Monthly Archives: March 2017

Summary of Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

Schopenhauer.jpg

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher known for his atheism and pessimism—in fact, he is the most prominent pessimist in the entire western philosophical tradition. Schopenhauer’s most influential work, The World As Will and Representation, examines the role of humanity’s main motivation, which Schopenhauer called will. This will is an aimless striving which can never be fully satisfied, hence life is essentially dissatisfaction. Moreover, consciousness makes the situation worse, as conscious beings experience pain when thinking about past regrets and future fears.

Schopenhauer believed that desires cause suffering and, consequently, he favored asceticism—a lifestyle of negating desires or a denying the will similar to the teachings of Buddhism and Vedanta. In its most extreme form, asceticism leads to a voluntarily chosen death by starvation, the only form of suicide that is immune to moral critique according to Schopenhauer.

I have summarized and commented on his nihilism and pessimism in these previous posts:

Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, ‘On the Vanity of Existence’
Commentary on Schopenhauer’s ‘On the Vanity of Existence’
Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, “’On the Sufferings of the World’
Commentary on Schopenhauer’s ‘On the Sufferings of the World’

The above posts describe the basics of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which is the most sustained defense of pessimism and nihilism of which I’m aware. In the very briefest sense, Schopenhauer claims that:

(1) existence is a mistake;
(2) there is no meaning or purpose to existence;
(3) the best thing for humans is non-existence;
(4) life is essentially suffering and suffering is evil;
(5) this is the worst of all possible worlds.

Of course, Nietzsche argued that Schopenhauer’s view of the world says more about Schopenhauer than it does about the world. Moreover, Nietzsche wrote that Schopenhauer’s asceticism and denial of Will were self-defeating. For to will nothingness is still a willing. Schopenhauer was willing nothing, rather than not willing at all. Thus Nietzsche claimed that Schopenhauer advocates a kind of “romantic pessimism.” Schopenhauer desired or willed nothing so as to achieve tranquility and peace. In contrast, Nietzsche adopted a philosophy that said yes to life, fully cognizant of the fact that life is mostly miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd.

Is Hope Bad?

Pandora trying to close the box that she had opened out of curiosity. At left, the evils of the world taunt her as they escape. The engraving is based on a painting by F. S. Church.

Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of men. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

For the past few weeks, we investigated the concept of hope. In the process we have come to offer a spirited defense of hope and, to a lesser extent, optimism. I’d now like to “play the flip side,” as an old colleague used to say, and consider some critics of hope.

Kazantzakis’ Case Against Hope

I have previously expressed my affinity for the thought of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957). I have also discussed his case against hope in detail in, “Kazantzakis’ Epitaph: Rejecting Hope.” Here are a few highlights of his case against hope:

… leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward … Free yourself from the simple complacency of the mind that thinks to put all things in order and hopes to subdue phenomena. Free yourself from the terror of the heart that seeks and hopes to find the essence of things. Conquer the last, the greatest temptation of all: Hope …

Why should we abandon hope according to Kazantzakis? Because we often lose hope and cease acting. Instead, we should seek and strive, even if our efforts are in vain. Don’t hope for good outcomes, or understanding, or meaning, he counsels, but ascend and move forward. We are tempted by hope, but the courageous live without it, carrying on in its absence. Kazantzakis describes his rejection of hope or optimism, in this passage from his autobiography, Report to Greco:

Nietzsche taught me to distrust every optimistic theory. I knew that [the human] heart has constant need of consolation, a need to which that super-shrewd sophist the mind is constantly ready to minister. I began to feel that every religion which promises to fulfill human desires is simply a refuge for the timid, and unworthy of a true man … We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better … in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope an alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble …

Note – The hope that Kazantzakis rejects is metaphysical and forward-looking, and I too reject such hopes. And he wants us to act, which I argue is the essence of hope. Thus nothing he says here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

Nietzsche’s Pessimism

There are many great pessimists in the Western philosophical tradition—Voltaire, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and others—but let’s focus on Nietzsche. He associates weak pessimism with Eastern renunciation; strong pessimism with an Eastern notion of harmonizing contradictions; and Socratic optimism with Western philosophy’s emphasis on logic, beauty, goodness, and truth. For Nietzsche pessimism refers to the fact that reality is cruel, irrational, and always changing; while optimism is the view that reality is orderly, intelligible, and open to betterment. Optimists mistakenly believe that they can overcome the abyss and make the world better by action, but Nietzsche wants us to see reality realistically and be pessimists.

Yet Nietzsche doesn’t want us to be weak pessimists like the Buddha, who advised us to eliminate desires, or like Schopenhauer, who believed that in resignation from striving we find freedom. Instead, Nietzsche wants us to be strong pessimists who affirm life rather than renounce it, who fill life with their enthusiasm, and who take pleasure in what is hard and terrible. Salvation and freedom come from accepting the contradictory and destructive nature of reality and responding with joyous affirmation.

In other words, Nietzsche’s response to the tragedy of life is neither resignation nor self-denial, but a life-affirming pessimism. He sees Socratic philosophy and most religion as an optimistic refuge for those who will not accept the tragic sense of life. But he also rejects Schopenhauer’s pessimism and nihilism. Nietzsche’s pessimism says yes to life. He counsels us to embrace life and suffer joyfully.

Note – Nietzsche’s thoughts are consistent with Kazantzakis’ and my own. He rejects both resignation and a hope which includes expectations. Instead, he calls us to action, as do I.  Thus nothing he says here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

Stoicism

While Michael and Caldwell use Stoicism to defend caring without lamentation, a view that they argue is consistent with optimism, most interpret the Stoics differently. For example, consider how the Stoics address the issue of anxiety. When you are anxious, most people try to cheer you up by telling you things will be ok. But the Stoics hate consolation meant to give hope—the opiate of the emotions. They believe that we must eliminate hope to find inner peace because hoping for the best makes things worse, especially because your hopes are inevitably dashed. Instead, they advise that we tell ourselves that things will get worse because, when we envision the worst, we will discover that we can manage it. And if things get too bad, the Stoics remind us that we can always commit suicide.

Or consider the Stoics on anger. Anger comes when misplaced hopes smash into unforeseen reality. We get mad, not at every bad thing, but at bad, unexpected things. So we should expect bad things—not hope they don’t occur—and then we won’t be angry when things go wrong. Wisdom is reaching a state where no expected or unexpected tragedy disturbs our inner peace, so again we do best without hope. Still, this doesn’t imply total resignation to our fate; there are still some things we might be able to change.

Finally, to better understand the Stoics rejection of hope, let’s listen to Seneca:

[t]hey [hope and fear] are bound up with one another, unconnected as they may seem. Widely different though they are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope. Nor does their so moving together surprise me; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.

Note – The Stoics reject hope as expectation, lamentation, and consolation; not hope as action. Thus nothing they say here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

Simon Critchley’s Case Against Hope

Simon Critchley, chair and professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York City, recently penned this piece in the New York Times: “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope.” In it he defends a theme similar to the one he argued for in his book, Very Little … Almost Nothing … (I reviewed the book on this blog.) Critchley regards hope as another redemptive narrative, or perhaps as an element in all redemptive narratives. Instead of succumbing to the temptation of hope, he suggests we be realistic and brave—a view reminiscent of the one held by Nietzsche and Kazantzakis.

Critchley begins by asking: “Is it [hope] not rather a form of moral cowardice that allows us to escape from reality and prolong human suffering?” If hope is escapism or wishful thinking, if it is blind to reality or contrary to all evidence, then it is a form of moral cowardice?

To elucidate these ideas Critchley recalls Thucydides’ story of the Greeks’ ultimatum to the Melians—surrender or die. Rather than submit, the Melians hoped for a reprieve from their allies or their gods, despite the evidence that such hopes were misplaced. The reprieve never comes, and all the Melians were either killed or enslaved. In such situations, Critchley counsels, not hope, but courageous realism. False hopes will seal our doom as they did the Milians. From such considerations, Critchley concludes: “You can have all kinds of reasonable hopes … But unless those hopes are realistic we will end up in a blindly hopeful (and therefore hopeless) idealism … Often, by clinging to hope, we make the suffering worse.”

Note – I too reject false hopes, but Critchley admits you can have reasonable hopes. Thus nothing he says here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

Oliver Burkeman on Hope as Deception

In a recent column in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman argued that what is often called hope is really deception—hoping for things which are virtually impossible. For example, hoping that one wins the lottery, or that the victims of an accident have survived when their deaths are near certainties.

By contrast, letting go of hope often sets us free. To support this claim he refers to “recent research … suggesting that hope makes people feel worse.” For instance: the unemployed who hope to find work are less happy than those who accept they won’t work again; those in the state of hoping for a miraculous cure for a terminal disease are less happy than those who accept that they will die; and people more often act for change when they stop hoping that others will do so. Perhaps there is something about giving up hope and accepting a reality that is comforting.

Note – I too reject hope with expectations. Thus nothing he says here undermines the kind of hope I advocate.  

My Reflections

The common theme in these critiques is the futility of false hopes, which lead inevitably to disappointment. I agree. If I hope to become the world’s most famous author or greatest tennis player, my expectations are bound to be dashed. Silly to hope for such things. Much better to hope that I enjoy writing and tennis despite my shortcomings in both.

For instance, when confronted by the reality of the concentrations camps, Viktor Frankl didn’t hope to dig his way out of his prison. That wasn’t impossible. Instead, he hoped that the war would end and he might be freed. That was realistic. Thus the difference between false and realistic hope. The former is delusional, the latter worthwhile. Sometimes only fools keep believing; sometimes you should stop believing. False hopes prolong misery.

But I want to know if I’m justified in hoping (without expectation) that life has meaning or that truth, beauty and goodness matter. And I think I am. Why? Because regarding questions about the ultimate purpose of ourselves and the cosmos, we just don’t know enough to say that hope is unjustified. It is reasonable to think that life might have meaning, it is not impossible that it does. Thus this is not a false hope, even if the object of my hopes may not be fulfilled.

Thus we can legitimately hope that life is meaningful without being moral cowards. Of course, life may be pointless and meaningless. We just don’t know. But if we bravely accept that we just don’t know whether life is meaningful or not, then we live with moral and intellectual integrity. And there is no more honest or better way to live.

Hope and Pandora’s Box

Pandora (1861) by Pierre Loison (1816–1886)

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods. Zeus ordered her to be molded out of earth as part of humanity’s punishment for Prometheus’ theft of the secret of fire. According to the myth, Pandora opened a jar (in modern accounts often mistranslated as “Pandora’s box“) releasing all the evils that visit humanity like pain and suffering, leaving only hope (expectation) inside once she had closed it again. (Most scholars translate the Greek word elpis as “expectation.”) The Pandora myth is a theodicy—an attempt to explain why there is evil in the world.

The key question is how to interpret the myth. Is the imprisonment of hope inside the jar a benefit for humanity, or a further bane? If hope is another evil, then we should be thankful that hope was withheld. The idea is that by hoping for or expecting a good life that we can never have, we prolong our torment. Thus it is better to live without hope, and it is good that hope remained in the jar. But if hope is good, then its imprisonment makes life even more dreary and insufferable. In this case, all the evils were scattered from the jar, while the one potentially mitigating force, hope, remains locked inside. However, this latter interpretation causes us to wonder why this good hope was in the jar of evils in the first place. To this question, I have no answer.

But I do have another interpretation. Perhaps hope is good, and it is good that it remained in the jar. In other words, the jar originally served as a prison for the evils, but thereafter it serves as a residence for this good hope. It’s as if hope, separated from evil, takes on a new character—it becomes good. But had hope been released into the world with the other evils, it would have been another evil, a bad kind of hope.

My interpretation depends on understanding hope, not as an expectation, but as an attitude that leads us to act rather than despair. This is the good kind of hope preserved in the jar. To better understand my interpretation, remember the words of Aeschylus from his tragedy, Prometheus Bound. Prometheus’ two great gifts to humanity are hope and fire. Hope aids our struggle for a better future while fire, the source of technology, makes success in that struggle possible. Hope is the first gift that Aeschylus mentions.

Chorus: Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?
Prometheus – I stopped mortals from foreseeing their fate.
Chorus – What kind of cure did you discover for this sickness?
Prometheus – I established in them blind hopes.
Chorus – This is a great benefit you gave to men.

In Hope Lies All Possibilities

Pandora trying to close the box that she had opened out of curiosity. At left, the evils of the world taunt her as they escape. The engraving is based on a painting by F. S. Church.

Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it … The worst is always what the hopeful are prepared for. Their trust in life would not be worth much if it had not survived disappointments in the past, while knowledge that the future holds further disappointments demonstrates the continuing need for hope … Improvidence, a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best, furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”  ~ Christopher Lasch

For the last few weeks I have been writing about the concept of hope. I recently found an insight from the work of my graduate school mentor and dissertation director Richard J. Blackwell. I have written previously about the profound effect that Professor Blackwell had on my philosophical development.

The January 1999 edition of the philosophical journal, The Modern Schoolman, was titled: “Philosophy and Modern Science: Papers Presented in Honor of Richard J. Blackwell.” (For those unfamiliar with the academy, it is a high and rare honor to have an edition of a professional journal devoted to your work.)The introduction of that work was penned by Professor Richard Dees, now of the University of Rochester. Dees begins thus:

The articles gathered here honor the legacy of Richard J. Blackwell, a dedicated scholar, a consummate colleague, and above all, a much-loved and much-revered teacher … During his tenure, he has directed a program in the history and philosophy of science, written five books on topics ranging from the logic of discovery to his now-famous work on Galileo, translated four other books of historical significance, held the Danforth Chair in Humanities, won the Nancy McNair Ring Outstanding Teacher Award, directed over 30 dissertations, and guided literally hundreds of students.

After describing Blackwell’s many philosophical projects, and introducing the articles written in his honor by the distinguished scholars, Dees summarizes Blackwell’s conclusions about the Galileo affair—the work for which he became most well-known. In this concluding paragraph that I found a pearl of wisdom. Dees writes:

So, for Blackwell, the real lesson of the Galileo Affair is … what it shows us about our own intellectual enterprises. When a standpoint becomes over-intellectualized, it becomes so rigid that no changes are possible without destroying the view itself. In the seventeenth-century, that danger lay primarily in the system-building philosophy that dominated the Catholic Church and the intellectual climate of Europe … The … question is whether the Catholic Church—or any organized religion—can open up its inquiries into the nature of reality in the same way that science has. Blackwell thinks that such a change is possible, but not without reconceptualizing the very structure of traditional Christian thought. As long as faith is considered the key virtue, any religion can fall too easily into dogmatism. Instead, he suggests, hope should be the center of our thought, for in hope lies all possibilities. (emphasis mine)

I believe that Professor Dees describes Blackwell’s overall philosophical attitude perfectly. And, since I’m fortunate to still correspond with Professor Blackwell, I can say that he has maintained this positive, optimistic, or hopeful attitude despite age, pain and infirmity. I am blessed to have known him. And I’d like to thank Professor Dees for his clear and eloquent prose.

Robert Frost: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost NYWTS.jpg

The first poem I ever committed to memory was Robert Frost’s, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I first encountered it as a sophomore in high school almost 50 years ago, and I remember being moved by my teacher’s vocal rendition. I didn’t know then that I would still remember the poem so many years later. I now have less miles to go than I did in my youth, and the “dark and deep” are getting closer.

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963) was an American poet who is highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech.[2] One of the most popular and critically respected American poets of the twentieth century,[3] Frost was honored frequently during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. He was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1960, and he read his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961.

I have always enjoyed that the poem rhymes, as I generally find free verse harder to digest. As Frost famously remarked free verse was like “playing tennis without a net.” Frost himself called the poem “my best bid for remembrance”.[1]

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.