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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Naturalism, bad

Pessimism, from the Latin pessimus (worst), denotes a belief that the experienced world is the worst possible. It describes a general belief that things are bad, and tend to become worse; or that looks to the eventual triumph of evil over good; it contrasts with optimism, the contrary belief in the goodness and betterment of things generally. A common conundrum illustrates optimism versus pessimism with the question - does one regard a given glass of water as: "Is the glass half empty or half full?" Conventional wisdom expects optimists to reply with half full and pessimists to respond with half empty, but this is not always the case.

Philosophical pessimism describes a tendency to believe that life has a negative value, or that this world is as bad as it could possibly be. In particular, it most famously describes the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer's pessimism comes from his elevating of Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior. Schopenhauer pointed to motivators such as hunger, sexuality, the need to care for children, and the need for shelter and personal security as the real sources of human motivation. Reason, compared to these factors, is mere window-dressing for human thoughts; it is the clothes our naked hungers put on when they go out in public. 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 shoulders of the blind giant of Will.

Likening human life to the life of other animals, he saw the reproductive cycle as indeed a cyclical process that continues pointlessly and indefinitely, unless the chain is broken by too limited resources to make continued life possible, in which case it is terminated by extinction. The prognosis of either pointlessly continuing the cycle of life or facing extinction is one major leg of Schopenhauer's pessimism.

Schopenhauer moreover considers the desires of the will to entail suffering: because they are desires; because their objects are always limited resources; because other living things must be excluded from those resources. The business of biological life is a war of all against all. Reason makes us suffer all the more, in that reason makes us realize that biology's agenda is something we would not have chosen if we had a choice, but is helpless to prevent us from serving it, or allow us to escape the sting of its goad (compare this to the role of desire in Buddhism).


A related term

Engineers often use the term pessimal, although often ironically. It is the antonym of optimal, which literally means "as good as it gets." Pessimal, therefore, is "as bad as it gets." Computer programmers sometimes use an optimizing compiler, which produces maximally efficient machine code. They often joke about using a "pessimizing compiler", which presumably produces maximally inefficient code.

The word pessimal is not in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary or the American Heritage Dictionary.

Schopenhauer's Proof

Instead of asserting a personal opinion or viewpoint about the appearance of this world being the worst possible, such as a glass being half full or half empty, Schopenhauer attempted to logically prove it by analyzing the concept of pessimism.

"But against the palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds, we may even oppose seriously and honestly the proof that it is the worst of all possible worlds. For possible means not what we may picture in our imagination, but what can actually exist and last. Now this world is arranged as it had to be if it were to be capable of continuing with great difficulty to exist; if it were a little worse, it would be no longer capable of continuing to exist. Consequently, since a worse world could not continue to exist, it is absolutely impossible; and so this world itself is the worst of all possible worlds." --Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. 46.

He claimed that a slight worsening of conditions, such as a small alteration of the planet's orbit, a small increase in global warming, loss of the use of a limb for an animal, and so on, would result in destruction. These are curious assertions, however, considering that the planet's orbit is not wholly consistent to begin with, global temperature fluctuates over time, and animals can still live after losing a limb.

"Thus throughout, for the continuance of the whole as well as for that of every individual being, the conditions are sparingly and scantily given, and nothing beyond these. Therefore the individual life is a ceaseless struggle for existence itself, while at every step it is threatened with destruction. Just because this threat is so often carried out, provision had to be made, by the incredibly great surplus of seed, that the destruction of individuals should not bring about that of the races, since about these alone is nature seriously concerned. Consequently, the world is as bad as it can possibly be, if it is to exist at all." Q.E.D. --Ibid.

Other philosophical or literary pessimists

Nietzsche believed that the ancient Greeks (c. 500 B.C.) created Tragedy as a result of their pessimism. "Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak instincts … Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well—being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?"

Nietzsche's response to pessimism was the opposite of Schopenhauer's. " 'That which bestows on everything tragic its peculiar elevating force' " – he (Schopenhauer) says in The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, P. 495 – " 'is the discovery that the world, that life, can never give real satisfaction and hence is not worthy of our affection: this constitutes the tragic spirit – it leads to resignation.' " How differently Dionysus spoke to me! How far removed I was from all this resignationism!"

Sigmund Freud could also be described as a pessimist and he shared many of Schopenhauer's ideas. He saw human existence as being under constant attack from both within the self, from the forces of nature and from relations with others. The following quote, from "Civilisation and its Discontents", is perhaps the best example of his pessimism:

We can cite many such benefits that we owe to the much despised era of scientific and technical advances. At this point, however, the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard, reminding us that most of these pleasures follow the pattern of the "cheap pleasure" recommended in a certain joke, a pleasure that one can enjoy by sticking a bare leg out from under the covers on a cold winter's night, then pulling it back in..... What good is a long life to us if it is hard, joyless and so full of suffering that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?"

The term has also been used to describe the position of the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe, although he clearly states in his philosophical treatise Om det tragiske that pessimism is a term which cannot describe his biosophy.

Some works of popular literature may also exhibit pessimism, such as Stephen King's Pet Sematary. King later expressed his reservations about the work: "It seems to be saying nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don't really believe that" (Bare Bones 144-5).

Cultural pessimism

Cultural pessimists feel the Golden age is in the past, and the current generation is fit only for dumbing down and cultural careerism. Intellectuals like Oliver James correlate economic progress with inequality, the stimulation of artificial needs, and affluenza. Anti-consumerists identify rising trends of conspicuous consumption and self-interested, image-conscious behaviour in culture. Post-modernists like Jean Baudrillard have even argued that culture (and therefore our lives) now have no basis in reality whatsoever. Some significant formulations have gone beyond this, proposing a universally-applicable cyclic model of history — notably in the writings of Giambattista Vico.

Famous Pessimists

See also

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