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Pessimism and Optimism


"Pessimism" and its opposite, "optimism," are only secondarily philosophical theories or convictions; primarily they are personal opinions or attitudes, often widely prevalent, about the relative evil or goodness of the world or of men's experience of the world. As such they vary with the temperaments and value experiences of individuals, and with cultural situations far more than with philosophical traditions.

Both pessimism and optimism in the above sense may be reactions to experiences that vary in scope and content. Four types of reactions or judgments may be distinguished: (1) psychological or anthropological (involving judgments about the dominance of evil or good in one's own experience or in human experience generally); (2) physicalistic (judging the physical world to be dominantly evil or good); (3) historicistic (based on appraisals of the evil or goodness of a historical or cultural period or of the forces and institutions that determine history); and (4) universal, or cosmic (involving judgments about the dominance of evil or good in the universe as a whole).

Since the issue of the goodness or evil of human life involves belief in beneficent or malevolent forces upon which man's well-being is dependent, optimism and pessimism are prominent aspects of religious beliefs, and these beliefs may involve many or all of the above types of judgments.

Philosophical pessimism and optimism result from the critical analysis and clarification of judgments of the dominance of good or evil, an evaluation of the experiences upon which these judgments are based, and the presentation of reasons to justify or refute such statements. There is widespread doubt whether the terms optimism and pessimism are sufficiently precise for philosophical purposes and also whether optimistic and pessimistic beliefs are philosophically justifiable. This article will be concerned chiefly with philosophical formulations and arguments for optimism and pessimism with some reference to their manifestations in religion.

Optimistic and pessimistic attitudes and theories are much older than the terms used to describe them. The term optimisme was first used in the Jesuit journal Mémoires de Trévoux in 1737 to designate Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's doctrine (which appears in his Théodicée and in other of his philosophical writings) that this is the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz himself used the term optimum in a technical sense that applied to the unique maximal or minimal instance of an infinite class of possibilities, and he held that this principle of the optimum was applied by God in the creation of the world. Optimisme was admitted by the French Academy to its dictionary in 1762. The first known appearance of the term optimism in English was in 1759, also in reference to the system of Leibniz. Pessimism came into general use only in the nineteenth century, although its first known appearance in English was in 1795 in one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's letters.

The superlative form of the Latin adjectives optimus and pessimus is not generally justified by any form of philosophical optimism or pessimism. It is true that Leibniz defended an optimal position in the formula "the best of all possible worlds," but this use of the superlative did not prevent his acknowledging the existence of much evilindeed, the necessity of evil in all finite existence. Similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer affirmed that this is the worst of all possible worlds, but his chief philosophic concern was with finding a way of salvation from the evil of the world through art, a morality of sympathy, and philosophic and religious contemplation. The most thoroughgoing philosophical pessimist of the nineteenth century, Eduard von Hartmann, held that this is the best of all possible worlds; yet evil necessarily outweighs good in it, and it would be better if there were no world at all.

The philosophical issues might better have been served by the comparative forms "meliorism" and "pejorism" ("betterism" and "worsism"). Although the verb forms "meliorate" and "pejorate" did appear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively, "pejorism" has found no acceptance, while "meliorism" has been used, following William James, to express the view that although the world is a mixture of good and evil, it can be bettered by man's moral efforts to improve it.

Religious and Philosophical Issues

Optimism and pessimism are thus relative terms; the former theory undertakes to give philosophical reasons for assuming that in whatever horizon or context is involved, good preponderates over evil, while the latter theory attempts to show that evil preponderates over good. The arguments in each case may be efforts to generalize from experiences of good and evil, or they may, and usually do, also involve a priori factors, basic definitions, and theological or metaphysical doctrines.

empiricism and rationalism

A primary consideration in discussing optimism and pessimism is the definition and criteria of good and evil. Empiricists have generally adopted a hedonistic definition of good, and hedonism has frequently ended in pessimism: The universe seems not to be constituted to provide man with more pleasure than pain. But it has proved difficult to reduce normative judgments of value to the psychological measures of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, or satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Other criteria are also involvedfor example, the conservation or destruction of life, the progress or decay of cultural institutions and values, human freedom and bondage (in various senses), and the just control of power.

While empiricism shows an inclination toward pessimism (and skepticism), rationalism operates with normative principles that have an affinity with affirmations of the identity of reality and goodness. Nevertheless, exponents of hedonism are driven to recognize qualitative distinctions between pleasures and pains and the complex interplay of pleasures and pains that makes possible greater goods, while beneath the most rational and optimistic systems of modern thought lurks the shadow of fear, if not of despair. Leibniz wrote during a period of devastating European wars and intended his thought to serve as the foundation for a European culture that would protect Europe against the threat of a new barbarism. Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and Pierre Maupertuis expressed the same fears, and in America, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams had forebodings of the dangers of revolution and the collapse into barbarism that might follow a failure to establish a sound political order.


Religion involves both optimistic and pessimistic aspects. Since the essence of religion is salvation from evil, an optimistic element is essential to it; yet not all individuals or groups are saved. The magical component in religion is optimistic, since it promises success in the achievement of desired values; yet the failure of religious rites or prayers is common enough to support pessimism. Salvation is postponed to a future life, and the present world is viewed as a vale of tears, or as the historical conflict between good and evil, or as a source of desires to be resisted, or as an illusory order that possesses no substance. Yet in all religion there is also a joyous world-affirming element that expresses itself in community life and mystical or prophetic exaltation. Eschatological religions combine pessimism about a temporal world that is destined to end with joyous optimism about the new life that will follow.


If hedonistic criteria of good and evil are a common source of pessimism, those systems of thought that hold to an ultimate identity of existence and value are the mainstay of optimism. Two philosophical convictions in particular have supported optimistic convictions in Western thought. One rests upon the Platonic and Aristotelian ideal of the perfectibility of man. It regards all the powers of man as capable of control and harmonization (without great resistance from senses and impulses). The other is metaphysical but has the same sources. Regarding the universe as a hierarchy of being and goodness, ordered from infinite perfection though all levels of particularization to the total formlessness of matter, or mere potentiality, it finds all evil and error to consist in a negation or privation of being.

Other traditions also have a bearing upon optimism and pessimism. Efforts to interpret the universe as normatively indifferent (traditional materialism, for example) usually end in pessimism. Dualisms of various kinds, on the other hand, whether they distinguish between cosmic powers of good and evil or between a real order of value and a phenomenal order of fact, tend to end in optimism.


Finally, natural science has presented considerations that affect the problem of optimism and pessimism. Fires, earthquakes, floods, storms, diseases, and, ultimately, death have always been regarded as evil because they interfere with human purposes and hopes. But the theory of natural selection and the second law of thermodynamics, which has been held to imply an end to the universe at a finite time in the future, have put the issue of the destructiveness of natural powers, animate and inanimate, on a more objective basis by casting serious doubts upon the possibility and the goodness of evolution and progress.

History of Pessimism and Optimism

religious pessimism

Religion is relevant to the problem of optimism and pessimism insofar as it offers salvation to men, evokes attitudes of world-affirmation and world-renunciation, and involves beliefs about the place of man and his hopes in the world. In this sense Schopenhauer was justified in calling religion the metaphysics of the people. Most religions combine a certain joyous response to divine grace with a sense of anguish and guilt at man's failures. Most advanced religions reflect a deeply rooted intuition of natural and historical evils and of the human limitations to which man is subject.

Indian thought

When the Brahmanic tradition in India emerged from the earlier Vedic religious forms, it partly concealed an underlying pessimism with the doctrine of mayanamely, that the world in which man suffers is a world of illusion, and release follows from recognizing this and the supplementary truth that man's true nature is one with the Brahman. This Brahmanic tradition was supplemented by a popular polytheistic religion that combined an easy tolerance of the diversity of natural delights and griefs with a singleness of purpose in carrying out those disciplines (whether physical, moral, intellectual, or mystical) that assure the self of its ultimate release and redemption. The fatalistic doctrine of the eternal cycle of rebirth, together with the doctrine of karma, intensifies a mood of pessimism, since this cosmic law of justice sentences most men to relive the deceptions of life again and again.

This element of pessimism implicit in Hinduism became the driving force of Buddhism in its various forms. The fourfold truth revealed to Gautama under the bo tree begins with the misery of human existence, caused by desire, and offers as salvation only the renunciation of desire and the attainment of that state of negation which is the highest bliss.

Western religions

As the Eastern religions show, the religious source of pessimism is to be found in the emergence of man's self-consciousness at a level at which he feels his isolation and estrangement in a world in which sickness, suffering, and death interfere with, and ultimately nullify, his hopes for a desired future. This mood showed itself in early Babylonian and Egyptian literature, as well as in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Greek conception of life as being lived in the shadow of a fate (moira ) from which death itself fails to offer a complete escape. Homer, although generally healthy-minded, judged that "there is nothing more wretched than man, of all things that breathe and are" (Iliad XXIV, 446ff.), and Sophocles wrote, in Oedipus at Colonus, "Not to be born is the most to be desired; but having seen the light, the next best is to go whence one came as soon as may be." In the Old Testament, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes reflect the same struggle with the meaninglessness of life.

However, the Judeo-Christian tradition is generally regarded as being optimistic. It applied a theistic view of Providence first to the history of a "chosen people" and then more universally to the moral interpretation of human history and of divine justice. The meaning of history is the redemption of God's people and, more generally, the Kingdom of God or the Reign of Grace. Moreover, although the Hebrews had only a vague conception of life after death, Christianity offered the assurance of a blessed lifean assurance based neither upon a concept of strict justice, as in karma, nor upon works, but on divine Grace.

However, much Christian eschatology has condemned the present world to destruction and the people in it to judgment and condemnation. The division of people into saints and sinners has often comforted those conscious of their sainthood but has not generally strengthened the ideal of a great community of love. Doctrines of original sin and predestination of the damned, of apocalyptic horrors terminating history, and of the complete alienation of man from the world (the despair of life) have been a part of the Christian tradition and have been revived in our own time, when the consciousness of guilt and of alienation has been reinforced by the secular study of modern man.

Thus, most religion, in different contexts, emphasizes both good and evil in man, the universe, and history.

ancient philosophical views

The Greeks, whose thought turned about the polarities of matter and form, impulse and reason, power and justice, freedom and order, and the transient and the permanent in experience, came to conclusions that have influenced all later discussions of the problem of good and evil in Western culture. When Friedrich Nietzsche condemned Socrates for making the Apollonian mood supreme in Greek art and thought, he attributed to him a type of serene intellectualistic optimism that has formed much of Western culture, particularly through its elaboration and systematization by Plato and Aristotle, who by ultimately identifying existence and value and supporting the ideal of rational perfectibility provided the philosophical grounds for Western optimism. But Plato was not so one-sidedly optimistic as Neoplatonism later became. The Republic, for instance, recognizes the possibility for man and society to attain justice and happiness, but it imposes harsh conditions for their attainment and is pessimistic about their ever being achieved by more than a select few.

In Hellenistic and Roman thought the nature of evil was a persistent problem that was shared by Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics, and eclectics. Skepticism is often regarded as the intellectualistic counterpart of pessimism, but it has also often been the basis for an optimistic fideism. Although Epicureans and Stoics answered the question of the nature of evil differently, both the qualified hedonism of the one and the rejection of all external goods and emphasis upon self-sufficiency of the other tended to support a cultured tranquillity of contented, sometimes even grateful, acceptance. Both denied the evil of death, and the Stoics denied the evil of pain as well. While the Stoics relied upon determinism, and the Epicureans upon indeterminism, both denied that the gods were in any way connected with, or cognizant of, man's good. From Plutarch's De Stoicorum Repugnantiis (first century CE) to Vanini's Amphitheatrum Aeternae Providentiae (1615), the Stoics were charged with attributing evil to divine Providence, while the Epicureans grounded their conception of the contentment of the wise man upon his freedom from interference by the gods.

The decline and fall of Rome brought to consciousness a new dimension of pessimismthe despair evoked by the collapse of a historical order that had claimed eternity and universality. The relativity of good and evil to historical change provided the individual with a mode of adjustment to the evils of social and institutional decline. St. Augustine's great adaptation of Platonism to a Christian solution to this problem has been the source not only of most later religious optimism, but also of the great theodicies of the West, from the medieval and Renaissance Platonists to Leibniz and G. W. F. Hegel.

early modern views

The Middle Ages have often been regarded as having been clouded with pessimism (they provided Hegel with the cultural type that he described as "the unhappy consciousness"), while the Renaissance and seventeenth century have been regarded as comparatively optimistic, culminating in baroque exuberance. But recent scholarship views the medieval and Renaissance periods as a cultural continuity moving toward "modernity." In the face of a deep concern for the physical, social, and moral evils of Europe, intellects in both periods were engaged in a concerted effort to lay a rational Christian foundation for human happiness and harmony. While the political and social conditions varied, and the ideal of transformation changed from an eschatological revolution to continuous progress, Greek and Roman intellectual traditions continued to limit the philosophical effort to synthesize science, moral rationalism, and religious faith. Science and technology, nationalism, new ideals of individual freedom and toleration, and contact with new lands and cultures shifted and enlarged the scope of inquiry and intensified the problems, but the differences between Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham on the one hand, and René Descartes, Benedict de Spinoza, Francis Bacon, and John Locke on the other are far more superficial than the continuity of their problems and their tradition.

Seventeenth-century discussions of the dominance of good or evil were affected by the new perspectives on human life that evolved in the Renaissancenotably, the emphasis upon individualism; the conflict about the nature of human freedom; the problem of the control of political power, which resulted from the collapse of the medieval synthesis and the multiplication of small states; and the ideal of a rule of reason, strengthened by the successful combination of mathematics and experimentation in the scientific mastery of nature.

Developments in psychology

The discussion of optimism and pessimism was affected by two developments in psychological thought: Galen's doctrine of the four humors was applied to man's reactions to good and evil, and there was a wide recognition of the role of the affections and appetites in human life. A comparison of Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving of Melancholia (1514) with Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is revealing. In Dürer's time the dominance of the melancholy humor was held to be the source of contemplation and therefore of mathematical and other forms of learning; Burton treated melancholia as pathological and analyzed its types, causes, and cures. Unfortunately, there is no work analogous to Burton's erudite essay that deals with the dominance of the opposing humor, the sanguinary. But the use of the humors to explain pessimism and optimism initiated a long tradition of distinctions that includes the Earl of Shaftesbury's and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theories of the natural affections, the Weltschmerz and Weltfreude of the German romantics, and after Schopenhauer, the psychoanalytic classifications of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler and the psychological typologies of worldviews by William James, Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Scheler, and others.

A closely related trend was the growing recognition of the role of the affections in determining human attitudes and conduct. The third book of Luis Vives's work on the mind (De Anima et Vita Libri Tres, 1538) was an important source for later attempts by such thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, and Thomas Hobbes to explain human actions in terms of feeling and desires. In Hobbes the result was a pessimistic theory of human nature; in Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, and thinkers of the libertine tradition, it was a relativization of human ends that undermined the absoluteness of goods and evils; but in the thinking of Vives himself and in the rationalistic tradition of the seventeenth century (for example, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz), an idealistic optimism resulted from the doctrine that the affections are docile and readily moldable into socially constructive attitudes.

Politics and history

The problem of power (particularly political power) and its responsiveness to reason was a second noteworthy development affecting the estimation of good and evil. Machiavelli had formulated the fundamental theory of a raison d'état in a way that provided pragmatic support for the principle of the divine right of rulers. The series of disastrous wars that swept over Europe, however, intensified a mood of eschatological expectation and heightened the fear or hope of revolution and an overthrow of the existing order. The transfer of the eschatological hope from an afterlife to the temporal world, and the resulting faith in human progress, were the result primarily of the increase of scientific and technological knowledge and the wider expansion of faith in reason. Hobbes entirely restricted his realistic definition of justice as the power of the strongest to the limits of the present historical order, thus secularizing St. Augustine's pessimistic appraisal of the City of Man and providing a modern ancestry for pessimistic interpretations of history.


From the metaphysical point of view, however, the rationalistic tradition of the seventeenth century may be regarded as optimistic; it constituted an effort to bring the real into harmony with the ideal or the normative. This effort concentrated on the law of nature and on the individual's relation to the absolute source of power and wisdom. In Descartes, human passions are regarded as supporting the ideal of generosité and honnêteté ; in Spinoza, actuality is generalized into possibility, and passive affections are shown to be imperfect but corrigible through active affections; in Leibniz, truths of fact are held to be grounded in truths of reason, if we could only completely analyze the former. This optimistic doctrine of reality is supported in these thinkers by the conviction that evil is finitude or limitation and that as our ideas move from confusedness, indistinctness, and inadequacy toward clarity, distinctness, and adequacy, the goodness of the world and of our life is brought to light in an absolutely convincing way. Not all thinkers, of course, accepted this optimistic metaphysical resolution of the problem. Pascal was driven by his perception of the finiteness of man and the terror in which this finiteness involves him to a philosophy in which the heart, not the intellect, provides knowledge about ultimate reality. Pierre Bayle had recourse to a combination of skepticism and Manichaean dualism, while Locke was attracted on the one hand to libertinism, pluralism, and toleration, and on the other hand to arguments for faith in a determining divine Providence.

leibniz and the enlightenment

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) is generally regarded as the outstanding modern philosophical optimist. His Théodicée (1710) is a prolonged argument for the rationality of Christian faith, the reasonableness of creation, and the view that this is the best of all possible worlds. The argument of this work is supported by a large body of writings that aimed at a philosophia perennis (a synthesis of the truth in all of the classical systems of thought) as well as a harmonious ordering of scientific, philosophical, and theological truth. This philosophical system, in turn, was intended to serve as the ethical basis for the great Leibnizian projects for engaging the leaders of Europe in the restoration of peace through the advancement of science and technology, the reform of the law, the perfection of logical and mathematical tools of learning and a universal encyclopedia, the reuniting of the churches, and the Christian conquest of the pagan parts of the world. Thus, Leibniz's optimism, although grounded on one of the most remarkable philosophical systems of Western thought, was also ideological; it aimed at concerted action in a variety of related fields, and in this sense it presupposed a deep sensitivity to the existing evils that were to be overcome.

In general, Leibniz's argument is that the man of good will (homo honestatis ) should find his greatest happiness ("toute la joie dont un mortel est capable") in the recognition that in spite of its glaring evils this is the best of all possible worlds, because its creation involved the fullest possible realization of the divine attributes. He should also recognize that there prevails in the world a divine harmony that requires evil not only for the full manifestation of the infinite greatness of the world's Creator but also in order that this evil may contribute to a greater good than would otherwise be possible. The conception of evil involved in this argument combines three theories: the privative theory (supported by Leibniz's essentialist metaphysics) that the complete notion or law of every individual monadic series is a finite combination (erected by God) of its own simple perfections; a legalistic moral theory somewhat inconsistent with this, according to which justice requires retribution for man's sins and compensation for man's suffering; and an aesthetic theory that finds limited evil necessary (like the dark parts of a painting) for the perception of a more complete and inclusive good. Leibniz's defense of God is brilliant, and the many editions through which his Théodicée passed in the original French and in Latin and German translations produced an extensive following on the Continent and even in England, where it may have influenced the optimistic thought of Lord Bolingbroke, Alexander Pope, and others. Yet his argument is defective, most notably in his failure successfully to reconcile human freedom and responsibility with the determinism of the divine creation, and in his general inclination to explain what is in terms of what ought to be. Many readers have agreed with Jean Guitton (Pascal et Leibniz, Paris, 1951, p. 121) that "one would have to change very little to transform this supreme joy (in the supreme goodness of things) into a radical despair."


The optimism of the eighteenth century, influenced by Leibniz's defense of God rather than by his more subtle metaphysics, was deistic, and much of its thought followed the five creedal points of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, who asserted an instinctive faith in the law of nature that dictates belief in one God, a divine order of justice, a moral imperative, individual immortality subject to a system of rewards and punishments, and a condemnation of "enthusiasm" as divisive and disruptive of true religion. The spirit of deism was activistic, sometimes revolutionary, and intent upon scientific progress and the dissipation of superstition. In this sense it was optimistic.


The eighteenth century was also the breeding ground of modern pessimism. Voltaire's shocked reaction to the Lisbon earthquake and his satirical attack on the Leibnizian formula in Candide stimulated the change in mood, but even more significant was the influence of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (16981759), to whom both the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and the philosophical pessimist Eduard von Hartmann were indebted for their conception of a "balance of pain and pleasure." In his Essai de philosophie morale (1749), Maupertuis proposed a measure of good and evil in terms of plaisir and peine. (The French terms, their English equivalents pleasure and pain, and the German words Lust and Unlust have somewhat different psychological connotations that must here be ignored.) Maupertuis defined these terms functionally: Plaisir is any "perception" that the soul prefers to experience rather than not to experience; peine is the opposite. An examination of life in terms of moments of pleasure and pain, Maupertuis concluded, shows in a frightening way how preponderant pain is. Life is a constant wish to change one's perceptions in order to achieve fulfillment and to see the intervening times destroyed (anéantir ). But if God were to abolish these intervening periods from even the longest life, only a few hours would remain. "In the usual life the sum of evil is greater than the sum of well-being."


If the optimism of the Enlightenment found the goodness of creation revealed both in nature and in historical progress, the decline of this tradition and the growth of a new pessimism grounded in the romantic movement may be traced in the thought of Immanuel Kant. The Versuch einiger Betrachungen über den Optimismus, written in 1759, argued for the Leibnizian "best of all possible worlds" in two steps: first, there must be one possible world that is the best, and second, it is necessary that this existing world is that best of all possible worlds. Kant urged the faith that each human being, recognizing "that the whole is the best and everything is good for the sake of the whole," should find his small place in this world. But in his critical period, after 1781, he found the fact of evil decisive in invalidating the Teleological Argument and recognized a "radical evil" in man that prevents him from exercising the good will and doing his duty. In the short paper of 1785, Muthmasslicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte, Kant could only advise maintaining one's courage in the face of life's tribulations.

romanticism and idealism

The shift in attitude noted above deepened into the pronounced pessimism of the romantics, many of whose writings reflect a feeling of overwhelming anguish at man's situation in the world. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's early works (especially the Sorrows of Young Werther ) reveal this Weltschmerz, as do the works of Heinrich Heine, Lord Byron, and Giacomo Leopardi. However, the German idealist philosophers struggled against it through various forms of voluntarisma voluntarism that encompassed the cosmos in Johann Gottlieb Fichte, was involved in history through great individuals in Hegel, and developed into a theory of emerging personal creativity in the context of chaos in Schelling's philosophy of freedom. Thus, Eduard von Hartmann and Olga Plümacher were unjust to the influence of this Weltschmerz when they excluded it from consideration as a form of philosophical pessimism. In a real sense it anticipated, and was the historical forerunner of, the twentieth-century irrationalist philosophies and philosophies of despair.

schopenhauer and von hartmann

The greatest philosophical protagonist of the pessimistic tradition is, of course, Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), who gave expression to it in the context of the Kantian distinction between a phenomenal nature and a real intelligible world in which the moral will and an interpersonal society of willing beings are primary. Schopenhauer interpreted the realm of phenomena as "illusory" and as the result of human conceptualization; the real world is irrational will-to-live, known intuitively through man's perception of his own nature. To discover this world is to recognize the ultimate and inescapable evil of existence.

Man's life, Schopenhauer held, is permanently condemned to be in bondage to the will-to-live. As the Indian thinkers discovered, the essential nature of every human life is desire, and this desire is never stilled, since even its satisfaction results in increased desire or ennui. The world as will, therefore, is unmitigated evil; good is illusory, but man, by his very nature as an intelligent, feeling animal, and facing inevitable death, is driven beyond this illusion to discover his own plight. This is therefore the worst of all possible worlds, since there is no good in it. The only escape is through renouncing will, but only the great artists, thinkers, and prophets are capable of doing thisand only in a finite and impermanent degree. There is, however, an ethics involved in this pessimism; it is the ethics of sympathy and amelioration of the suffering of one's fellows.

Von Hartmann

Eduard von Hartmann found Schopenhauer's pessimism to be the ultimate expression of a romantic Weltschmerz in which a sense of guilt over the quest for pleasure was implicit. Although he adhered generally to Schopenhauer's metaphysics (supplementing the will, however, with a parallel order of ideas, both will and ideas having their seat in the unconscious), he modified his own theory of conflict in nature by stressing the purposiveness of every individualized act of will. He also rejected the Darwinian theory of change through struggle and survival in favor of a theory of evolutionary creativity in which new forms arise in the germplasm of the old. In contrast to Schopenhauer's pessimism, von Hartmann claimed that his was a "powerful, energetic pessimism, filled with the joy of action," whose historical antecedent is to be found in Kant, not Maupertuis. This is not the worst of all possible worlds; the logical element (that is, the ideas) ensures that the world is a best possible world. Yet it would be better if there were no world at all, and this is in truth the end to which the universal will, spatialized, and individualized through the particularizations of intellect, is drivingthe total negation of all will through the fulfillment of its purposes.

Although von Hartmann argued that his metaphysical system of the unconscious would be valid without his pessimism, it is apparent that the converse is not the case: his pessimism rests directly upon his metaphysics of the unconscious. Yet he supported his pessimism by a comprehensive examination of empirical arguments from neurology, psychology, and the history of culture. The optimistic illusion takes form in three stages: the belief first, that happiness is attainable in the present world; second, that there will be a future otherworldly life in which the good will be attained; and third, that the surplus of happiness will be achieved sometime in this world's future history. The transition from each stage of optimism to the next already involves a surrender of hope. Von Hartmann's refutation of optimism is not merely negative but consists of a constructive argument for three corresponding levels of pessimism, which he labeled empirical, transcendental, and metaphysical respectively. Transcendental pessimism involves the denial of life after death, a conclusion von Hartmann undertook to prove through a metaphysical argument for the inseparability of body and mind. Metaphysical pessimism is supported a priori by the inevitability of misery in a world of will individuated by ideas and by the total lack of feeling of the will after all existents have ceased to be. It is also shown, however, by the finiteness and ultimate failure of all the values of human lifeparticularly the ethical, religious, and aesthetic values.

It is in his argument for empirical or eudemonistic pessimism that von Hartmann showed his greatest skill in penetrating human motives and the interaction between pleasure and displeasure in human action. Twelve arguments, cumulative in force, were offered for the preponderance of pain over pleasure. On the simplest level, the growing fatigue induced by nervous processes diminishes the effort to retain pleasures, and as the fatigue grows, it increases the resistance to pleasure. Moreover, most pleasure is merely the negative kind that results from the cessation of positive unpleasantness or pain; thus, it can in no way equal the unpleasantness that it terminates. Displeasure coerces consciousness in a way that pleasure cannot, since pleasure must consciously be sought and discovered and occurs only when there is conscious motivation or desire for it. In shared experiences of pleasure the sense of solidarity and sympathy may momentarily intensify that pleasure, but this intense pleasure is correspondingly sooner exhausted than unintensified pleasure. In shared suffering or displeasure this sympathetic response may also occur, but it is overbalanced by callous and egoistic reactions. Moreover, history shows that as cultures advance in sensitivity and refinement, this overbalance of suffering increases proportionally. Such arguments, von Hartmann held, conclusively establish an excess of Unlust that confirms eudemonistic pessimism.

In his late work on the history and foundation of pessimism (2nd ed., 1892), von Hartmann modified his theory through an analysis of the different measures of value (Wertmassstäbe ), of which pleasure is only one, the others being purposiveness, beauty, morality, and religiosity. These independent measures of value in themselves point to an optimistic view of life. Thus, he now called his thought a "eudemonological pessimism" but a "teleologico-evolutionary optimism"; yet the new measures are themselves not unmixed with the subjective feeling dimension, so that we must conclude that the overall balance of pleasure in the world is negative.

Von Hartmann's influence

Unlike Schopenhauer's pessimism, which was slow in gaining acceptance, von Hartmann's Die Philosophie des Unbewussten (Berlin, 1869; 9th ed. translated by W. C. Coupland as The Philosophy of the Unconscious, 3 vols., London, 1884) met with an immediate favorable response because of the changing intellectual and cultural mood of the last half of the century. The worst effects of the industrial revolution had become too conspicuous to be overlooked; colonialism involved nations in guilt; utopian reforms frequently ended in disillusionment; socialism shifted from its philanthropic to its "scientific" stage (von Hartmann himself was one of the early critics of social democracy); Darwinism intensified the perception of suffering and struggle in animate nature; and the romantic mood collapsed into a new naturalism according to which man was held in bondage to social forces and unconscious powers beyond his control. Novelists such as Charles Dickens, whose early works radiated Mr. Pickwick's cheerful vision of life, turned to the wretchedness of life and the irreducible evil of actual educational, penal, and political systems. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville in America and Thomas Hardy in England reflected different aspects of this pessimistic movement, which mounted in strength until it developed into the fin de siècle mood of disillusionment, mortification, and decadence described and criticized by Cesare Lombroso, Max Nordau, and others.

Several of von Hartmann's followers carried his pessimism to the limit of nihilism. Julius Bahnsen (18301881) analyzed the "dominance of the offended spirit" (das angekränkelte Gemüth ) that is split by hate, malcontent, and horror, and Philipp Mainländer (pseudonym of Philipp Batz, 18411876) pushed pessimism to its ultimate conclusion in total annihilation. In his Philosophie der Erlösung (2 vols., Berlin, 18761886) Mainländer held that the will to annihilation (Vernichtungswille ) is included in the nature of every individual being, inorganic as well as organic, and that the ethics of the individual is egoistic and implies virginity and suicide as means of world salvation (that is, annihilation).

Von Hartmann's pessimism, although more critical and balanced than Schopenhauer's, also received extensive philosophical criticism. James Sully in England, Johannes Volkelt, Johannes Rehmke, Hermann Lotze, and Gustav Fechner in Germany, the spiritualists in France, and William James and others in America replied in terms of a more positive voluntarism or a more positive theory of value, thus laying the basis for a restoration of constructive liberalism in the twentieth century.


The influence of Schopenhauer upon Friedrich Nietzsche was described by the latter in detail and is well known. He agreed with Schopenhauer's view that life is filled with suffering and a preponderance of evil, but rejected his ethics of resignation and of sympathy that was based upon it, as he also came to reject the metaphysical doctrine of will upon which it rested. Instead, Nietzsche's doctrine of the Dionysian man, or the superman, demanded a vigorous affirmation of life and power that would transcend both the "weakness doctrines of optimism" and tragedy as "the art of metaphysical comfort." In his "Versuch einer Selbstkritik" (1886; English translation in The Philosophy of Nietzsche, Modern Library edition, New York, pp. 934946) Nietzsche corrected his earlier romantic reliance upon the ideal of "a pessimism of strength" that he found in Greek tragedy (The Birth of Tragedy ), replacing it with an affirmation of man's powers of joyous creativitythe "laughter of Zarathustra." Although Nietzsche's ideal of a life "beyond good and evil" is ambiguous and easy to misread, he clearly transcended traditional conceptions of pessimism and optimism, pressing from the conceptual to the realm of personal living and valuing. His superman is a mixture of the rejection of accepted contemporary values, a rigorous discipline of the self in loneliness, and the joy of creativity and the hope of a new aristocracy of creative individuals.

Nietzsche's criticism of modern culture as nihilistic is beyond pessimism in the same sense that his ethics is beyond good and evil. Abstract theories of the balance of good and evil fall far short of reflecting the plight and the opportunity of modern man, upon whose will to power the civilization of the future must rest.

santayana and freud

Two thinkers who differed greatly in their theoretical and practical approaches to human problems, George Santayana and Sigmund Freud, developed pessimistic theories that were similar in important respects to the pessimism of Schopenhauer. (Freud arrived at his pessimism independently and did not read Schopenhauer until late in life.)

Santayana found in metaphysical matter what Schopenhauer found in willthe ultimate ground of all permanence, power, and life and therefore the ultimate ground of the tragedy that is involved in man's efforts to live the life of reason and spirit. Through concrete personal vision Santayana transcended the old debate between optimism and pessimism. Unlike Nietzsche, he found his personal resolution of the problem of evil not in the egocentric ideal of the superman but in an ideal of stoic acceptance and self-sufficiency.

In Freud's work the libido and, later, the id play a role similar to that of the will in Schopenhauer's system. The failure to gratify the impulses emanating from the id produces basic dislocations in the "libido economy" and thus leads to suffering and illness. In Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (Vienna, 1930 [1929]; translated by Joan Riviere as Civilization and Its Discontents, London, 1930) Freud traces human suffering to three sourcesthe superior power of nature, the decay and death of our own bodies, and the shortcomings of social relations and institutions. Of these, the first two are insurmountable, and the third inevitably results in unhappiness and alienation from man's culture. Moral judgments are merely "the effort to support illusions with argument." The illusory world of subjective imagination and thought sometimes offers successful sublimations and corrections, but the ultimate way to soundness can be found only (if at all) by a return to the natural and cultural roots of our being through psychoanalytical techniques. In an earlier work, Die Zukunft einer Illusion (Vienna, 1927; translated by W. D. Robson-Scott as The Future of an Illusion, London and New York, 1928), Freud held out much hope for this ideal through the elimination of religion, which he saw as likely to accompany the progress of science.

the twentieth century

In the twentieth century, with its dislocation and destruction of human life and values, the tremendous potentialities of its technological advances, its moral and cultural uncertainties, and its rifts in the texture of human society, the problem of optimism and pessimism shifted from an attempt to determine the relative goodness and badness of the world to an attempt to face the plight of modern manhis situation and his powers and resources for achieving good. This is a shift from conceptual modes of assessing the goodness of man, nature, and the universe to cautious nominalistic and phenomenological analysis of the individual.

It is true that a moralistic optimism has found strong defense and influence through the work of William James and John Dewey, while Alfred North Whitehead and others have offered metaphysical support of rationality, creativity, and the discovery of values in general. On the other hand, Bertrand Russell, in "A Free Man's Worship" (1903), gave moving expression to a naturalistic pessimism that regards man's existence in an indifferent universe as brief and without meaning, yet exhorts him to resist these natural powers with all the force of a living and vigorous faith in himself and in the powers of man. More commonly, the prevailing temper is to ignore the natural order as being neutral toward good and evil, and to show concern rather for the human person as a self-conscious being cast in a given historical situation. Man's natural environment, which John Dewey (in agreement with Hegel) found to be an aspect of the situation in which man is to achieve his freedom, is now taken by many as an aspect of the situation into which man is "thrown," but which he transcends in his capacity as insular self-consciousness, will, decision maker, or confronter of the divine.

Existentialism is the final expression of the inverted romantic spirit that began with Schopenhauer. Rousseau's attack on civilization is broadened and shifted: it is not just civilization that debases man; the entire situation in which Dasein finds itself forces upon it a sense of aloneness, alienation, and despair. But this is not pessimism; conceptual theory is irrelevant. The person's response must be "existential," taking the form of a blind affirmation of will or a surrender to a confrontation (whether with Christ or communism). Such a response is beyond optimism as well. According to the existentialist, no theory of the goodness of the world is relevant, but only unreasoning hope. Although the works of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre are replete with themes that evoke reactions of pessimism and optimism, they significantly avoid raising the old issues concerning the relative predominance of good and evil in the world. Gabriel Marcel has eloquently made the distinction between optimism and hope in Homo Viator (Paris, 1944, Ch. 2). The more completely irrationalistic followers of the existentialist movement (Jean Genêt, for example) push this rejection of the traditional philosophical issue further into an ultimate reversal of good and evil and a doctrine of redemption through evil.

Although optimism and pessimism are terms that are useful in expressing fundamental human attitudes toward the universe or toward certain aspects of it, they have an ambiguity and relativity that makes them useless for a valid philosophical analysis. The question of the relative amounts of good or evil in human life and its environment is too involved to be resolved with existing philosophical tools. The dominant movements in contemporary philosophy prefer to describe and analyze the human situation more carefully in order to achieve greater understanding of the elements involved in it. That this must be done in cooperation with psychology and the natural and social sciences seems obvious; yet there are distinctively philosophical issues involved (some of which are very old) that are receiving more fruitful analysis with recent philosophical techniques. Until the basic concepts involved in a philosophical anthropology have received such analysis, the terms optimism and pessimism might wisely be avoided.

Among analytic philosophies, the empirical and positivistic trend that brushes aside all metaphysical and ethical issues as unphilosophical offers little help in this undertaking, although the old issue of a pleasure-pain balance may be regarded as an important attempt to meet analytical and empirical requirements of method. On the other hand, contemporary linguistic analysis is seeking firm ground for some of the ethical and axiological terms upon which discussions of good and evil must be based. But the analytic movement has been cautious in moving toward the metaphysical decisions upon which the resolution of these complex problems depend. It may be conjectured that when the present interest in analytic and phenomenological exploration develops into a bolder metaphysical phase, the terms optimism and pessimism may survive as descriptions of dominant human attitudes, but they may be superseded as philosophical theories by more adequate and more complex conceptual formulations of the meaning of human life and history.

See also Abelard, Peter; Adler, Alfred; Analysis, Philosophical; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Bacon, Francis; Bayle, Pierre; Bolingbroke, Henry St. John; Brahman; Buddhism; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Darwinism; Descartes, René; Determinism and Indeterminism; Dewey, John; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Duns Scotus, John; Empiricism; Enlightenment; Evil, The Problem of; Existentialism; Fechner, Gustav Theodor; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Franklin, Benjamin; Freud, Sigmund; Galen; Gibbon, Edward; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hartmann, Eduard von; Hedonism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Herbert of Cherbury; Hobbes, Thomas; Homer; Idealism; James, William; Jefferson, Thomas; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Leopardi, Count Giacomo; Life, Meaning and Value of; Locke, John; Lotze, Rudolf Hermann; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Maupertuis, Pierre-Louis Moreau de; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Nihilism; Pascal, Blaise; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Pope, Alexander; Rationalism; Rehmke, Johannes; Renaissance; Romanticism; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Santayana, George; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Scheler, Max; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Skepticism, History of; Socrates; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Vives, Juan Luis; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Whitehead, Alfred North; William of Ockham.


history of pessimism and optimism

Billisch, Friedrich. Das Problem des Übels in der Philosophie des Abendlandes, 3 vols. Vienna: A. Sexl, 1959.

Diels, Hermann. Der antike Pessimismus. Berlin, 1921.

Hartmann, Eduard von. Zur Geschichte und Begründung des Pessimismus, 2nd ed. Leipzig, 1892.

Plümacher, Olga. Der Pessimismus in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. Geschichtliches und Kritisches. Heidelberg, 1884.

Siwek, Paul. "Optimism in Philosophy" and "Pessimism in Philosophy," in New Scholasticism 23 (1948): 239297, 417439.

Sully, James. Pessimism: A History and a Criticism. London: n.p., 1877.

Tsanoff, Radoslav A. The Nature of Evil. New York: Macmillan, 1931.

Vyverberg, Henry. Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

nineteenth-century views

Bailey, Robert B. Sociology Faces Pessimism: A Study of European Sociological Thought amidst a Fading Optimism. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1958.

Caro, Elme Marie. Le pessimisme au XIXe siècle: LeopardiSchopenhauerHartmann. Paris: Hachette, 1878.

Copleston, Frederick. Arthur Schopenhauer: Philosopher of Pessimism. London, 1946.

Dorner, August. Pessimismus: Nietzsche und Naturalismus, mit besonderer Beziehung auf die Religion. Leipzig: F. Eckardt, 1911.

Gass, Wilhelm. Optimismus und Pessimismus. Berlin: G. Reimer, 1876.

Nordau, Max. Entartung. Berlin: C. Duncker, 1892. Translated from the second German edition as Degeneration. New York: Appleton, 1895.

Petraschek, Karl. Die Logik des Unbewussten. Munich, 1920. Vol. II especially.

Petraschek, Karl. Die Rechtsphilosophie des Pessimismus. Munich, 1929.

contemporary issues

Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator. Paris: Aubier, 1945. Translated by Emma Craufurd as Homo Viator. Chicago, 1951.

Marcuse, Ludwig. Pessimismus: ein Stadium der Reife. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1953.

Unamuno, Miguel de. Des sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos. Madrid, 1913. Translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch as The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples. London, 1921.

L. E. Loemker (1967)

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