political and social mores in the present? How would a pessimistic approach grapple with the challenges posed by the extremes of capitalism and socialism alike?
What, in short, would a pessimistic philosophy look like in action? The result is compelling, but leaves the reader wondering how best to apply these lessons to their own lives, and what might be done to better equip our personal, political and societal structures to gird them against the delusional dangers of unblinkered optimism.
The first step toward a solution, as we all know, is accepting that we have a problem. Continuing our celebration of PopMatters' 20th anniversary, we revisit our 10 picks for the best debut albums of It turns out our selections were prescient as many of these artists have gone on to storied careers. Travel back to and see them again for the first time.
A philosophy as old as Homer : Giacomo Leopardi and Greek poetic pessimism
PopMatters turns 20 years old this October and we're beginning to celebrate our history by taking you back in time a decade ago. Obama was in the White House and the musical times were very good indeed. Revisit through its best albums. For this one world which he retained [ Louder than Anaximander, Heraclitus proclaimed: "I see nothing other than becoming. Be not deceived. It is the fault of your short-sightedness, not of the essence of things, if you believe you see land somewhere in the ocean of becoming and passing-away.
You use names for things as though they rigidly, persistently endured; yet even the stream into which you step a second time is not the one you stepped into before. Like later pessimists, Hegesias argued that lasting happiness is impossible to achieve and that all we can do is to try to avoid pain as much as possible. Complete happiness cannot possibly exist; for that the body is full of many sensations, and that the mind sympathizes with the body, and is troubled when that is troubled, and also that fortune prevents many things which we cherished in anticipation; so that for all these reasons, perfect happiness eludes our grasp.
Hegesias held that all external objects, events and actions are indifferent to the wise man, even death: "for the foolish person it is expedient to live, but to the wise person it is a matter of indifference". From the 3rd century BCE, Stoicism propounded as an exercise "the premeditation of evils"—concentration on worst possible outcomes. The Critic paints a bleak and desolate picture of the human condition. His Pocket Oracle was a book of aphorisms on how to live in what he saw as a world filled with deception, duplicity and disillusionment.
Voltaire was the first European to be labeled as a pessimist [ citation needed ] due to his critique of Alexander Pope 's optimistic "An Essay on Man", and Leibniz ' affirmation that "we live in the best of all possible worlds. Though himself a Deist , Voltaire argued against the existence of a compassionate personal God through his interpretation of the problem of evil. The major themes of philosophical pessimism were first presented by Rousseau and he has been called "the patriarch of pessimism". Rousseau saw the movement out of the state of nature as the origin of inequality and mankind's lack of freedom.
The wholesome qualities of man in his natural state, a non-destructive love of self and compassion are gradually replaced by amour propre , a self-love driven by pride and jealousy of his fellow man.
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Because of this, modern man lives "always outside himself", concerned with other men, the future and external objects. Rousseau also blames the human faculty of "perfectibility" and human language for tearing us away from our natural state by allowing us to imagine a future in which we are different than what we are now and therefore making us appear inadequate to ourselves and thus 'perfectible'.
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran and the Buddha on drawing comfort from despair
Rousseau saw the evolution of modern society as the replacement of natural egalitarianism by alienation and class distinction enforced by institutions of power. Thus The Social Contract opens with the famous phrase "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Though a lesser known figure outside Italy, Giacomo Leopardi was highly influential in the 19th century, especially for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. According to Leopardi, because of our conscious sense of time and our endless search for truth, the human desire for happiness can never be truly satiated and joy cannot last.
Leopardi claims that "Therefore they greatly deceive themselves, [those] who declare and preach that the perfection of man consists in knowledge of the truth and that all his woes proceed from false opinions and ignorance, and that the human race will at last be happy, when all or most people come to know the truth, and solely on the grounds of that arrange and govern their lives. Leopardi's response to this condition is to face up to these realities and try to live a vibrant and great life, to be risky and take up uncertain tasks.
This uncertainty makes life valuable and exciting but does not free us from suffering, it is rather an abandonment of the futile pursuit of happiness.
He uses the example of Christopher Columbus who went on a dangerous and uncertain voyage and because of this grew to appreciate life more fully. For Leopardi: "He who has the courage to laugh is master of the world, much like him who is prepared to die. Arthur Schopenhauer 's pessimism comes from his elevating of Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior.
The Will is the ultimate metaphysical animating noumenon and it is futile, illogical and directionless striving. Schopenhauer sees reason as weak and insignificant compared to Will; in one metaphor , Schopenhauer compares the human intellect to a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulder of the blind giant of Will.
He pointed to motivators such as hunger, thirst and sexuality as the fundamental features of the Will in action, which are always by nature unsatisfactory. All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative only, and never positive. It is not a gratification which comes to us originally and of itself, but it must always be the satisfaction of a wish.
For desire, that is to say, want [or will], is the precedent condition of every pleasure; but with the satisfaction, the desire and therefore the pleasure cease; and so the satisfaction or gratification can never be more than deliverance from a pain, from a want.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788—1860)
Schopenhauer notes that once satiated, the feeling of satisfaction rarely lasts and we spend most of our lives in a state of endless striving; in this sense we are, deep down, nothing but Will. Even the moments of satisfaction, when repeated often enough, only lead to boredom and thus human existence is constantly swinging "like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents".
Moreover, the business of biological life is a war of all against all filled with constant physical pain and distress, not merely unsatisfied desires. There is also the constant dread of death on the horizon to consider, which makes human life worse than animals. Reason only compounds our suffering by allowing us to realize that biology's agenda is not something we would have chosen had we been given a choice, but it is ultimately helpless to prevent us from serving it.
Schopenhauer saw in artistic contemplation a temporary escape from the act of willing. He believed that through "losing yourself" in art one could sublimate the Will. However, he believed that only a resignation from the pointless striving of the will to life through a form of asceticism as those practiced by eastern monastics and by "saintly persons" could free oneself from the Will altogether. Schopenhauer never used the term pessimism to describe his philosophy but he also didn't object when others called it that. During the endtimes of Schopenhauer's life and subsequent years after his death, post-Schopenhauerian pessimism became a rather popular "trend" in 19th century Germany.
In an age of upcoming revolutions and exciting new discoveries in science , the resigned and a-progressive nature of the typical pessimist was seen as detriment to social development. To respond to this growing criticism, a group of philosophers greatly influenced by Schopenhauer indeed, some even being his personal acquaintances developed their own brand of pessimism, each in their own unique way. Beiser calls transcendental realism.
By espousing transcendental realism, Schopenhauer's own dark observations about the nature of the world would become completely knowable and objective, and in this way they would attain certainty.
The certainty of pessimism being, that non-existence is preferable to existence. That, along with the metaphysical reality of the will, were the premises which the "post-Schopenhauerian" thinkers inherited from the Frankfurt sage 's teachings. After this common starting point, each philosopher developed his own negative view of being in their respective philosophies. Some pessimists would "assuage" the critics by accepting the validity of their criticisms and embracing historicism , as was the case with Schopenhauer's literary executor Julius Frauenstadt and with Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann who gave transcendental realism a unique twist.
Friedrich Nietzsche could be said to be a philosophical pessimist even though unlike Schopenhauer whom he read avidly his response to the 'tragic' pessimistic view is neither resigned nor self-denying, but a life-affirming form of pessimism. For Nietzsche this was a "pessimism of the future", a " Dionysian pessimism. In contrast to this Nietzsche saw Socratic philosophy as an optimistic refuge of those who could not bear the tragic any longer.
Since Socrates posited that wisdom could lead to happiness, Nietzsche saw this as "morally speaking, a sort of cowardice Nietzsche's response was a total embracing of the nature of the world, a "great liberation" through a "pessimism of strength" which "does not sit in judgement of this condition". In a article, Albert Camus wrote "the idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea. Like previous philosophical pessimists, Camus sees human consciousness and reason as that which "sets me in opposition to all creation".
Camus believed that people often escape facing the absurd through "eluding" l'esquive , a 'trickery' for "those who live not for life itself but some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it".
Alain de Botton on five great philosophical pessimists
For Camus, the only choice was to rebelliously accept and live with the absurd, for "there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. Camus imagines Sisyphus while pushing the rock, realizing the futility of his task, but doing it anyway out of rebellion: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
There are several theories of epistemology which could arguably be said to be pessimistic in the sense that they consider it difficult or even impossible to obtain knowledge about the world. These ideas are generally related to nihilism , philosophical skepticism and relativism. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi — , analyzed rationalism , and in particular Immanuel Kant 's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum [ citation needed ] according to which all rationalism reduces to nihilism , and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation.
Richard Rorty , Michel Foucault , and Ludwig Wittgenstein questioned whether our particular concepts could relate to the world in any absolute way and whether we can justify our ways of describing the world as compared with other ways. In general, these philosophers argue that truth was not about getting it right or representing reality, but was part of subjective social relations of power , or language-games that served our purposes in a particular time. Therefore, these forms of anti-foundationalism , while not being pessimistic per se, rejects any definitions that claims to have discovered absolute 'truths' or foundational facts about the world as valid.
Philosophical pessimism stands opposed to the optimism or even utopianism of Hegelian philosophies. Emil Cioran claimed "Hegel is chiefly responsible for modern optimism. How could he have failed to see that consciousness changes only its forms and modalities, but never progresses? As Cioran states, "every step forward is followed by a step back: this is the unfruitful oscillation of history". This does not mean however, that the pessimist cannot be politically involved, as Camus argued in The Rebel.