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Definition: pessimism from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1815) 1 : an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome 2 a : the doctrine that reality is essentially evil b : the doctrine that evil overbalances happiness in life

pes•si•mist \-mist\ n


Summary Article: Pessimism
from Encyclopedia of Political Theory

Often misunderstood as a negative disposition, pessimism is a long-standing tradition in modern political philosophy with roots in ancient philosophies of the self, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism. Like its opposite, optimism (which takes a variety of philosophical forms in liberalism, Marxism, and pragmatism, for example), pessimism presupposes modern linear conceptions of time, which replaced the cyclical accounts of ancient philosophers and historians in the late Renaissance period. Although its best-known exponent is probably Arthur Schopenhauer, pessimism appears at least as early as the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Other prominent pessimists are Giacomo Leopardi, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Miguel de Unamuno, E. M. Cioran, Albert Camus, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt. This entry summarizes the major themes of pessimism and briefly describes some of the major trends within the pessimistic tradition.

Central Themes of Pessimism

The principal idea of pessimism is that the human condition (but not necessarily human nature) is marked by severe and persisting flaws that cannot be eradicated. Different pessimist philosophers disagree over the central features of the human condition and over the nature of the flaws. So, for example, a pessimist might agree that technology has become more powerful, yet deny that this improves the prospects for removing the systematic injustice and unhappiness endemic to human affairs. Although some pessimists (e.g., Rousseau, Cioran, Adorno) have at times maintained that there is an active deterioration of human society under way, the more common stance of the pessimist is simply to deny the existence of progress while maintaining the linear historical perspective of modern temporality. Theorists of decline thus form a subset of the pessimistic tradition, and the thesis of decline is not included in the writings of many of the best-known pessimists like Schopenhauer.

Many theories of pessimism begin with an onto-logical assessment of the circumstances of human consciousness. Pessimists often emphasize the close connection between linear time-consciousness and consciousness per se. Human self-awareness is distinguished from animal intelligence, many have argued, by our sense of past and future and our related sense of identity as something stretched out over a linear temporal framework. This account of consciousness is hardly limited to pessimists; nor does it distinguish between those pessimists, like Schopenhauer, who believe that time, as an a priori mental structure, does not derive from some preexistent metaphysical or ontological frame (see The World as Will and Representation) and those, like Rousseau, who accept the more common Newtonian account of a natural universal time (see Discourse on Inequality). But pessimists stress consequences of the time-bound quality of consciousness that are not emphasized elsewhere.

Although time-consciousness is a necessary condition of reasoning, this does not, for the pessimists, establish its beneficial character because, according to them, it also entails considerable burdens. Chief among these is the awareness of our own eventual death, which time-consciousness brings about and which animals are supposedly free from. The idea that all life must end in death is not, to the pessimist, cause for despair or inactivity, but it does set an existential bound to our purposes, which optimistic perspectives often fail to acknowledge. If death is not to deprive our lives of meaning, we must have an understanding of meaning or value that can accommodate the universality of this border to our experience.

Time-consciousness also implies that we are fully aware of the transience of all things, including those we value most. The impermanence of all objects is taken by pessimists to deprive us of security in any achievement or possession. Thus, to live a time-bound existence is to live with our feelings of desire and loss magnified by our sense of time future and time past without any corresponding increase in our sense of enjoyment. Though we have the same physical pleasures and pains that animals do, enlarging our mental universe through time adds to the latter more than the former.

Although pessimists do not necessarily view history as having a universally negative trajectory, they do believe that, because of the ontological conditions previously described, history consistently generates irony in that it repeatedly exemplifies the thwarting of technological or scientific efforts to improve the conditions of life. Leopardi even went so far as to argue in Moral Essays that human happiness was sustained by illusions and that, as reason progressed and destroyed these, human beings were increasingly deprived of the basis for happiness. More commonly, Schopenhauer argued that material progress encouraged a belief in increasing satisfaction, which itself turned out to be illusory.

Because of this and other paradoxes, pessimists have often spoken of human existence as absurd or as partaking of absurdity, terms made especially popular by Camus. These words evoke a persistent mismatch between human desires and the means available to achieve them, or again, between our pursuit of happiness and our capacity to reach or sustain it. Thus, while pessimism is not itself a result of unhappiness, it certainly constitutes an explanation for widespread unhappiness, especially when that unhappiness is not explained by physical distress.

Given this diagnosis, the great division within pessimism regards what sort of life practice constitutes an appropriate response. One kind of pessimist counsels resignation of one form or another. Authors like Rousseau and Schopenhauer have suggested a withdrawal or quasi-Stoic distancing from ordinary human affairs to minimize frustration. Writers like Nietzsche and Camus, however, while in no way retreating from the pessimistic conclusions previously noted, have argued that there is nonetheless a basis for an active engagement in life. They suggest a form of action that is focused on the present. That is, they suggest combating the effects of time-consciousness by detaching one's motivations for action from a set of values that project justification into the future and considering, insofar as this is possible, only their contribution to problems immediately at hand.

It is often suggested that pessimism must end by endorsing suicide, but in fact pessimists uniformly oppose suicide, except in the circumstances of extreme physical suffering that many other moral systems also make an exception for. What is true is that pessimists take the arguments for suicide seriously and do not simply assume, as other perspectives do, that the continuation of life is simply or naturally good. Rather, they agree that establishing the goodness of life is a central philosophical problem.

Philosophical exponents of pessimism often employ a distinctive, aphoristic style in their writings. The aphorism (shorter than an essay but longer than a maxim and more structured than a fragment) provides a quick analysis into a large issue without necessarily suggesting a resolution. A set of aphorisms together can thus produce both the sensation of and insight into the ontological disjunction that is central to the pessimistic analysis. It was Schopenhauer's use of this style that both brought him fame and, perhaps as much as his conclusions, distinguished his approach from that of more academic philosophers writing in a mandarin style.

Varieties of Pessimism

Pessimism has appeared in at least three major forms: cultural, metaphysical, and existential.

For cultural pessimism, the burdens of time-consciousness appear particularly in the area of social mores. Rousseau first brought the central elements of cultural pessimism together in the 1750s in public letters and The Discourses. In Discourse on Arts and Sciences he argued that European morality had not been improved by the intellectual developments of the Enlightenment. Instead, he took the side of the Spartans against the Athenians and argued that morality required material and even intellectual simplicity. In A Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau discussed at more length the obstacles to happiness that emerge as human beings transition from an animal-like existence, which is innocent of time, to true human consciousness with all its attendant difficulties. In his later works, Rousseau insisted on the high degree of flux in temporal affairs, that is, on the refusal of the universe to remain fixed in any one form for analysis or security. Rather than disparaging reason, then, Rousseau's claim was that the Enlightenment's celebration of reason had not sufficiently appreciated reason's opponent—a chaotic universe that resisted its power.

The political theory of the cultural pessimists reflects this sense of the relative weakness of human beings' ability to alter these circumstances. Rousseau clearly defends a republican form of government in On the Social Contract, for example, but he does so because of its potential to arrest, but only temporarily, the social dynamics unleashed by time-consciousness. The formation of a general will removes individuals from their time-bound individual goals and creates a community that exists primarily in the moment. The emergence of a true sovereign thus recreates some of the conditions of prehuman animal existence. Even in this text, however, Rousseau is clear that no form of government can endure indefinitely; the best governments merely last longer than others. But their success is not marked by permanence but by giving their citizens an experience of freedom through participation in the general will.

By contrast, metaphysical pessimism, typified by Schopenhauer, rejects this kind of political solution as well as the attention paid to cultural questions and focuses more completely on the individual's personal situation. As a Kantian, Schopenhauer largely eschewed questions of the origin of consciousness and concentrated on its structure. He emphasized, as earlier generations of pessimists had, the centrality of time. Unlike the cultural pessimists, however, Schopenhauer, taking some Kantian positions to a certain extreme, considered time to be fundamentally unreal. Hence, he considered our conscious experiences to be illusory. However, he doubted the ability of any form of social or political organization to deliver us from this illusion.

The illusory nature of human experience had, for Schopenhauer, two important consequences. First, relief from the suffering induced by time-consciousness does not return us, as it did in Rousseau's work, to a condition of animal happiness, but rather to boredom, the pure experience of time. Second, escape from the dilemma of pain and boredom is to be sought only through personal practices of asceticism or self-denial. In this, Schopenhauer followed the Stoics, who suggested that suppression of desire was the best route to the relief of unhappiness. Although Schopenhauer believed that compassion for the suffering of others was appropriate, both as a moral and political principle, in fact the state could do little to relieve the suffering created by time-consciousness. Schopenhauer's concrete recommendations thus involved fortifying the self against external incursions and a retreat to private experience.

In contrast, Nietzsche, who called himself a “Dionysian pessimist,” attempted to turn Schopenhauer's own conclusions against him and describe a pessimism that was specifically activist in its orientation. Nietzsche argued that Schopenhauer's condemnation of suffering relied on the sort of moral and metaphysical premises that he otherwise specifically condemned. Rather than lament our illusory fall into time, Nietzsche suggested that we celebrate the conditions of flux and dynamism that earlier pessimists had spurned. Although he acknowledged the suffering that linear time-consciousness produces, Nietzsche argued that using such suffering as a basis for withdrawal falls into the trap of measuring life as a whole from a utilitarian perspective. Schopenhauer, that is, had attempted to hold up a dynamic world to a static measuring stick, without saying where the measuring stick came from. By contrast, a more fully pessimistic perspective would not draw a distinction between the self and the world in flux and would thus allow for a posture of engagement. Suffering could be endured when it was understood as the inevitable accompaniment of change, freedom, and individuality. However, Nietzsche did not spell out in any specific terms what sort of political behavior would result from this posture.

In the twentieth century, pessimism has often been associated with existentialism. Though this identification is not incorrect, it should be noted that it is much more true of figures like Camus than of others like Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus' description of the absurdity of the human condition in The Myth of Sisyphus became a touchstone of contemporary pessimism and influenced writers across a wide range of perspectives. Though twentieth-century pessimists were more likely to follow Martin Heidegger's approach to temporality than Rousseau's or Schopenhauer's, the outcome was much the same, that is, an image of human consciousness as fundamentally disconnected or at odds with the universe it is forced to inhabit.

In his earlier works, Camus' response to this was not so different from Schopenhauer's, that is, a retreat into an existence of aestheticized experiences that afforded momentary escape from the ordinary conditions of consciousness. However, in his post-World War II writings, especially The Rebel, Camus began to articulate a more politicized pessimism.

Camus emphasized first that the pessimistic diagnosis described a condition that all humans shared and thus created a basis for a sense of solidarity. Schopenhauer had done much the same, but the solidarity that he described was the purely passive one of sympathy and compassion over shared pain. Camus, in emphasizing that we also shared the experience of absurdity, described this as a context that could stimulate political participation. Like Rousseau, he emphasized that such participation could not be stretched out over time but must reject the temporalization of experience by focusing on the moment. But rather than it leading him to the idea of the general will, Camus took this point to imply that we should abjure long-term judgments of benefit and make sure our contributions to political life have an immediate effect. A theatrical director himself, he repeatedly used the metaphor of acting, not to aestheticize politics, but to describe an activity whose benefits are nonexistent if they are not immediate, both for the actor and for her audience. For Camus, this kind of participation was exemplified by the work of the French Resistance, in which he had taken part. The resistance, he argued, had fought without any particular hope of long-term success, but simply with the sense that their actions enacted freedom in the moment of their occurrence.

Since Camus, the general task of reconciling human freedom with the burdens of temporality has been taken up most specifically by Adorno and Arendt, both of whom have emphasized, in rather different ways, the potential for a strong political dimension to pessimism. In sum, the tradition of pessimism, having taken firm root nearly three centuries ago, remains a distinctive and vigorous approach to political theory that deserves continuing attention as one of the main approaches to have developed in the modern West.

See also

Anti-Foundationalism, Arendt, Hannah, Buddhist Political Thought, Counter-Enlightenment, Happiness, Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Schopenhauer, Arthur, Temporality

Further Readings
  • Camus, A. (1991). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Cioran, E. M. (1993). The trouble with being born. London: Quartet Books.
  • Dienstag, J. F. (2006). Pessimism: Philosophy, ethic, spirit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Freud, S. (1961). Beyond the pleasure principle. New York: Norton.
  • Leopardi, G. (1983). The moral essays. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Nietzsche, F. (1967). The birth of tragedy. New York: Random House.
  • Rousseau, J.-J. (1986). Discourses and the essay on the origin of language. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Schopenhauer, A. (1974). Parerga and paralipomena. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Dienstag, Joshua Foa
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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