Philosophical Pessimism

Arthur Schopenhauer, the quintessential philosophical pessimist

A thoughtful reader offered a rejoinder to the conclusion of my recent series on life and meaning. In it he advances an unequivocal pessimism in response to my (qualified) notions of optimism and hope. I reprint it here, edited slightly for brevity.

… We are in a desperate place since there is so much evidence that as Schopenhauer said it is suffering which is primary to existence and our pleasures are only momentary relief from ongoing suffering or strife which is always, like time, nipping at our heels.

However, I think an honest person must as you say admit the fact that there are too many unknowns to say with any certainty what is the ultimate truth of this matter and we don’t know what the end game looks like. However, we do, to the best of our awareness know what is happening now and in the past. With that in mind, I can no longer put your kind of hope near the top of my list of things to believe in. [Just a minor point. I don’t believe in hope or even believe in having hope, rather it describes certain attitudes and wishes that I have.] There is TOO much suffering for that and not very much to your hope that this all ends up with these horrible wrongs righted and all wounds healed and anguish soothed …

You say here it’s the best thing to hope for the good and work towards that in spite of anything to the contrary but what does that mean? … Most would feed the starving and hope they survive. I would say all that does is create more misery as a full belly plus free time creates more innocent babies to starve all over again. There’s plenty of evidence for that. IMO, and that of the tiny few brother and sister antinatalists, … our most fervent and beautiful hope would be the extinction of the human race and even beyond that the elimination of all life that has a nervous system that can feel pain. I cannot think of a more certain way to end suffering and if we are honest we must admit that suffering is a certainty, whereas a happy ending for all is just another hope against hope that has never yet materialized and we’ve been preaching it for a long long time. There is really no evidence for it and if we want to go with the odds we should … have mercy on all future generations by not forcing them into existence.

I do wish I had better things to say than this. I would love to believe that your hope is worth hoping and that the sufferings possibly caused by acting on that hope might be worth it in the end but I can’t do that. I know what suffering is like close up both physically and emotionally and a reality that has this much of it is likely not planning on being kind to us in that unknown end game. Too often humans have felt that the suffering of others is a price worth paying for the chance at a better future that they want to imagine. IMO that’s callus and non-compassionate. Most don’t take the time to really see what some of this suffering actually looks like. It’s easier to look away and hope and that’s almost always what happens. That’s why our newspapers never really show the body parts with graphic close-ups or the screams on TV and radio. We can’t take that and we’d be outraged if we were forced to, but someone is taking it right now. I’m sorry to say all this. I miss that hope you seem to still have a strong hold on. I had to give it up or let’s say put it way down near the bottom of my possibles list. That or feel like a fraud. You’re a very lucky guy. I hope you know that. Best of luck to everyone, we all need it.

I would like to thank my reader for his thoughts.


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2 thoughts on “Philosophical Pessimism

  1. The commenter is correct: pessimism is entirely justified.

    “Too often humans have felt that the suffering of others is a price worth paying for the chance at a better future that they want to imagine. IMO that’s callus and non-compassionate.”

    The commenter is correct: pessimism is entirely justified. Dr. Messerly and I remember the over-optimism of the early to mid ’60s. Things went bad after the Vietnam War and a half century on, we have a reptile in the Oval Office.
    Material progress flows from change that dislocates to the degree that ethics and aesthetics are degraded/negated. Optimism ought to mean optimizing– not making smarmy fatuous predictions to temporarily encourage susceptible people.

  2. From a Buddhist perspective, hope may be its own nemesis by encouraging built-in exaggerated expectations. Wanted to be a futurist for more than four decades, but only discovered a koan:
    One thing that can be predicted about the future is how in the future no one will be able to predict the future.

    “we don’t know what the end game looks like.”

    From a Buddhist perspective, there is no end game. “Nothing happens” is a Buddhist truism. Shoot-for-the-moon expectations are for effect rather than being genuine. Even the actual Moon. Way back when, space interest enthusiasts said we would colonize space by 2010 or so; however they said so without really knowing the outcome, they did so to encourage the public.
    That is general.
    When our families encouraged us to go to school, they did so without knowing whether schooling would make the slightest difference albeit pre-college schooling is mandated by law. Perhaps ‘All I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten’ is by default the best ethics textbook.
    Am I hopeful about the future? No. Excited about the future? For a jaded coot, yes– but am quite fearful as well. Whereas for a young person, this may be the most exciting and ‘best’ time Youth have ever known. I remember the Vietnam era as being hideous, yet in the background there were extremely exciting things happening. Not happiness, but Happenings. Youth rolling in the mud at Woodstock at the very moment astronauts were walking on the sandy Moon.
    It was a paradoxical, amoral era.
    Fifty years later, we are in for another amoral paradoxical time. In 1969, there was some substantive morality which slowly evaporated ’til November 2016, when the hubris met its nemesis. In 1959, there existed a widespread though imperfect morality– sixty years later it has been replaced by situational ethics. If one expects pleasure and excitement, they might thrive. If one expects happiness and morality, one might want to live in a very rural area.
    Conservatives criticize callow youth in today’s universities. Well, sure they are callow. With Stormy Daniel’s ex-boyfriend in the White House, the dignity (however superficial) of an Eisenhower is very ancient history. But let a Rightwinger strain his brain attempting to square a circle; let him try to preserve a morality he deep down no longer subscribes to, in an increasingly techno-‘logical’ world.
    The outcome of democracy–imperfect democracy– is that everyone eventually gets what they deserve. As virtue is its own reward, so too is disingenuousness.
    And boy will they get that.

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