The term pessimism, formed by analogy with the word optimism, appeared first in the writings of Coleridge in 1815. It signifies either a permanent attitude of mind and settled feeling, or a philosophical doctrine. The former manifests itself in man's tendency to see the world in its worst aspect and is exemplified in the lyrical pessimism of Byron, Leopardi, Musset, Baudelaire and Heine, which is basically a pathetic affirmation of evil in the world.
As a philosophical doctrine, pessimism asserts that, on the whole, the world is bad rather than good. This doctrine presents itself variously as (1) empirical pessimism,(2) metaphysical pessimism and (3) pessimisms confined to special areas of thought. According to empirical pessimism only the present terrestrial existence is bad. Metaphysical pessimism, on the other hand, declares that the world as such is essentially evil, that it would be better if it did not exist at all. In more restricted usages, pessimism becomes concerned with particular spheres of human activity that seem to be hopelessly unsuccessful. Thus, sociological pessimism despairs of ever finding a satisfactory solution to the social problem; ethical pessimism believes man radically incapable of moral improvement; eudaemonistic (hedohistic) pessimism affirms that the amount of evil in this world surpasses the happiness of even the happiest individuals; cultural pessimism emphatically denies the possibility of any real advancement in culture. Suggestive of such views are the writings of Jean Jacques rousseau, Renouvier, lessing and tolstoi.
Pessimism and Religious Thought. While many great religions of the world are optimistic in promising their faithful final salvation and eternal happiness, they are pessimistic when considering man's present condition. They look upon this world as a vale of tears, and its pleasures as vanity and deception, from which the faithful should in great part abstain by the practice of heroic abnegation. Particularly restrictive is buddhism with its famous "Four Noble Truths on Suffering." Moreover, Buddhism teaches that only arhats, that is, perfect monks, can obtain salvation immediately after death. Christianity, when explaining the doctrine of future happiness, exhorts its disciples to become accustomed to live in hope, and to see in their present life a time of trial. But a man who loses Christian faith falls easy prey to pessimism. We see this clearly in atheistic existentialism and in some lyrical pessimism.
Some critics err in seeing a radical pessimism in the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes. The expressions of poignant distress that we find in these books are counterbalanced by other texts that are highly optimistic. Moreover, their authors sincerely believed in God, and whoever believes in God is implicitly satisfied with the world in which God has placed him. Certain Gnostics, in particular marcion and his followers, pushed pessimism so far as to attribute the creation of the world to a demiurge, who is distinct from the supreme God. A number of Christian apologists have also placed undue emphasis on the evil, which causes men to suffer in this world. For example, arnobius the elder calls man "an unhappy and miserable being who deplores that he exists."
Philosophical Pessimists. The most radical pessimist in antiquity was Hegesias, a Cyrenaic philosopher. Many of his pupils are said to have reduced his teaching to practice by committing suicide. For this he was called Πεισιθάνατος, that is, persuading to die. Stoic philosophy also contained much empirical pessimism, as did epicureanism.
At first following a deistic optimism, voltaire wrote a poem two months after an earthquake in Lisbon, November 1755, in which he proclaimed a gloomy view of the world. Moreau de Maupertuis (1698–1759) taught that the evil in the world far surpasses the good. In the writings of David hume, pessimism appears intrinsically connected with the thought expressed, which is particularly skeptical and radically phenomenalistic. Atheistic existentialism professes that man has been thrown into existence by an unknown Being without a reasonable goal and has been abandoned to his own forces, which are insufficient to procure for him even elementary happiness. Existence itself is said to be irrational, blind, fatal and absurd.
Schopenhauer's Philosophy. Since the pessimism of Arthur schopenhauer (1788–1860) and Eduard von hartmann (1842–1906) was erected into a system of philosophy, it merits more careful consideration. Immanuel kant had taught that only representations of our mind—pure phenomena—can be objects of our intelligence. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, held that things in themselves could also be known by man; in reality, they are nothing else but products of will. Man's will, being deprived of any knowledge, pushes ahead blindly and thus becomes an inexhaustible source of suffering. The present world is the worst of all possible worlds; if it were only a little worse, it would not exist. Pleasure is purely negative: "want, depression, pain—these are positive." Again, "suffering is the true destiny of life." Man's redemption or salvation can be obtained only by "the negation of the wish to live," for then the world itself, "which is the reflection of our will," will disappear.
Hartmann's Position. Eduard von Hartmann tried to correct the system of his master, Schopenhauer. On the irrational will he grafted the Absolute Idea of hegel, but he replaced Hegelian dialectic by an inductive-scientific method. In order to explain the finality existing in nature, Hartmann postulated a particular reality that is diffused in it. As the activity of this reality (digestion, growth and many psychic acts) does not betray any consciousness, he called it the Unconscious. When, in pursuit of its ends, the will encounters an opposition, consciousness appears and with it, pain. The sum total of pain far surpasses that of pleasure. "The existence of this world is worse than its nonexistence."
Critical Evaluation. The pessimism of many people can be explained almost entirely by psychological factors. Leopardi's pessimism is the crying out of his soul, so to speak, in rebellion against the natural deformity of his body and his continuous misfortunes. Schopenhauer suffered from chronic nervousness with paranoid tendencies. Not all pessimists, however, are to be considered insane. Some arrive at a pessimistic view of the world through imitation or by whim. Others profess it in theory, but practice optimism in their lives. Here can be mentioned, in particular, Hartmann and some modern existentialists.
Another condition that leads many people to pessimism is their lack of experience, which makes them unable to face life realistically. In this way they expose themselves to bitter disappointments, become irritated and rebel. This possibly explains why pessimism finds most of its followers among young people. Schopenbauer published his theory of pessimism when he was 31 years old; Hartmann when he was only 26.
The philosophical foundations of pessimism are certainly questionable. Schopenhauer's assertion that the present world is the worst possible one was rejected even by many pessimists themselves (for example, Hartmann). His doctrine about the purely negative nature of pleasure is refuted by consciousness and experimental introspection. Although Hartmann taught that evil surpasses good in the world even in "the happiest of individuals," he never proved it. Many individuals declare that they feel happy rather than unhappy. How could they be convinced of the contrary? Helen Keller, blind and deaf all her life, was an enthusiastic propagator of optimism.
The Darwinian "struggle for life" finds its proper corrective in the help that living creatures give one another. In order to understand the meaning of evil, one must take care not to mutilate this life. Moreover, pessimists consider only one fragment of human life, namely, terrestrial life; they reject a priori the immortality of the soul and its eternal destiny. Perhaps this explains why pessimism develops in men a sense of discouragement and leads many to suicide, which they see as the only logical conclusion to be drawn from pessimistic premises.
See Also: evil; suffering; death (theology of); dualism; irrationalism.
Bibliography: p. siwek, The Philosophy of Evil (New York 1950) 145–198. g. morra, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:1329–36. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 1927–30) 2:404–408.
504. Pessimism (See also Cynicism, Skepticism.)
- Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary or Martha Burke, 1852–1903) frontierswoman; mannish prophetess of doom. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 71]
- Cassandra no credence ever given to her truthful prophecies of doom. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 51]
- City of Dreadful Night, The expresses a passionate faith in pessimism as the only sensible philosophy. [Br. Poetry: James Thomson The City of Dreadful Night in Benét, 202]
- Gerontion old man who deplores aging, aridity, and spiritual decay and despairs of civilization. [Br. Poetry: Benét, 391]
- Gloomy Gus one with a pessimistic outlook on the world. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
- Heraclitus (535–475 B.C.) “Weeping Philosopher”; grieved over man’s folly. [Gk. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1146]
- Micaiah always prophesied misfortune for King Ahab. [O.T.: I Kings 22:8]
- Murphy’s Law “If anything can go wrong, it will.” [Am. Culture: Wallechinsky, 480]
- Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788–1860) German philosopher known for philosophy of pessimism. [Ger. Hist.: NCE, 2447]
pes·si·mism / ˈpesəˌmizəm/ • n. a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen; a lack of hope or confidence in the future: the dispute cast an air of deep pessimism over the future of the peace talks. ∎ Philos. a belief that this world is as bad as it could be or that evil will ultimately prevail over good. DERIVATIVES: pes·si·mist n.