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"Pessimism": An Essay by Mara Van Der Lugt (Keywords: Suffering; Fatalism; Ethics; Schopenhauer)

Artwork Pessimism

“We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.” Noam Chomsky In an age marked by such overwhelming cause for concern for the state of the planet and the future of mankind as ours, the word pessimism has received a surprising amount of bad press. Noam Chomsky, in the tellingly titled collection Optimism over Despair, puts the question of optimism and pessimism as something of a forking path: we can either be optimistic about the possibilities for the future, or we can be pessimistic, i.e. desperate, i.e. just “give up”. Similarly, and almost simultaneously, Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now makes his plea for the belief in progress against what he sees as a widespread current of “pessimism”, or a belief in cultural decline. Musing from another angle, Marilynne Robinson strikes out against the “always fashionable” phenomenon of cultural pessimism, which has the “negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible”, or even of “encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat.” Even the unborn baby in Ian McEwan’s novel Nutshell sagely points out that pessimism is no less than an intellectual weakness, a refusal to see that things have never been better than in modern-day Western society: “Pessimism is too easy…” It is generally a good idea to be at least mildly sceptical when encountering such sweeping statements, such denunciations of what is obviously or evidently a widespread fad­ – and we should be all the more suspicious when no convincing examples are given of a phenomenon of which we are all supposed to be so acutely aware. After all: who, these days, calls themselves a pessimist with any conviction? Where are these black-minded doomsaying pessimist throngs? When was pessimism ever a thing that was “in vogue”? And who says that pessimism is the same thing as believing in decline or resigning in despair?

When was pessimism ever a thing that was “in vogue”? And who says that pessimism is the same thing as believing in decline or resigning in despair?

It is in fact much more difficult to find a self-proclaimed pessimist than a self-proclaimed optimist, whether in politics, philosophy, science or everyday life, and the few examples we can find are hardly ever straightforward cases. Thus John Gray, perhaps the philosopher most notorious for his pessimism, will not take on the term without qualification: “I am hopefully pessimistic”, he says on the BBC-programme Desert Island Discs. This caution, this tentative nature of his self-description, and the very adjective he chooses to moderate it, are each telling: they reveal what pessimism is often accused of and has to defend against. But the things we most often associate with pessimism are far removed from what it really is; they are based on a mixture of misgivings, prejudices, and concerns that fail to do it justice. For the truth is that pessimism, or the philosophy properly known as pessimism, was never attractive, never popular, and never, ever easy. The truth is also that pessimism represents a much richer, deeper, and more interesting view on life than the dulled-down version lets us see. Furthermore, not only does this shallow glance on pessimism dull the truth of pessimism, but it does the same for the contrary doctrine known as optimism. ***

So, what are optimism and pessimism? The standard view is that these terms simply refer to our chosen expectations about the future: an optimist believes things will get better; a pessimist believes things will get worse. Aside from the fact that this definition gets pessimism (as well as optimism) wrong in important ways, the main problem with this representation of both optimism and pessimism is that it sets the latter up for failure. If the two outlooks are supposed to tell us what we can expect, and therefore what we can hope for from the future, then optimism obviously wins, on moral grounds. The intuition is that pessimism leads to despair, which will in turn lead to resignation: to giving up. These, again, are Chomsky’s alternatives: we can choose either optimism or despair (that is: pessimism). If this is indeed the choice before us, then Chomsky is right, and ethics itself moves against pessimism. We ought not to be pessimists if to be a pessimist means giving up on our common future, and on our fellow man. So much for the intuition; now for the facts. Do pessimists actually believe their outlook commits them to resignation? Far from it: in fact, in many cases, the opposite is true. Joshua Foa Dienstag has devoted an entire book to arguing that there is a pessimist tradition of political thought, and that pessimism can be a source of powerful political engagement. How else could we explain the fact that one of pessimism’s pivotal figures, Albert Camus, was also one of the most politically committed philosophers in Western thought? The problem with the common-sense view of pessimism is that it relies on a mistaken conception of what pessimism, in its deepest and most significant manifestations, really is. Far from resting in a belief that things are going to get worse, pessimism in most cases doesn’t have to do with the future at all: rather, it is a philosophy that tries to give a place to the darker side of life, to the reality of evil and pain and suffering in human (as well as animal) existence. Furthermore, insofar as pessimism is oriented on a view towards the future, most philosophical pessimists will tell you that to be a pessimist is not to expect the worst, but rather to expect nothing at all. Pessimism has to do rather with a limitation of what we can possibly know about what life has in store for us. It is, therefore, not at all a positive belief in decline, but rather a negative belief, a refusal to believe that progress is a given. Thus, to those people who would cleverly say “I’m not a pessimist or an optimist: I am a realist”, the pessimists could answer that this is just another way of saying they are a pessimist, in that they suspend judgment on the question of what is or is not going to happen. But this view cast upon the future is only a secondary and derivative part of what philosophical pessimism is at its most ardent and most interesting: an attempt to paint an alternative picture of the reality of human life. This, not the caricature we have become accustomed to, is the beating heart of pessimism. It is also its original conception. ***

A quick turning back of history’s pages tells us that the terms optimism and pessimism first came into being in the early eighteenth century. This happened in the heat of the philosophical debate on the problem of evil: the question of how an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God could permit the many evils and sufferings of existence. Interestingly, both terms were originally pejorative and oppositional in nature: they were coined as ways of putting down the opposing philosophy, and this derogatory nature still clings to them. (To this day, a person can still be discredited by being called a pessimist, or even, in some contexts, an optimist). Optimism was the first to be coined, by the Jesuits, to deride Leibniz’s famous system that we live in “the best of all possible worlds” – and it was the Jesuits too who coined pessimism as a name for the opposing view. But it was Voltaire’s famous Candide, or Optimism that ensured the worldwide success of this term, pessimism following only slowly in its footsteps. Now if we look at what both terms meant philosophically, this was to do with a set of existential questions, such as: Do the goods of existence outweigh its evils? Is life worth living? Would it have been better for some people, or most people, or any people, never to have existed? Very roughly sketched, on the one hand, the “optimists” (such as Leibniz and, most fervently, Alexander Pope), argued that life is on the whole good, that God’s creation is therefore justified, and so the evils of existence don’t form an argument against the goodness, let alone the existence of God. On the other hand, the “pessimists” (such as Voltaire and David Hume) argued that the optimists failed to give sufficient weight to the depth of human misery: not only is it the case that the evils outnumber the goods of life, but the evils carry more weight – they matter more when we make up the balances. One hour of real suffering, said philosopher Pierre Bayle, is enough to tip the scales over five or six comfortable days. Therefore, considering the dreadful potential of human misery, the terrible extremes to which suffering may reach, existence is a wager that ought not to have been made. Better no existence, argued the most dark-minded of these philosophers, than an existence in which suffering could take such horrific forms. And we all know, they hinted, what the implications are for Whoever has created us this way.

This, in a nutshell, is the theoretical question of optimism versus pessimism. However, behind the theory there stands a profound ethical impulse, one that is equally active on both sides of the debate. The reason the pessimists object so vehemently to the system of optimism (according to which the parts may suffer but the whole is good) is that it neglects the reality of suffering, or worse, explains it away. For instance, the optimists argue that we suffer because we have sinned, or we suffer because pain is useful to us, or we suffer by our own choice, since we have the power to rise beyond our suffering. The ethical drive of pessimism is that this is no way to speak of human experience: that this implies a failure in compassion for our fellow sufferers, or even that it can serve to make their suffering worse. No consolation could be less welcome than to be told, in your suffering, that you suffer pointlessly; that you suffer through your own doing. This, say the pessimists, is to double suffering with guilt.

On the other hand, the optimists too are driven by an ethical motivation, their argument being that pessimists exaggerate human suffering and so it is they who make suffering worse, by adding to the fact of suffering a reflection upon that suffering. The pessimists are now accused not only of ingratitude to their creator, but of moral weakness: here already is the view that there is something desperate and immoral about pessimism; that it is a failure of the will. This moral concern on either side is, on my view, precisely what saves both philosophies: it gives them an integrity that they would lack as merely abstract considerations. It manifests a sense of engagement that takes several forms throughout the tradition, revealing itself fully in the question of how to speak sensitively and considerately of human suffering: how to find a language of compassion and consolation that nevertheless does justice to the breadth of our experiences. It is also what gives coherence to both traditions, which are defined precisely by their ethical opposition to each other. Thus what Voltaire and Rousseau, in their famous clash over the Lisbon earthquake, are really arguing about is not the abstract philosophical question of whether we live in the best of all possible worlds, but the proper grounding of consolation as well as hope. The last word of Voltaire’s Poem on the Lisbon Disaster is, famously, espérance.

It is tragic that throughout the history of philosophy, and up to the current day, both traditions have failed to recognize this ethical drive in the opponent, and to take the opposing philosophy truly seriously.

It is, then, tragic, that throughout the history of philosophy, and up to the current day, both traditions have failed to recognize this ethical drive in the opponent, and to take the opposing philosophy truly seriously. Hence the division that continues today in even the most commonsensical uses of the terms optimism and pessimism; hence also the caricatures that have resulted on both sides, and especially those associated with pessimism. And yet the person most responsible for pessimism’s bad name is also the philosopher whose name is most closely associated with pessimism: that arch-pessimist, Arthur Schopenhauer. ***

The reason for this is that Schopenhauer, in his argument that life is marked deeply and principally by suffering, to the extent that suffering is the very end of life, leads us to the exact conclusion that latter-day pessimists are most eager to avoid: that we should cease to affirm life, and turn instead to resignation. In order to achieve “salvation”, on Schopenhauer’s view, we must radically turn away from this existence, which means turning from our pleasures as well our pains. We must give up happiness as our ideal, and go beyond ourselves, our desires, and especially our will, in order to go beyond the world.

This kind of resignation, haunted as it is by dark ascetic musings, seems to confirm precisely that intuitive conception of pessimism as a kind of hopelessness, a philosophy of giving up. It also raises two questions that strike at the heart of pessimism’s bad reputation. First, doesn’t this kind of philosophical gloom make for a very potent argument for suicide? Second, doesn’t it mean we should just stop caring about anything, including our fellow man? These are the kinds of questions that have resulted in a bad name for not only Schopenhauer’s particular brand of pessimism, but for pessimism more generally. And yet Schopenhauer was the first to answer these questions in ways that should be enough to change our minds.

First of all: his is not an argument for suicide. Suicide, says Schopenhauer, is not an answer to the problem posed by existence. An awareness of the reality of pessimism should place us on a path of philosophical and spiritual enlightenment, in which we learn to understand the illusory nature of most of our knowledge and even of our own identities: of that which distinguishes us from other people. Pessimism is meant to help us find some kind of consolation in the fact that our suffering is not accidental and is not exceptional, but is an intrinsic part of our existence in this world. True resignation, for Schopenhauer, is an attempt to achieve salvation by conquering ourselves, which can only be done by living in acknowledgment of our human condition, not by choosing death instead (though what precisely is meant here by “salvation” remains somewhat mysterious). It is yet another misconception clinging to pessimism that its proponents must be pro-suicide. This is not the case even in that philosopher who famously argued that suicide is the most important philosophical question, Albert Camus. On the contrary, the canonical philosophers of pessimism give argument upon argument against suicide – but unlike most arguments against suicide, which make this case in moralistic or legalistic or theological terms, the pessimists’ arguments are deeply sensitive to the experience that informs the act, in all its tragic complexity and profundity. Their arguments distinguish themselves in that, more often than not, they are formulated from the inside of this experience, rather than from the outside, looking in. Theirs is an awareness that suicide tells us something about the darkest corners of existence and about the depths of human suffering. It is, in their eyes, not at all an action to be recommended, but an experience to be taken seriously.

For Schopenhauer, identity and individuality are illusory, so that a single creature’s suffering properly belongs to all creatures.

As for the second question, far from making ethics impossible, Schopenhauer wants his argument to be a foundation for ethics: there is perhaps no philosopher who has given as much weight to the ethical mechanism of sympathy or compassion as Arthur Schopenhauer. His central idea is that, by going beyond our individual wills and pursuing an ethic of personal resignation, we will recognize that deep down we are all connected by a reality that is greater and stronger than our individual identities; hence I will recognize your suffering as my suffering, you will recognize mine as yours, and we will all want to do what we can to reduce the suffering we see in the (human as well as animal) world. It thus becomes impossible to turn away from suffering on the grounds that it isn’t I who suffer: for Schopenhauer, identity and individuality are illusory, so that a single creature’s suffering properly belongs to all creatures. While optimism, for Schopenhauer, entrenches us in our personal interests and desires and makes us insensitive to the suffering of others, pessimism grounds an ethic of extreme compassion, of suffering-with and feeling-with the other. Far from a glorification of suffering, it is an extremely compassionate philosophy. True “goodness of heart”, says Schopenhauer, “identifies all beings with its own nature.” *** Of course, there is still reason to be uncomfortable with almost every aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of pessimism, and especially with his ethic of resignation, the giving up of any hope of happiness altogether. Schopenhauer calls this resignation, but it sounds rather like despair. Contrary to this, there is much to be said for an optimist ethic that tells us to look for the good, the lighter side in all things; one that warns us against focusing too much on what Schopenhauer calls “the terrible side of life”, lest we lose heart and hope, lest we forfeit our capacity for goodness and kindness and for joy itself. Such an ethic would remind us that we must always believe, even in the darkest of times, that things can get better – which is a view that Schopenhauer does not allow us, though other pessimists do. This is also what Chomsky is getting at in his eulogy of optimism over despair. The question is whether what he is getting at is really optimism, or rather hope. Could the two not go together, then? Could there be such a thing as hopeful pessimism, as John Gray suggests (which to many of us would seem like an oxymoron) – and could such hopeful pessimism not perform the same tasks as Chomsky’s optimism, and perform them better? I think it can – and should.

While it is deeply mistaken to suggest that pessimism is the same as fatalism or giving up, the concern behind this suggestion is nevertheless a valid one.

While it is deeply mistaken to suggest that pessimism is the same as fatalism or giving up, the concern behind this suggestion is nevertheless a valid one. This is the concern, voiced most clearly by Chomsky, that if we become too convinced that things are going to get worse whatever we do, we’ll end up doing nothing at all. But, as I have argued, this is not at all the point of pessimism, properly understood. If even that strand of pessimism most oriented towards resignation (Schopenhauer’s version) retains a profound ethical orientation; if even here the recognition of suffering in the world is tightly linked to the commitment to lessening that suffering – what this tells us about pessimism is that this is a philosophy that sees itself as charged with the highest ethical potential. Far from dissuading us from ethical or political action, the point of pessimism is to motivate us. More importantly, the fatalistic concern raised by Chomsky goes both ways, and cuts optimism with the same blade. If it can be said that pessimism risks demotivation, it could also be said that, if we are too optimistic, too convinced that things will turn out fine in the end, whatever we do, we’ll equally end up doing nothing. Why worry ourselves about a complex problem such as climate change if we already believe everything will sort itself out in the end; that progress will prevail? How is such an attitude more likely to motivate us than one that takes seriously the reality of damage, the reasonableness of due concern? This is of course as unfair a representation of optimism as the opposing view is of pessimism. Again, the point behind both viewpoints and philosophies is their ethical drive: both are directed towards a common orientation, which is to make sense of suffering, to offer hope as well as consolation; and, at least to some extent, to try to improve the human condition insofar as it can be improved. The difference between both traditions resides in the kinds of moral sources that are prioritized. To remain with the example of climate change, the optimists believe we will be best motivated if we draw from humanity’s success stories, such as new technologies and the vast human potential for change and innovation, while not focusing too much on the reasons we have for despair. In contrast to this, the pessimists hold not only that ethics demands we do justice to the reality of suffering and evils (including the possibility of impending disaster), but also that this is exactly what will motivate us to want to make a difference: it is precisely a recognition of the dire state of affairs in the world that is needed to impel us to action. The disagreement, then, is ultimately over what is most capable of morally paralysing us: overemphasizing our capacity or rather our incapacity?

Throughout the ages, the tension between optimism and pessimism has had to do with the conflicting demands of their double orientation: towards hope and, at the same time, towards consolation. On the one hand, this means to do justice to the reality of human suffering, without which, as especially pessimism recognizes, consolation is impossible. And, on the other, to offer a perspective that opens up new possibilities, new perspectives for the future, without which, as especially optimism recognizes, hope is impossible. This tension rises again and again in literature as well as the history of philosophy. I will point out merely two passages, one as subtle in its optimism as the other is in its pessimism. The first passage occurs at the end of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where Pierre looks back at his past sufferings and draws from them a lesson that, without discounting or playing down these hardships, nevertheless manages to place them in a wider narrative of hope and meaning:

They say: sufferings are misfortunes,” said Pierre. “But if at once this minute, I was asked, would I remain what I was before I was taken prisoner, or go through it all again, I should say, for God’s sake let me rather be a prisoner and eat horseflesh again. We imagine that as soon as we are torn out of our habitual path all is over, but it is only the beginning of something new and good. As long as there is life, there is happiness. There is a great deal, a great deal before us.

I believe there is great wisdom in this. But I also think this is something we should handle with great caution; something we should not make into too general a point. It is a wonderful thing when out of deep tragedies or great suffering comes “something new and good”; when bad experiences teach us new things, help us to reach beyond ourselves, to grow as persons. Speaking of the value of life, this is surely one of those things that makes life and living valuable to us: this possibility of bad things giving entry to the good. But while we should be deeply grateful when this is the case for us, it is not something we can count on, nor is it something that is dependent on our will. Not all that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Not all suffering gives way to the new and good; not all bad experiences help us to grow. Some diminish us, some tragedies make life stop short in its tracks. Some suffering cuts us off from the attainment of the “new and good”, and, in Hilary Mantel’s words, makes us “foreign to ourselves”:

All of us can change. All of us can change for the better, at any point. I believe this, but what is certainly true is that we can be made foreign to ourselves, suddenly, by illness, accident, misadventure, or hormonal caprice.

These words are drawn from Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost, and they comprise the second passage I wanted to mention, which seems to stand as a kind of counterpoint to Tolstoy’s muted optimism: where Pierre counterposed light to darkness, Mantel counterposes darkness to light. My own pessimism, if it deserves the name, rises exactly at this point. I believe, with and perhaps beyond Mantel, that there are those to whom the path of happiness is closed – truly closed. That there are experiences that can cut us off from ourselves and from our very capacity for happiness: from the good and from the true. To recognize this is not to forfeit hope or to give up on such persons, let alone on ourselves: it is rather to acknowledge that this too is life; this too is what it means to be alive. And this is the great risk, the original sin of any overly optimistic description of reality or of the human capacity to flourish: the suggestion that this flourishing is entirely up to us, entirely in our human hands. This very modern ethic has had its most victorious moment at the heart of the American Dream, according to which each of us can (and should) achieve our aspirations, if only we are willing; “you are responsible for your own happiness”. This ethic is echoed in pop culture as it is in many currents of new age spirituality, some of which trace back all our good and bad fortunes, even our illnesses, to our own will and consciousness, thus making each of us starkly responsible for that which in older days would be referred to fate. Whatever befalls us, so say such “philosophies”, does so because we have attracted it. This is also an ethic that fits snugly within the modern Facebook paradigm, where we are supposed (there is a strong ought here) only to show our happiest face, our sunniest side – regardless of whether such a side is real or even possible for us. The pressuring potential of optimism, if wrongly interpreted, reveals itself fully here. While many have surely drawn hope from the belief that our happiness is entirely in our hands, this is not simply a message of hope. It can become an imperative, and as soon as it does, it reveals its ugly side, in this overburdening of the will. This, not incidentally, was precisely what early pessimists such as Bayle and Voltaire were reacting so strongly against: the idea that we are as responsible for our suffering as for our happiness. If this gains us hope, it fails in consolation. *** A few months ago I came across a bench by a beach in Scotland that had black balloons tied to it. The bench itself was dedicated to the memory of a boy who had died one year before that day. There were flowers on the bench, and beside the flowers, a bunch of papers, with hundreds of names of persons, followed by their ages: fifteen, seventeen, twenty-one, thirty-two. On the first page there was a handwritten and touchingly misspelled note, telling us that this was a list of people lost to suicide, and suggesting to us these three things:

Be kind to people. Look out for loved ones. Its ok to not be ok.

And this is what the ethic of pessimism, in its strongest, clearest, cleanest form, most pivotally represents: that “It’s ok to not be ok.” That to make suffering a question primarily of our will is merely to increase suffering, by heaping guilt upon it. That it’s a wonderful thing to live a life rich in wonder, and meaning, and happiness; and we should be deeply grateful if we are so blessed. But that our own happiness should not excuse us either from an awareness of the fragility of life, happiness, and good itself, or from a due consideration and concern for those less fortunate, less blessed, less beloved, or the truly miserable among us, who also walk this world. The message of pessimism is that this, too, is a part of life, and that it deserves a place in our language, our shared experience; that we are not justified, that it is never justified, to close our eyes to that other, darker, “terrible” side of life. This is also the meaning of compassion in the ethic of pessimism, which need not at all be in conflict with optimism, but should stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside it as its necessary complement and companion. As Schopenhauer wrote, this is how deep down we should greet each other, not as Madame or Monsieur, but as “fellow sufferer, compagnon de misère. *** Noam Chomsky argues for optimism over despair. We might equally, and more meaningfully, argue for hope over optimism. If optimism risks, on the one hand, an overburdening of the will, and on the other, an understatement of the reality of true and dire damage done to the world and to ourselves – could not pessimism serve us better as a moral source? And where pessimism risks stumbling into resignation – could not hope help us to mind the gap? If optimism and pessimism both have their faces turned towards a common goal, could we not find in both the materials by which to travel forwards? Why, then, not a philosophy of hopeful pessimism to guide us into the future? Mara van der Lugt is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of St Andrews. Her main research interests include: early modern philosophy and theology, the problem of evil, theodicy, pessimism, scepticism, deism, libertinism, early modern perceptions of Islam in the West, biblical criticism, secularism, bioethics and the ethics of reproduction. She is currently pursuing a project on pessimism and the problem of evil in the early Enlightenment.


From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 4 ('This Life'). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.


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