Pessimism of Strength

“Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

According to popular thought, pessimism is an outlook which is necessarily associated with feelings of depression, despair, and hopelessness. However, as is often the case with popular thought, this idea is false.

Rather some of the most famous pessimist thinkers saw pessimism not as an emotionally crippling outlook, but as a way of looking at the world which could provide the strength and knowledge needed to fortify one’s self against the harsh realities of existence.

As Albert Camus noted:

“The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile[childish] idea, but one that needs too long a refutation.” (Albert Camus)

In this video we will briefly survey the ideas of some of the famous pessimists of the last few hundred years, and finish by defending a form of pessimism coined a “pessimism of strength” by the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

While pessimism has been defined in numerous ways, for the purpose of this video we will categorize the pessimist as holding one central conviction: that being, that although human beings have been highly successful from an evolutionary standpoint – able to adapt to and survive in a staggering variety of environments – when it comes to the attainment of a life not dominated by suffering and dissatisfaction, human beings are failures.

The figure who most comes to mind when one thinks of pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer, conveyed this point by saying:

“If the immediate and direct purpose of life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world”

Commencing in the 18th century with the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who is often heralded as the first modern pessimist, there emerged a number of pessimistic thinkers who sought to discover the source of the misalignment between us and the world we inhabit.

While these pessimists differed in their diagnosis, as Joshua Dienstag noted in his excellent book, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, a common theme pervaded their thought. Human existence is so ripe with suffering and misery, they maintained, because of the burden which our uniquely human awareness of time places upon us.

“All the tragedies which we can imagine”, wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil, “return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.”

The 20th century Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran also pinpointed “the demonic character of time” to be a fundamental problem for human beings. Both our awareness of the past and future, the pessimists agreed, are responsible for much of the anxiety, fear, regret, and feelings of guilt which pervade and in a sense define the lives of us all.

Nietzsche was especially sensitive to the burden which our awareness of the past places upon our being, referring to the past as “the stone ‘it was'”, which cannot be moved or changed no matter how hard we try.

We carry our past mistakes, regrets, and disappointments with us, and feelings of guilt arise over the things we are impotent to change. Even joyful memories carry with them a sharp tinge of nostalgia and sorrow, for what has past is forever lost, never to be again.

As Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the past is such a heavy weight on us precisely because it forever remains out of our reach, immoveable and unchangeable.

“Willing liberates; but what is it called that puts even the liberator in fetters? / “It was”: that is the will’s gnashing of teeth and loneliest sorrow. Powerless with respect to what has been done—it is an angry spectator of all that is past. / Backwards the will is unable to will; that it cannot break time and time’s desire—that is the will’s loneliest sorrow” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

To escape from the weight of the past, many people direct their awareness towards the future, in hopes of better things to come. However, the pessimists thought there were two major problems with expecting too much from, and depending too heavily upon the future.

Firstly, by placing too much emphasis on the future one in a sense degrades the present moment. In doing so, instead of figuring out how to gain some semblance of satisfaction in the moment, one justifies their current misery by telling themselves they’ll be happy when the future comes. As Blaise Pascal noted:

“The future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” (Blaise Pascal)

The second problem the pessimists saw with relying too heavily on the future stems from their belief that although the world is ordered, it also contains a fundamental chaotic element, which we are at the mercy of, and which can at any moment erupt into our life and either destroy or drastically alter all our plans, dreams, and expectations.

“Pessimism”, wrote Nietzsche, “is the consequence of the absolute illogic of the world-order.”

While we can influence, shape, and partially mold the future through our intentions and actions, ultimately we are transcended by much larger forces which do not seem to care for our wishes. An unforeseen sickness, tragedy, or betrayal at the hands of someone we trusted, can arise at any moment, completely destroying our conception of what we thought the future would hold for us.

Finally, if the burden which our awareness of the past and future places upon our shoulders were not heavy enough, our awareness of time also grants us knowledge of our ever impending death.

We all repress and deny such knowledge in a myriad of ways, but there arise lucid moments in our life when the chilling realization that nothingness awaits us hits us with a sudden unrelenting force. Miguel de Unamuno described his own particularly chilling and lucid confrontation with the awareness of the fate which awaits us all:

“One night there lowered into my mind one of those dark, sad, and mournful dreams which I cannot banish from my thoughts.. I dreamed that I was married, that I had a child, that this child died, and that over its body…I said to my wife: “Behold our love! Shortly it will decay: this is the way everything ends.”” (Miguel de Unamuno)

One may surmise that an antidote to the burdens which our awareness of time places upon our existence is to live fully within and extract as much pleasure and joy as possible from the present moment. Emil Cioran advocated this approach to life early in his writings.

“Suffer, then drink pleasure to its last dregs, cry or laugh, scream in despair or with joy, sing about death or love, for nothing will endure” (On the Heights of Despair).

Cioran later discarded this ‘escape’ from the burdens of the awareness of time. For the present moment is fleeting, always in flux, and even the most joyful and ecstatic of moments will soon disappear into nothingness, leaving in their midst nothing but ever fading memories. Referring to the mode of life in which one lives for the present moment alone, Schopenhauer wrote:

“But you could just as well call this mode of life the greatest folly: for that which in a moment ceases to exist, which vanishes as completely as a dream, cannot be worth any serious effort.” (Schopenhauer)

“The perishability of all things existing in time”, as Schopenhauer put it, stimulates in one who lives for the present moment a haunting recognition of the transitoriness and fragility of all things, and a feeling of continual loss as the present moment continually vanishes forever into the past.

It is no wonder that the ancients depicted Cronus, a personification of time, as devouring his children. Time has a destructive effect on all living beings, but we as human beings alone are burdened with a lucid awareness of it. It is this awareness, to reiterate, which is primarily responsible for the suffering and misery which is so endemic to the human species, according to the pessimists.

Given the inevitability of frustration, suffering and misery for human beings, Arthur Schopenhauer condemned existence as a whole, thought we would have been better off had we never come into being, and advocated a life of ascetic resignation in response to the harsh realities of life.

We will suffer hardships great and small until we reach the grave, he surmised, but we can minimize the frustration and pain we experience if we castrate all our desires, seek and expect nothing, and build a fortress around our self to protect us from the demonic world:

“It is really the greatest absurdity to try to turn this scene of woe and lamentation into a pleasure-resort. . . . Whoever takes a gloomy view regards this world as a kind of hell and is accordingly concerned only with procuring for himself a small fireproof room; such a man is much less mistaken” (Schopenhauer)

Although he often liked to deny it, Nietzsche was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, and agreed with his pessimistic view of human existence, writing: “…as deeply as man sees into life, he also sees into suffering.”

However, he could not accept Schopenhauer’s conclusion that the best response to such a pessimistic worldview was to live a life of resignation, a form of pessimism which he called a ‘pessimism of weakness’.

In fact, Nietzsche wondered why it was assumed the pessimist necessarily had to give into feelings of depression and despair at all:

“Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak instincts?…Is there a pessimism of strength?” (Nietzsche)

Nietzsche began to see that the popular belief that pessimism causes feelings of depression, despair and hopelessness is a dangerously mistaken conviction.  Instead, he proposed that in reality the opposite is the case: the worldview one adopts is most often caused by the underlying temperament of the individual.

One with the right attitude and temperament, Nietzsche surmised, could adhere to pessimism yet not give in to feelings of hopelessness and resignation, feelings which most mistakenly think the pessimist must necessarily give into.

Those who adhere to a pessimism of weakness, he maintained, are really at bottom weak and impotent individuals, who cower from challenge, and thus utilize a pessimistic outlook to justify their inaction and refusal to engage in the sort of struggles that are necessary to face up to the burdens of life. These individuals naturally gravitate to a worldview which presents all action as futile only because they are too weak to act in the face of life’s burdens and tragedies.

Interestingly, Nietzsche thought that optimism too could be a sign of an underlying weakness, as the optimist is one who out of fear refuses to acknowledge or recognize the very real dark and terrifying aspects of existence. This realization led Nietzsche to call optimism “morally speaking, a sort of cowardice”.

In contrast to a pessimism of weakness, Nietzsche adhered to a pessimism of strength. A pessimism of strength, like a pessimism of weakness, acknowledges that life is burdensome, tragic, and realizes that struggle and suffering are intrinsic to the human condition and thus cannot be eradicated. However, instead of using this worldview to justify inaction, impotence, and resignation, one who adheres to a pessimism of strength tries to take joy in the tragedy that is human life.

One who adheres to a pessimism of strength values development and growth above comfort and satisfaction, and thus views suffering not as a curse, but as valuable material to be used in the transfiguration of one’s self into something continually wiser and stronger.

The pessimist of strength realizes with the German poet Friedrich Holderlin that “He who steps upon his misery stands higher.” By valuing growth above comfort, the pessimist of strength does not cower from hardships and struggles, but instead revels and takes joy in them, and even, dare we say, comes to love them.

“The trust in life is gone:”, Nietzsche wrote, “life itself has become a problem. Yet one should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one gloomy. Even love of life is still possible, only one loves differently” (The Gay Science)