April 12, 2010
Pandora, Prometheus, and Pessimism
According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, women were created for the sole purpose of punishing men. The punishment of mankind in the form of womankind was kalon kakon, or a ‘beautiful evil’ – sent by the gods for a crime committed not by man but by the Titan Prometheus. Prometheus was presumptuous enough to steal fire (symbolising knowledge) from heaven to give to mankind. Zeus, infuriated with mankind’s sudden enlightenment, punished him with ‘a bane to plague their lives’, as Jenny March says. This bane was woman.
The first woman was ironically named ‘Allgifts’. She was fashioned out of the combined talents of the Olympian gods. Created from earth and water by the great smith-god Hephaistos, she was attired and domesticated by Athena; Aphrodite gave her beauty and grace; and, finally, Hermes deposited a cunning nature deep inside her heart. Zeus delivered this beautiful, and secretly evil, gift to Prometheus’ gullible brother Epimetheus. We call this first woman by the more popular name Pandora. She brought with her a dowry – the infamous ‘Pandora’s Box’, which was actually a great jar (or pithos). In the jar were sorrow, disease and hard labour. By opening it, Pandora unleashed these evils which have been plaguing us ever since. The only thing which remained in the box, within control of humanity, was hope. This was supposed to be some kind of consolation for all the suffering that life imposes on us, as individuals and as a species.
Yet, this seems like little consolation to some thinkers. One interpretation of this entire event is that with knowledge (Prometheus’ fire) comes sorrow (Pandora’s pithos). Even Ecclesiastes 1:18 reminds us of this. To somehow reconcile the two, some philosophers have asserted that with an increase in knowledge comes the alleviation of the suffering brought about by Pandora. The greatest exponent of this was probably Socrates but definitely his disciple Plato. Socrates, as a Platonic character, says that the unconsidered life is not worth living – or, to prove the point: the considered life is worth living. Yet, why is this so?
In fact, as figures like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Gray remind us, examining our life individually and human life in general, one is more likely to arrive at the opposite conclusion. Their views are this: Our world is filled with much suffering, strife and individual struggle. Our individual lives are hard – some much worse than others – and it seems that no amount of rationalising has decreased selfishness, bigotry and violence in us. We are still fearful of each other; we still quiver at the thought of death. Suffering is scattered about the world like pollen on a breeze. Of course there is no perfect way to measure human-induced suffering – but by all current measurements, for example body-count, we have in fact gotten worse (think of Nagasaki or the Khmer-Rouge).
Modern writers, like John Gray, who are taking on the mantle of Schopenhauer, say: We have used the outcomes of technology, the products of reason and the results of knowledge, to kill each other more efficiently, to induce suffering on an unprecedented scale. Knowledge of the world, how to manipulate it, is used to deliver suffering. This goes against the Socratic optimism which states that knowledge brings about a confirmation of life, making it ‘worth living’. According to Gray, this is not so.
Of course because of technology most of us are alive. For example, given that women’s bodies are so poorly ‘designed’ for labour, many of us run a very high risk of death during labour: both the newborn and the mother. The reason for this is because of our bipedal nature. During birth, a child must pass through the middle of the pelvis: because we evolved to walk on two legs, this space is narrower than for other apes. Also, newborn humans have a much larger head because of a larger brain. Humans are therefore born at a much earlier stage (any later and the head would be even bigger) and are more vulnerable, thus entirely dependent on their parents. With the larger head and narrower pelvis, the entire process is slow and painful for the mother. Thanks to medical technology, this can be alleviated somewhat and the chances of infection and death are greatly lessened. Due to the brilliance in technology and the efficiency of medically-trained doctors – both of which are outcomes of reason – mother and child have a far greater chance of surviving.
This is not denied but this does not confirm Socratic optimism as a whole. The point is not that knowledge is dangerous or that we should diminish our rapacious appetite for it. The major point is that an increase in knowledge does not necessarily mean an alleviation of suffering. There is simply no direct connection between happiness and knowledge, for Schopenhauer and Gray. As will be shown in upcoming examples, the two are almost mutually exclusive. The recognition of this and the constant reminder that we are not entitled to happiness is captured in the tradition known as pessimism.
WHAT IS PESSIMISM?
Albert Camus suggests that suicide is the most important philosophical question: why do we continue to live? What are we living for? To answer this question is to already overlook another fact: that life is intrinsically worth living or enduring. But is life, by itself, worth anything?
Schopenhauer famously says life is not valuable since we feel boredom. Boredom to Schopenhauer was a direct indication of the meaninglessness of life. If life by virtue of existing was full of value, merely existing would fulfil us. But it does not. We feel bored when we have no direct goals but also no pain to immediately combat. In such moments, where we are disentangled from the barbs of pain and the threads of goals, we are left suspended above a chasm of boredom. This confirms life is not intrinsically valuable. No matter how much knowledge we acquire of ourselves or the world, this will not diminish the inherent meaninglessness of our lives. We can never fly out of the chasm. There is no connection between the two, for writers like Schopenhauer. If there is a connection, it seeks only to highlight the distance and antagonism between knowledge (and/or reason) and happiness.
Many people look at such reactions as unduly negative. This is understandable. But what remains most important is encountering these thoughts. Ultimately this entire tradition makes two important claims: (1) we are not entitled to happiness, nor should we expect it and thus suffering is what we should expect and (2) increasing knowledge does not necessarily mean we make our species, world or existence better, nor could we ever completely solve our ‘metaphysical need’.
The metaphysical need is the need to give some sort of meaning to our lives to correspond with our heightened awareness of ourselves, in relation to each other, the world and the universe as a whole, in the face of a death to come. Are we the special focus of a deity or merely an unhappy accident of nature? Does the impact we make reverberate further than the immediate orbits of our existence, or is it all turned to nothing and forgotten? The need for us to answer this question is the metaphysical need. Many thinkers proclaim we cover our metaphysical need with a thin veneer of fairy-tales (for example, theistic religions) which do nothing but coat it in a substance that transmutes it into forgery.
Schopenhauer believed it was required of religion or philosophy to “heal the wound of mortality”, as Julian Young puts it, by indicating a blissful “salvation”. There was no, to use Schopenhauer’s phrase, genuine “antidote” to the fear of death and the metaphysical need. Schopenhauer’s searched for a philosophy that would: “solve the tormenting ‘riddle’ of life,” says Young, “provide an account of the totality of our existence that will compensate for the miserable character of its terrestrial portion and so reconcile us to that totality.”
But in order to do that, it is demanded of us that we realise that there is little reason to expect ultimate happiness. Indeed, we must not even expect our lives to be better since we have no entitlement to a “better” or “happier” existence, according to the pessimists. This does not mean we should not try only that we should not expect.
Thus, pessimists are thinkers who look at the results of ‘Pandora’s Box’ and regard the remaining dredges of hope – in terms of progress – as no compensation at best and a flagrant illusion at worst.
Pessimism deserves serious consideration in today’s culture of Oprah-quick-fix happiness, Prozac induced euphoria, and unjustified optimism for our species. Unlike Oprah and Prozac, pessimism is not easy to swallow. It is time we consider this tradition in a culture steeped in farcical, puerile conceptions of happiness; an environment where every person who is able to grin on a book-cover can tell us how to achieve happiness now; where angels or god or some other fairy-tale character cares about our actions in this world. Life is not a grand, heroic narrative with a happy ending. It is not a place where we are overcoming obstacles in order to achieve a time in our lives of perfect serenity. In order to combat such serious obstructions to clear-thought, boundaries to reality and gateways to delusion, pessimism can help us shape our thoughts on matters which resonate with all us rational, bipedal apes.
To some recent writers, pessimism could only have arisen as a tradition of thought with the adoption of a linear conception of time. Cyclical narratives of time have no place for it. The main reason rests in the lack of meaning humanity attributed to patterns of history, or time itself. “In pre-Christian Europe it was taken for granted that the future would be like the past,” says John Gray in his best-selling Straw Dogs. “Knowledge and invention might advance, but ethics would remain much the same. History was a series of cycles, with no overall meaning.”
However, when we began adopting the linear conception of time, during the period we call ‘modernity’, we had to face a striking fact: just as there was a point where we, as individuals, did not exist in the past (for example, before our fathers) there will be a point, in the future, where we will cease to exist. This was death. Suddenly the screaming vertigo of this realisation left tire-marks on a man’s mind, even if he believed in an afterlife. This was it? This was life? (To give a being both consciousness and mortality must be the result of some trickster or evil god, if one had to believe in a deity. But many could not handle this conclusion and made theological manoeuvrings to reconcile god’s good character and life’s horror. This is known as theodicy.)
But, doing away with divinity altogether we are left with something worse: an unconscious universe that is indifferent to our plight – after all, what is the opposite of love? Hate at least we could understand. Hateful respite is easier to digest than indifferent punishment. We could piece together a possible solution to the former, whilst the latter is forever unknowable. And to the pessimists, it is the latter case that we find ourselves in. To think otherwise is to indulge in fairy-tales not to participate in reality.
We find it easier to pay penance when we understand what we are paying for – even if we are falsely accused. But to suffer for no apparent reason, in a place completely indifferent and silent, is to be in the same position as Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial.
The great Joshua Foa Dienstag, in his analysis of pessimism, highlights the rise of its twin, progress, and the linear conception of time. Progress we can define as the following: the belief that with the acquisition of knowledge over time, life becomes better overall for everyone:
Where circularity ruled, whether in the Mexico of the Aztecs… or the Greece of the Homeric period, change could not be truly cognized and history inevitably collapsed into myth, leaving no conceptual space for an idea of progress or, indeed, any change over time. The triumph of linear time in Europe, symbolized by the widespread adoption of the Gregorian calendar, laid the groundwork for a theory of progress. Once time was understood as unidirectional and non-repeating, historical models of progress had a firm temporal framework in which to rest.
According to Dienstag, pessimism is as likely a conclusion as progress, if we are looking for a larger pattern to history within the framework of linearity. Pessimism is progress’s darker twin, both conceived in the womb of time’s steady forward march, in the twilight of the Enlightenment. While progress took centre stage like some child prodigy, pessimism was kept behind the scenes, forced into a gag and remaining locked in a cage. No one wanted to hear this monstrosity. It is removed from its cage, today, mostly for one reason: to be stoned by its detractors, to be spat on by those who fear it, to be hissed at by the masses. Its burden clinks against the walls as it shuffles between the minds and mouths of its critics, gnashing their teeth at the shrivelled form before them. See how it shakes? See how it can never look me in the eye? Pessimism is not something we want to encounter but perhaps it’s time we do.
Pessimism makes us look up at Prometheus’ offering with a sceptical eye: not for the fire itself but the punishment, arriving in the form of a beautiful woman to meet Prometheus’ brother.
WHY DO WE DISMISS PESSIMISM?
In a world overflowing with 1001 ways to be happy, 7 highly effective habits, and forceful, cringe-inducing ‘positive thinking’, it is obvious why pessimism has been trodden on. From a very basic standpoint it is not something people want to hear. Everyone is marching forward, but most think they march with a beautiful sunset in their faces. This is the widely spread and insidious result of optimism, after it coupled with a conclusion of linearity: progress. Since we had to look at patterns of history with the arrival of time’s linearity, progress was assumed and, according to John Gray, replaced the Christian’s doctrine of redemption. Pessimism, an equally likely conclusion as its twin, was left behind as progress assumed the position for rapturous assumption.
Schopenhauer, even in the early 19th century, scorned optimism. In his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, he beautifully outlines one of the foundations of pessimism:
Optimism is not only a false but also a pernicious doctrine, for it presents life as a desirable state and man’s happiness as its aim and object. Starting from this, everyone then believes he has the most legitimate claim to happiness and enjoyment. If, as usually happens, these do not fall to his lot, he believes that he suffers an injustice, in fact that he misses the whole point of his existence.
As has been highlighted, an important element of pessimism is to realise we have no entitlement to happiness at all. That is why the sense of injustice is misplaced in someone who believes his attempts at happiness have been unfairly thwarted. Pessimism says we should give up any and all feelings of injustice – this can help us harmonise with a world replete with disappointments, ‘injustice’, and suffering. This attitude will lessen the burden we place on ourselves. In fact, it is a more helpful attitude to reality than unfounded optimism.
Though this seems more helpful, Dienstag highlights why giving up a sense of injustice and self-pity is unlikely to be adopted. “[Pessimism] disallows any claim of righteousness or desert as compensation for our suffering. Much more difficult to accept than a life of misery is the idea that we have no right to anything better.”
Susan Neiman highlights a similar aspect, when she says that an important achievements of pessimism’s mother, the Enlightenment, was to separate physical from moral evil (the former being earthquakes, the second homosexuality, according to Church doctrine. We still see such links when mouthpieces for absurdity, like televangelists, say that earthquakes occur because we allow homosexuality to go unchecked). Neiman says in Moral Clarity:
[B]ecause it’s more painful to think our misery meaningless than to think it justified, physical evils had to be the result of moral ones. If you suffered, you had sinned. The assumption was so deep it was rarely stated… Far more often the connection between happiness and virtue was simply seen as self-evident.
Let us highlight, simply, why pessimism is so harsh and, therefore, unlikely to be adopted.
1. Pessimism forces us to give up deeply held beliefs: that life is mostly suffering and disappointing, an increase in knowledge does not necessarily lead to a better world, and it is as likely a pattern to history as its twin, progress. It forces us to confront optimism as having little coherence with reality and, ironically, being more harmful than a calm acceptance of the sufferings and disappointment life induces.
2. Pessimism has ‘no palliative': "Perhaps it is not so much that the diagnosis is wrong," says Dienstag, "but that, were it to be admitted, without a corresponding palliative, it would be too depressing to live with… Even if suffering is inevitable, why compound it with a recitation of the facts?"
3. We have no entitlement to anything better, thus our feelings of injustice and self-pity are misplaced.
I think the most powerful dismissal is the second: it has no palliative. But this is not a mistake for the pessimists. They were not trying to give a palliative. They were attempting a description of life (with a few normative constraints), frustrated with how many were ignoring the brute facts of reality. Whilst there were pessimists who insisted on building a normative framework out of the collapsed ideals that pessimism destroyed, this need not be its primary function. Out of the many traditions of thought, pessimism is best understood as an attempt at describing our lives, our world and our place in it. Pessimism is there to constantly remind us about the relation between Prometheus’ fire and Pandora’s dowry. And it arrives at this conclusion through reason; using reason we realise the horror of life itself. If we did not use reason, we would be safe beneath comforting dogma or illusion or tradition.
The power of pessimistic thought needs a strong resurgence into today’s world with the ubiquity of delusory happiness.
EXISTENTIALSIM & PESSIMISM
Many who know the writings of existentialists will have picked up on similar themes. Some might say I am focusing on a small part of existentialism, itself. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition): “the central claim [of existentialism is] that we human beings exist without justification (hence, “absurdly”) in a world into which we are “thrown” [Heidegger called this quality of “throwness” dasein], condemned to assume full responsibility for our free actions and for the very values according to which we act.”
The fear that we must create the values according to which we should act is a reason we have linked morality to religion for so long. People would be terrified knowing that their morality is entirely their responsibility, not written by a celestial hand against the rock of reality. If god wrote the rules, the rules would be perfect. Messing up means straying from god’s rules. Now that the rules are written by us, messing up does not necessarily mean we have strayed but possibly that the rules themselves are wrong. We want certainty, so that we have something firm to stand on when we judge. Burning through these chains of religious imposed morality with Prometheus’ fire, we fell into a reality burning from Pandora’s aftermath. No doubt it was safer to be chained to that violent dogmatic creature called faith, but one must make the choice of being condemned to freedom or to be secured to delusion.
To the pessimists (and the existentialists), we cannot reach for greater things on foundations of make-believe. No matter how awful reality is, it remains solid when we plant our feet firmly on it, so we can take greater strides. Gary Cox in his latest book on existentialism says: “Some of the [unhappiest] people in the world are those who hold firmly to the false belief that complete happiness is achievable, that there is such a state as ‘happily ever after’. They are constantly hurt and frustrated…”
This is why pessimists are so adamant at stressing we face reality as it is rather than as we want it to be. But why should we accept the pessimist’s ‘version’ of reality? Maybe they are just sad-faced, depressives, naturally indulging in the dark side, whereas most of us are rather content, happy people. Schopenhauer and other pessimists would say that you are deluded if you think life is mostly happy or successful. But aside from this bald assertion, they also set the agenda for working from the lowest starting point. It might be considered like this: once we’ve hit rock-bottom, we use all the shit thrown at us to work our way out. That means there’s no use setting an agenda for change from the highest point of success. By characterising life in its most terrible form, then applying this to all human life, the pessimist presents us with the harshest view so that, by countering or at least encountering pessimism, we are no longer soft-targets for life’s teeth biting down hard on our existence. That is why in many existentialist and pessimist writers, you will find notions of strength or power to go along with the depressing picture they paint. Their painted canvas is a landscape, filled with crows, but muscled humanity shouldering their way through the ashes.
Besides that, I find it unconvincing when people assert that they are happy or content: by virtue of being human, the first excruciating examination of the pessimists, you can never be completely satisfied with life. The best we have, as the existentialists tell us, is to be ‘authentic’. However, it is beyond the scope of this piece to deal to give this particular issue its full due.
CRITICISING MODERN PESSIMISM
As has been highlighted, pessimism states we cannot complain when life is unfair. When an intelligent friend fails a test, whereas a slacker succeeds, we say it is unfair. Perhaps your genius friend didn’t have enough time to study – is it still unfair? Perhaps not, since he is reaping untended seeds of knowledge he left dormant. But what about situations where good people have horrible things happen to them? What happens when the horrid are rewarded, as is often the situation in politics (think of nearly all the highest-ranking politicians in South Africa)?
“A world in which good people suffer while wicked people prosper is a world that makes no sense,” says Susan Neiman in Moral Clarity. And that is exactly the world we live in. But she highlights another important point: “In a world where everything is as it should be, we have no need to ask why. The gap between is and ought is the space where questions begin.”
Recall: Pessimism says that the acquisition of knowledge does not necessarily lead to happiness. Reason and happiness do not automatically support one another; if anything, as Schopenhauer has shown, reason prevents happiness. By using reason we arrive at pessimism’s horrifying conclusions: meaninglessness, absurdity, non-entitlement. But reason also leads somewhere else when we reflect on pessimism itself: “Reason,” says Neiman, “tells you not only that things could be otherwise, but that they ought to be.”
I have not criticised reason itself, nor do I think it the target of pessimists. Indeed, as has been shown, when we use reason we come to a closer conception of reality, as much as it hurts.
It is Prometheus’ fire burning away the cobwebs of delusion for us to witness the horror of the Box’s contents. And this hurts. But it is important we follow reason wherever it leads. By being faced with reality, even if it hurts, we can actually change it. We can’t afford to base our decisions on optimistic delusion or else the results will end up in Never-Never Land. In order to be adults, we have to look into our world. As has been pointed out, some might see pessimism as too harsh or juvenile. Indeed, many use pessimism as a way to dismiss a particular person or doctrine. To do this, to diminish pessimism as a verbal wave of the hand, is to stamp out important thoughts of brilliant thinkers. Whilst we may not agree with them, we need to say why. Pessimism’s power lies in throwing us in the deep end of existence, forcing us to develop swimming abilities fast. Pessimism, as a reaction, is fed up with those who pretend the depths of existence are really the shallow end or that we can ever see the bottom. Its power lies in putting strength in our mental abilities, developing mental-muscles to stay afloat or perhaps shoulder our way further.
I do, for example, think that modern pessimism is full of faults. Let us look at one simple example: the dismissal of progress. John Gray, who calls progress an “illusion” and liberal humanism a “religion” or “faith”, bases his argument on a mistaken utopian view of progress. By also labelling everything as a religion, faith or illusion he can falsely equivocate everything and anything. All those who fight for the forward march of reason are trying to create a Utopia, according to Gray. He believes that we have seen the results of changing ideologies from faith-based to reason-based; they might’ve changed names but the rose smells just as a false. Nazism, Stalinism, etc., are ideologies not based on traditional religions but so-called rationality (Nazism has often been thought of traditionalist-based but ignore that for the sake of Gray’s argument). Gray says that the liberal secular humanistic enterprise, the progressivist Enlightenment project, is as dangerous, if not more so, because it believes it can utilise the foundations of science to perfect humanity, leading to things like eugenics and mass extermination. Utopian organisations, with enough power, are responsible for most of the mass exterminations of the last century. But this is not modern secularism: fighting for progress is not about perfecting anything. The great AC Grayling responded to Gray’s latest “de-Gray-ding” book, Black Mass, in this way (Grayling’s term not mine):
In a nutshell the book consists in the repeated assertion that modern secularist thinking is utopian in aspiration, has inherited this aspiration from Christianity, has failed because its belief in progress is false and has in fact been violently regressive. The only thing that will replace it is more apocalyptic religion-inspired conflict, and – this with an Eeyore relish – all is therefore doom and gloom.
Gray makes a central mistake that undermines most of his arguments: “Trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect,” says A.C. Grayling. “That is a point Gray completely fails to grasp, and it vitiates his case. Since that is so, the point bears repeating: meliorism is not perfectibilism.” Grayling also highlights that any so-called “humanistic” totalitarian regimes (how are they humanistic? This is a false-dichotomy: anything that is not religious must be humanistic) base their need for unquestioned subservience on religious-inspired regimes.
Dogma is dogma and remains the target, not property, of secular humanism. Most of the Enlightenment tradition was about shaking off the manacles of traditionalist, monolithic, dogmatic thought. Diderot, one of the great Enlightenment figures, put it best when he characterised dogma in religion or other enterprises: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
Thus, while there may be reasons for “doom and gloom” it is not because progress is an “illusion”. After all, how should we consider the destruction of racist, misogynist, homophobic public-policies in free societies, except as progress? Was the end of apartheid a regressive move? Was the abolishment of the slave-trade and slave-ownership moving backwards or, worse, remaining still? Call it what you will, but the gradual melioration of human existence often is reason for celebration, as more people are considered people and not denominational factions of an oppressed group. Gray remains unconvincing in his dismissal of progress but his case still requires consideration.
Gray might be strange to AC Grayling, but I think he is important. Gray is part of a long tradition of thinkers trying to upset axiomatic thought. Indeed, the very source of unjustified optimism, Socrates, was a gad-fly of the unthinking traditional beliefs of Athenian society. There are many ways to sting us into awareness but the sudden rush of vertigo one experiences by encountering the powerful thoughts of pessimism is hard to replace. No, reason does not lead us automatically to happiness: We realise we will die; we realise life is not about achieving happiness if not mostly about enduring suffering; we realise that we have no right to expect anything better. But this is using reason as a descriptive-tool: telling us how the world is. We concluded from the resultant linear conception of time that, as we did not exist before our fathers, so will we will not exist past our grandsons; we know through reason that people suffer, because of forces beyond their control, such as time, place and the current political-economic climate; we know, also, that prayers, New Age quackery, and unrealistic optimism are not realistic tools to aid us since they are either disproved by science (prayer therapy has never been proven to work, indeed, it actually makes matters worse) or based on poor logical arguments.
Reason, too, Neiman highlights, can also tell us how life and the world ought to be. Before you stick my neck beneath Hume’s Guillotine, remember Hume only said no one has yet proved how we derive an ought from an is, not that we can’t. Nevertheless, Neiman is right in saying reason’s power rests in a normative framework, too.
Yet how can we build up something from such a destitute description: how can pessimism help if it depicts nothing but a horrid world? It helps mainly in one area: if we are to live in the real world, we need to know what the real world is. We need to know what life is. Perhaps you can make a good case for optimism, and that would be fantastic. But I have not come across one that remains convincing. The world is in a poor way and we can change that. We can’t change what we think is perfect. If anything pessimism humbles us enough to change the horrid world we live in. Of course this is merely one suggestion out of many. The purpose here is not to tell you what you should now do; that is not pessimism’s, or my, goal. The purpose remains only to shrink our egos, to minimise our disappointments, to alert us to realisations we would rather not hear, to keep us on our toes. Where you go from there, with these thoughts in mind, is up to you. Perhaps there are ways, good ways, to continue this journey but that is not my concern (for now). Schopenhauer, after putting his readers in the same terrible situation as Stephen King does to his, recommends we withdraw from life in a subtle display of mysticism. Nietzsche, however, recommended spontaneity and taking life by the horns. Two out of many. Indeed, the literature of most existentialists could be seen as a normative response to the pessimism’s description of life and the world.
Whatever the case, it appears that grounding us with a basis of such humble and horrible foundations can hopefully develop better tools to deal with the world. Joshua Foa Dienstag sets about making a political case for pessimism, considering the power it has to create good governmental policies. It should not be surprising: are we basing our political decisions on reality or delusion? Perhaps many will say pessimism is not reality and we shouldn’t equate it as such. That is not my point, though. Pessimism for many, like myself, rings true – there are aspects for example which I find poor but its overarching concerns remain steady. Others will dismiss it as false, but we must hear why not simply because it’s too depressing. Perhaps you have a good reason for remaining optimistic. This would be a good thing to develop further, since nearly all cases for optimism are covered in fluff.
What remains important is that pessimism need not automatically lead us toward exiting the world, becoming complacent and inactive. Just as the acquisition of knowledge does not automatically lead to happiness – but surely can – pessimism does not automatically lead to negativity. It can help us develop stronger cases for change, more robust outlines for radical realisations, and, indeed, spurn us on to change the horror we see around us. As individuals, pessimism has its strongest hold. Its foot remains against our throat. There have not been many thinkers who have seriously considered pessimism’s arguments and thrown off its throat-crushing power. Many resigned themselves to it, but fought for change nonetheless (Bertrand Russell, for example), as this is fulfilling and you are minimising the horror in the world for others.
I do not know the answer to pessimism’s claims. Perhaps there are none or I have not come across them. Nevertheless, we can grow simply from encountering its claims. We must remember it as a viable tradition of thought, not simply one we should dismiss because it’s too gloomy or juvenile. Too many great thinkers dismiss pessimism but this is a mistake. We are then cutting off a whole web of intersecting ideas from brilliant thinkers on perhaps the most important issues in our lives. We would do that in no other area. If we care about what is true, rather than what appeases, we need to face up to the challenge and tradition of pessimism. And if we want change in the world and in ourselves, we need to engage with the truth of existence not indulge in the appeasement of fears.
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