There’s a prevailing narrative in our society that associates ‘optimism’ with positivity and ‘pessimism’ with negativity. Optimists, we’re often told, see the glass as half-full and face life with a sunny disposition, while pessimists, on the other hand, see the glass as half-empty, and carry an aura of doom and gloom. However, these stereotypical definitions grossly oversimplify the complex philosophical tenets of these concepts.
Contrary to popular belief, it is the pessimist, not the optimist, who sees the glass as half-full. The pessimist appreciates the water that’s already in the glass, grateful for life as it is. The optimist, in contrast, yearns for the glass to be fuller, creating a perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction.
Name Calling vs Name Choosing
The dialogue surrounding optimism and pessimism often takes a reductionist approach, morphing these rich philosophical concepts into crude labels. It’s not rare to hear comments like “Don’t be such a pessimist” or “You should be more optimistic.” This common use strips these philosophies down to mere attitudes, neglecting their potential depth.
When we apply these labels to others, we tend to oversimplify and stereotype, obscuring the nuanced perspectives these terms could encompass. However, when we self-identify as an optimist or pessimist, we’re not necessarily succumbing to such stereotypes. Instead, we often apply a broader, more thoughtful interpretation, associating optimism with pragmatism and proactivity, or pessimism with realism and resilience.
In essence, we are distinguishing between the dismissive, superficial use of these terms from their more reflective, self-identifying use. This shift in perspective enables us to appreciate the potential depth of these philosophies, opening the door for a more nuanced understanding. By recognizing this, we can lay the groundwork to explore philosophical pessimism from a new angle, starting with its most notable advocate - Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer: Pioneer of Pessimism
In the annals of philosophical thought, few figures have been as resolute and provocative in their pessimism as Arthur Schopenhauer. Born in 1788 in the city of Danzig, Prussia (now Gdańsk, Poland), Schopenhauer has had a significant influence on the Western philosophical tradition. This pioneering philosopher of pessimism was far from being just a gloomy thinker, but instead was a thoughtful, and at times, surprisingly vibrant figure with a deep sense of humor (after slogging through Hume and Kant, Schopenhauer’s writings felt a thousand times more enjoyable, almost making me forgive the 1700s ((Kant really didn’t know any better, but I get the sense that Hume was just being malicious))).
Schopenhauer's cornerstone work, "The World as Will and Representation," stands as a testament to his mastery of pessimistic philosophy. The book delves deeply into the nature of reality and human desire, making for a complex and stimulating read. Through this work, Schopenhauer unveiled a fresh perspective that shook conventional understanding to its core. His unique viewpoint encourages us to examine and reassess our existing perceptions.
Central to Schopenhauer’s philosophy is the concept of ‘Will’. This metaphysical force drives all actions and desires, extending beyond conscious beings to the entire universe. It’s this insatiable ‘Will’ that fuels our never-ending aspirations.
Understanding Schopenhauer’s concept of ‘Will’ is critical for a more profound appreciation of pessimism. It shows us that pessimism isn’t about wallowing in gloominess; rather, it’s an acknowledgement of this relentless force that often leads us into cycles of desire and dissatisfaction.
Schopenhauer then introduces the world as ‘Representation’. This idea asserts that our perception of the world is not objective reality, but a subjective construct. This invites us to reflect on the lens through which we view the world - a crucial step towards realizing the nuanced perspective that pessimism offers.
His notion of the ‘Will-to-Live’ connects directly to human suffering, arising from an endless cycle of fleeting fulfillment and rekindled desire. From a pessimistic viewpoint, recognizing this cycle is not a reason for despair, but a call for introspection about our incessant yearning for more.
Schopenhauer proposes asceticism as a remedy - a voluntary denial of desires that could lead to tranquility. This isn’t about embracing defeat, but rather a profound transformation in our approach to desires and inherent suffering.
By knitting together these elements of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, we understand his version of pessimism. It’s a world governed by relentless ‘Will’ leading to inherent suffering, a world that our cognitive faculties merely represent. But his intention isn’t to foster despair; instead, he offers a change in how we relate to our desires and perception of the world.
Schopenhauer’s pessimism invites us to look beneath the surface, to acknowledge the intricate depths of this philosophical perspective. It confronts us with a relentlessly realistic view of the world, driven by an insatiable ‘Will’ and represented by our subjective perceptions. This realism may seem daunting, possibly even reaffirming initial beliefs of pessimism as a philosophy of gloom. But herein lies its transformative potential.
Pessimism, as Schopenhauer presents it, is not about nurturing a melancholic disposition but fostering an enlightening shift in perspective. It’s a call to introspection and a transformation in how we relate to our desires and view the world. This philosophical perspective, often misunderstood, provides a nuanced way of engaging with our lives and the realities around us.
However, the theoretical gravity of pessimism might leave one wondering - what does this philosophy look like in the real world? What happens when we absorb these hard truths, confront the relentless ‘Will’, and get on with it? To explore these questions and to delve into the practical implications of pessimism, we turn to an Eastern philosophical tradition, Buddhism, which articulates a lived experience of these concepts.
Pessimism From East to West
Buddhism, with its typically serene and jovial practitioners, may seem to offer a stark contrast to Schopenhauer’s solemn perspective. However, beneath this apparent divergence, there lies a shared understanding of life’s inherent challenges and a common commitment to self-transformation.
Indeed, the cheerfulness often associated with Buddhism is not a denial of life’s difficulties, but a testament to the potential of the human spirit to transform suffering into wisdom and tranquility. Buddhism and other Eastern religions greatly informed Schopenhauer’s approach, which also calls for a transformative approach to life’s inherent suffering. These philosophies align in their understanding of life and the path to transcendence. This brings us to an exploration of the foundational teachings of Buddhism.
The foundation of Buddhism rests on the Four Noble Truths, a roadmap to liberation from suffering. To help modern English speakers better grasp these truths, we'll present them in a more accessible language. The first crucial distinction to understand is between unavoidable physical pain and avoidable mental suffering. The former is a part of life, while the latter arises from our reactions to pain and can be transcended.
1ST NOBLE TRUTH: The truth will set you free, but first it might piss you off… Life involves Pain.
In acknowledging the inherent pain in life, Buddhism sets the stage for Schopenhauer’s ‘Will-to-Live’ concept, which also recognizes life’s inescapable pain.
From this truth emerges the connection between Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’ and the Buddhist principle of ‘Dharma’. Dharma refers to the natural laws guiding the universe and human behavior, while Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’ signifies the innate urge directing our actions and desires.
3RD NOBLE TRUTH: But there is no need to Suffer… changing one’s relationship to pain CAN eliminate suffering from life.
In response to the pain of existence, Buddhism suggests altering our relationship with pain, thereby minimizing mental suffering. Schopenhauer’s philosophy absorbs this wisdom, recommending a reduction in the ‘Will-to-Live’ to achieve tranquility.
2ND NOBLE TRUTH: Suffering comes from desire, and the worst suffering comes from unobtainable desires, such as the desire for a life with NO pain.
Buddhism identifies desire as the origin of mental suffering. Schopenhauer also notes how desires, particularly the unattainable ones, contribute to our dissatisfaction and suffering. Exploring this truth brings us to the Buddhist concept of ‘Maya’ or illusion, which shares similarities with Schopenhauer’s idea of the world as ‘Representation’. Both assert that our perception of reality is shaped by our cognitive faculties, thus creating a subjective interpretation of the world.
4TH NOBLE TRUTH: A man ought to have a creed, a code, a way of life to live by… find a perennial philosophy to suit your fancy, and you will learn to overcome desire.
Buddhism’s Eightfold Path and Schopenhauer’s advocacy for asceticism both present guiding philosophies to quell desire, and mitigate suffering.
Finally, Buddhism’s principle of impermanence – acknowledging the transient nature of all phenomena, including desires – resonates with the acceptance of change inherent in Schopenhauer’s pessimism
While Schopenhauer's philosophical pessimism and Buddhism may seem quite disparate at first glance, they share profound similarities. Both acknowledge life's inherent challenges and propose transformative paths leading to acceptance, tranquility, and even joy. However, an apparent contradiction arises when we consider Schopenhauer's emphasis on asceticism as a means to transcend suffering, juxtaposed with the Buddha's teachings against extreme asceticism. This apparent contradiction can be seen more as a reflection of their respective audiences and the cultural and historical climates they were addressing rather than a fundamental philosophical disagreement. Schopenhauer, being a philosophical trailblazer in a Western society known for its individualistic and self-indulgent tendencies, needed a robust, almost face-slapping approach to jolt his readers out of complacency. Hence, his emphasis on asceticism, a radical concept to his audience, served as an effective wake-up call.
Buddha, on the other hand, was speaking to an Eastern audience already steeped in ascetic practices, sometimes even to extreme lengths. There was a dire need to highlight the middle path and discourage the pitfalls of excessive self-denial.
This nuanced understanding underscores the cultural factors shaping philosophical articulations. Despite their differing stances on asceticism and the diverse cultural backgrounds they emerged from, both philosophies share a fundamental message: life comes with inherent difficulties, but through introspection, understanding, and transformation, we can transcend these challenges.
The Downside of Optimism
Much like a potent medication, optimism has its time and place, yet it can prove dangerous when misapplied. An occasional dose of optimism can be uplifting, inspiring courage and resilience in the face of adversity. But when optimism becomes habitual, it risks detaching us from reality and distorting our perception of life's challenges.
Optimism's medicinal quality can be both a boon and a curse. Consider someone who has received a difficult diagnosis. A dose of optimism can bolster their spirits, helping them face treatments with courage and determination. However, if optimism is taken in excess, it can lead to denial of the gravity of their condition. Like a painkiller that masks the severity of an injury, optimism can delay necessary actions and exacerbate the situation over time.
This comparison between optimism and medicine extends further when considering the creation of unrealistic expectations. When optimism is viewed as a cure-all for every hurdle in life, it can foster a belief that success is guaranteed or that setbacks are merely illusions. But reality seldom aligns with these lofty expectations. When inevitable disappointments occur, the fall can be far greater from the heights of unbounded optimism, plunging the individual far deeper into fatalistic defeatism then pessimism ever would have.
Optimism, like medicine, should be used judiciously. It's vital to balance optimism with a healthy dose of realism. Pessimism, which many often shun, serves as this balancing force, much like the principle of moderation in a healthy diet. In the following sections, we'll delve deeper into how pessimism, seen in its proper light, can be as beneficial as optimism, if not more so.
Pessimism and Good Faith
To begin, let's recall the concept of good faith, outlined in a previous article. Good faith is the idea of being genuine and sincere in our beliefs and actions, as well as being honest with ourselves about the reality of our situation. It is about refusing to hide behind convenient illusions or escape into comforting fantasies, and instead accepting the world as it is.
Pessimism, when viewed from a certain angle, aligns well with this concept. A pessimist accepts that the world is often harsh and unjust, that suffering is a common part of the human condition, and that all things are impermanent and will eventually change or end. These may seem like negative, depressing viewpoints, but if they reflect the truth of our existence, then embracing them is an act of good faith.
There are many benefits to this alignment of pessimism and good faith. The first is understanding. If we accept the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, we gain a clearer, more accurate understanding of it. We see its flaws and complexities, its beauty and its ugliness, in full detail (See "Vibin' Like a Sage" for more on the related practice of Noticing).
The second benefit is acceptance. By acknowledging the harsh realities of life, we can begin to accept them rather than constantly battling against them. This doesn't mean we have to like these realities or stop trying to improve them, but it does mean we stop denying their existence.
The third benefit is Peace of Mind. Once we understand and accept the world as it is, we may find a certain peace in that acceptance. We may find that we are no longer constantly striving for the unattainable, no longer constantly disappointed when the world fails to live up to our idealized vision of it.
In other words, aligning pessimism with good faith provides a roadmap to understanding, acceptance, and peace—a realism that liberates us from the tyranny of false hopes and self-deception. So while optimism may be a good medicine for a moment, it's the everyday diet of true philosophical Pessimism that sustains our wellbeing, and even life satisfaction in the long term.
Religion Through a Pessimistic Lens
At a glance, religions such as Buddhism and Christianity may seem overly optimistic. Ideas of reincarnation and an eternal afterlife paint a picture of endless possibilities and infinite continuation. However, deeper exploration reveals that these religious philosophies offer perspectives that align closely with a pessimistic outlook and an expression of good faith.
Interestingly, this “optimistic” framing is not merely a misunderstanding by observers but is intrinsic to the ideologies themselves. Both Buddhism and Christianity carry a deep understanding of the human condition. They realize that the very individuals who would benefit most from their teachings might initially be put off by stark pessimism. As such, these religions employ a form of merciful deception, known in Buddhism as “upaya,” enticing their followers with more hopeful concepts, then hitting them with the classic bait and switch, guiding them towards accepting life’s realities.
Consider Christianity, with its core promise of eternal life. On the surface, this may appear as a hope-filled belief that dismisses the finality of death. However, Jesus reminded his followers that "the kingdom of heaven is in our midst." This phrase suggests that the real essence of Christianity is not about escaping this world for a better one, but about recognizing and living in the divine reality present here and now. This view aligns with the pessimistic perspective of accepting and responding to the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches the concept of Samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. To the uninitiated, this may appear as an optimistic rejection of mortality. However, the ultimate goal in Buddhism is to reach Nirvana, the state of liberation from the cycle of Samsara. The profound Buddhist realization that "Samsara and Nirvana are one" suggests that true liberation isn't about escaping life's difficulties, but understanding and accepting the world in its entirety, including its suffering and impermanence. Nirvana is the glorious “exhaustion” (to blow out) that can only come from a life of striving to meet Samsara Well.
Both religions, therefore, imply a properly pessimistic understanding of life. They teach acceptance of the world in its current state, encouraging us to find peace and fulfillment within it, rather than yearning for an idealized reality. As practitioners deepen their spiritual journey, they often shift from a hopeful anticipation of a better future or a different reality to a more realistic, and arguably pessimistic, acceptance of the present.
Thus, even in the realm of spirituality, pessimism finds its place not as a doctrine of despair, but as a path to understanding, acceptance, and inner peace. It underlines the idea that facing reality, however harsh it may be, is better than clinging to false hopes.
In this exploration, we've discovered the profound wisdom underlying pessimism, reframing our perspectives. A closer look at Schopenhauer's philosophies and Buddhist principles shows us that pessimism isn't a doctrine of despair, but rather a tool of enlightenment, an approach acknowledging life's inherent challenges and encouraging personal growth. Similarly, we've unveiled the shortcomings of an unchecked optimism, which can foster unrealistic expectations and a detachment from the reality of life's ebb and flow. Its seemingly positive facade can obscure reality. This brings us to the intriguing insight that hope is, in fact, bad faith in a tuxedo.
Pessimism, far from advocating for a life steeped in despair, prompts us to accept life's inherent difficulties. By doing so, we foster a capacity for resilience and cultivate a peaceful acceptance that doesn't rely on the shifting sands of specific hopes. As such, we find a new kind of freedom, unshackled from the tenuous hope in future outcomes. A balance between optimism and pessimism need not be struck, but rather a pivot towards the understanding that suffering and joy are intrinsic to the human condition. This awareness allows us to thrive in the face of life's complexities and to more deeply accept the Present as the Gift it really is.