Philosophical pessimism

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The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Philosophical pessimism is the idea that views the world in a strictly anti-optimistic fashion. This form of pessimism is not an emotional disposition as the term commonly connotes. Instead, it is a philosophy or worldview that directly challenges the notion of progress and what may be considered the faith-based claims of optimism.

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  • We laugh, but inept is our laughter,
    We should weep, and weep sore,
    Who are shattered like glass and thereafter
    Remolded no more.


  • The longer I live, the more I feel that the simplest formula for the constancy of my fate is: on a lost watch.
    • Julius Bahnsen, quoted by Harry Slochower in "Julius Bahnsen, Philosopher of Heroic Despair, 1830-1881" (1932), The Philosophical Review, 41(4), p. 372
  • And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept.
  • For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.
  • who may tell the tale
    of the old man?
    weigh absence in a scale?
    mete want with a span?
    the sum assess
    of the world's woes?
    in words enclose?
  • dead calm, then a murmur, a name, a murmured name, in doubt, in fear, in love, in fear, in doubt, wind of winter in the black boughs, cold calm sea whitening whispering to the shore, stealing, hastening, swelling, passing, dying, from naught come, to naught gone
  • They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.
    • Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953)
    • Description: The words of the character Pozzo.
  • Birth was the death of him.
  • If there is no God to redeem suffering, and if there is no God to ensure that good triumphs over evil, the problem of existence poses itself anew. Is life really worth living if it contains more suffering than happiness, more evil than good, and if it promises no reward or redemption in some life to come?
  • Above all, we cannot expect the state to make people happy. Even if it effectively protects the rights of everyone, it is still possible for them to be miserable. There are four fundamental evils of human life that are constant and that cannot be eradicated by political means: birth, sickness, age and death. Mainländer’s pessimism was immune to political change or reform, because no state, even a socialist one that cares for all human needs, could make life worth living.
  • Why does the Raven cry aloud and no eye pities her?
    Why fall the Sparrow & the Robin in the foodless winter?
    Faint! shivering they sit on leafless bush, or frozen stone
    Wearied with seeking food across the snowy waste; the little
    Heart, cold; and the little tongue consum'd, that once in thoughtless joy
    Gave songs of gratitude to waving corn fields round their nest.
    Why howl the Lion & the Wolf? why do they roam abroad?
    Deluded by summers heat they sport in enormous love
    And cast their young out to the hungry wilds & sandy desarts
  • Every night and every morn
    Some to misery are born;
    Every morn and every night
    Some are born to sweet delight;
    Some are born to sweet delight,
    Some are born to endless night.


  • To get up in the morning, wash and then wait for some unforeseen variety of dread or depression. I would give the whole universe and all of Shakespeare for a grain of ataraxy.
  • I do not struggle against the world, I struggle against a greater force, against my weariness of the world.
  • Then what is Life?—When stripp'd of its disguise,
    A thing to be desir'd it cannot be;
    Since every thing that meets our foolish eyes
    Gives proof sufficient of its vanity.
  • Life knows us not and we do not know life,—we don't know even our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore: thoughts vanish: words, once pronounced, die: and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow,—only the string of my platitude seems to have no end. As our peasants say: "Pray brother, forgive me for the love of God." And we don't know what forgiveness is, nor what love, nor where God is.
  • A vida não vale seu custo em dor. Se considerarmos a felicidade como o objetivo da existência humana, teremos de admitir que caminhamos decididamente ao fracasso. Seria muito mais fácil defender a ideia de que o sofrimento é a verdadeira meta, pois temos muito mais fontes de moléstias que de prazeres. Numa escala relativa, nossa sensibilidade à dor é várias vezes maior que ao prazer. Há muitos mais modos de ser infeliz que o contrário. Nossas maiores dores são sempre mais intensas e duradouras que nossas maiores alegrias. Por fim, não precisamos cultivar nosso intelecto, refletir sobre o mundo ou nos empenhar em qualquer sentido para alcançar o sofrimento: ele está à disposição a qualquer momento. Para sofrer basta viver. A dor é como o elemento essencial em que estamos imersos, sendo a felicidade apenas os momentos em que conseguimos chegar à superfície e encher os pulmões de ar para, em seguida, sermos novamente tragados às profundezas. Talvez isso soe desagradável, mas, se tivéssemos de fazer uma aposta decisiva valendo a felicidade eterna, certamente colocaríamos nossa confiança na vitória final da dor sobre o prazer. Diante de uma aposta de tamanha importância, é certo que recobraríamos rapidamente a lucidez e reconsideraríamos quase instantaneamente nossas opiniões tolas a respeito dos sonhos de felicidade pessoal que cultivamos no dia a dia.
    • Life is not worth its cost in pain. If we consider happiness as the goal of human existence, we will have to admit that we are definitely headed for failure. It would be much easier to defend the idea that suffering is the real goal, because we have many more sources of pain than pleasure. On a relative scale, our sensitivity to pain is several times greater than our sensitivity to pleasure. There are many more ways to be unhappy than the other way around. Our greatest pains are always more intense and lasting than our greatest joys. Finally, we do not need to cultivate our intellect, reflect on the world or work in any way to achieve suffering: it is available at any time. To suffer, it is enough to simply live. Pain is like the essential element in which we are immersed, and happiness being only the moments when we manage to reach the surface and fill our lungs with air, only to be once again swallowed by the depths. This may sound unpleasant, but if we were to make a decisive bet with eternal happiness on the line, we would certainly place our trust in the ultimate victory of pain over pleasure. Faced with a bet of such importance, it is certain that we would quickly recover our lucidity and reconsider our silly opinions almost instantly about the dreams of personal happiness that we cultivate on a daily basis.
    • André Cancian, O Vazio da Máquina: Niilismo e outros abismos, 2009, p. 185
  • Nossa situação não é muito diferente daquela de um burro que tem uma cenoura pendurada à sua frente. Nossa cenoura se chama felicidade. Perseguindo-a, corremos em busca de algo que jamais alcançaremos. Temos a impressão de que nascemos para ser felizes, mas apenas porque estamos presos à lógica interna de nossa natureza biológica. A condição de ser vivo nos impõe como referenciais supremos o prazer e o sofrimento. Contudo, o prazer é apenas um mecanismo psicológico arquitetado para influenciar nosso comportamento, não uma realidade à qual estamos caminhando. Isso ficará claro se considerarmos o fato de que, ao alcançarmos a satisfação de algum desejo, teremos apenas alguns instantes de prazer como recompensa e, em seguida, já nos começam a molestar novas necessidades que nos tornarão inquietos. Não tardará para que partamos novamente à ação, num ciclo de insatisfação que só terminará com a morte do indivíduo ou com a aquisição de um grão de bom senso.
    • Our situation is not so different from that of a donkey with a carrot hanging in front of it. Our carrot is called happiness. When pursuing it, we chase after something we will never obtain. We have the impression that we are born to be happy, but this is only because we are tied to the internal logic of our biological nature. The condition of being alive imposes pleasure and suffering as the supreme points of reference. However, pleasure is only a psychological mechanism designed to influence our behavior, not a reality to which we are heading. This will become clear if we consider the fact that, when we reach the satisfaction of some desire, we have only a few moments of pleasure as a reward and, afterwards, new needs begin to torment us and make us restless. It will not be long before we take action again, in a cycle of dissatisfaction that will only end with the death of the individual or with the acquisition of a grain of good sense.
    • André Cancian, O Vazio da Máquina: Niilismo e outros abismos, 2009, pp. 186–187
  • Se, por um lado, desejar é sofrer, por outro, não desejar é impossível. Portanto, seja pela ilusão da felicidade, seja pelas torturas do tédio, somos obrigados a nos manter em atividade, e com isso nos expomos ao sofrimento. Nesse processo, a razão pode refutar a biologia o quanto quiser: está cuspindo no prato que come e, cedo ou tarde, sofrerá represálias por tentar colocar de lado nossas necessidades instintivas. O cérebro está repleto de mecanismos que detectam as tentativas de burlar as regras desta brincadeira chamada vida. Nesse jogo, podemos acreditar que existe alguma chance de vitória. Como num cassino, tudo está arquitetado no sentido de nos levar a crer que realmente temos alguma possibilidade de sucesso. Lembremo-nos, contudo, da premissa principal: a casa sempre ganha. Foi a natureza quem fez as regras, não nós — e como nossos instintos mais primitivos nos impedem de abandonar a jogatina, o destino que nos aguarda é a bancarrota certa. O fato de entendermos o mecanismo que nos leva a tal impasse pouco ajuda no sentido de mudá-lo. Como viciados crônicos, a compreensão de nosso quadro de dependência equivale a iluminar as engrenagens daquilo que nos controla — apenas tornando nossa liberdade um sonho ainda mais distante. Sabemos por que somos assim, mas essa compreensão não nos permite escapar de nossa condição. Nessa situação, tudo o que podemos fazer é jogar dentro das regras o mais inteligentemente possível, a fim de minimizar o sofrimento do qual somos vítimas constantes.
    • If, on the one hand, to desire is to suffer, on the other, not desiring is impossible. Therefore, be it due to the illusion of happiness or the tortures of boredom, we are forced to keep ourselves active, and with that we expose ourselves to suffering. In this process, reason can refute biology as much as it wants: it is biting the hand that feeds it and, sooner or later, will suffer reprisals for trying to put aside our instinctual needs. The brain is full of mechanisms that detect attempts to circumvent the rules of this game called life. In this game, we may believe that there is some chance of victory. As in a casino, everything is designed to lead us to believe that we really have some chance of success. Let us remember, however, the main premise: the house always wins. It was nature that made the rules, not us - and as our most primitive instincts prevent us from abandoning our gambling, the fate that awaits us is certain bankruptcy. The fact that we understand the mechanism that leads us to such an impasse does little to change it. As chronic addicts, understanding our addiction is tantamount to illuminating the gears of what controls us - just making our freedom an even more distant dream. We know why we are like this, but this understanding does not allow us to escape from our condition. In this situation, all we can do is play within the rules as intelligently as possible, in order to minimize the suffering of which we are constantly victims.
    • André Cancian, O Vazio da Máquina: Niilismo e outros abismos, 2009, pp. 187–188


  • Whichever way man may look upon the earth, he is oppressed with the suffering incident to life. It would almost seem as though the earth had been created with malignity and hatred. If we look at what we are pleased to call the lower animals, we behold a universal carnage. We speak of the seemingly peaceful woods, but we need only look beneath the surface to be horrified by the misery of that underworld. Hidden in the grass and watching for its prey is the crawling snake which swiftly darts upon the toad or mouse and gradually swallows it alive; the hapless animal is crushed by the jaws and covered with slime, to be slowly digested in furnishing a meal. The snake knows nothing about sin or pain inflicted upon another; he automatically grabs insects and mice and frogs to preserve his life. The spider carefully weaves his web to catch the unwary fly, winds him into the fatal net until paralyzed and helpless, then drinks his blood and leaves him an empty shell. The hawk swoops down and snatches a chicken and carries it to its nest to feed its young. The wolf pounces on the lamb and tears it to shreds. The cat watches at the hole of the mouse until the mouse cautiously comes out, then with seeming fiendish glee he plays with it until tired of the game, then crunches it to death in his jaws. The beasts of the jungle roam by day and night to find their prey; the lion is endowed with strength of limb and fang to destroy and devour almost any animal that it can surprise or overtake. There is no place in the woods or air or sea where all life is not a carnage of death in terror and agony. Each animal is a hunter, and in turn is hunted, by day and night. No landscape is so beautiful or day so balmy but the cry of suffering and sacrifice rends the air. When night settles down over the earth the slaughter is not abated. Some creatures see best at night, and the outcry of the dying and terrified is always on the wind. Almost all animals meet death by violence and through the most agonizing pain. With the whole animal creation there is nothing like a peaceful death. Nowhere in nature is there the slightest evidence of kindness, of consideration, or a feeling for the suffering and the weak, except in the narrow circle of brief family life.
  • While I could provide a series of portraits of each thinker, it will be more effective, and more likely to demonstrate their common endeavor, to proceed through a series of propositions that pessimists subscribe to in greater or less degrees. These propositions, which to some extent build on one another, are, in their bluntest form, as follows: that time is a burden; that the course of history is in some sense ironic; that freedom and happiness are incompatible; and that human existence is absurd. Finally, there is a divide between those pessimists, like Schopenhauer, who suggest that the only reasonable response to these propositions is a kind of resignation, and those, like Nietzsche, who reject resignation in favor of a more life-affirming ethic of individualism and spontaneity.
  • Look at your body—
    A painted puppet, a poor toy
    Of jointed parts ready to collapse,
    A diseased and suffering thing
    With a head full of false imaginings.


  • Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity!
    Born under one law, to another bound:
    Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,
    Created sick, commanded to be sound:
    What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws?
    Passion and reason, self-division cause.
    Is it the mark, or Majesty of Power
    To make offences that it may forgive?


  • So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
    Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around.
    That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
    Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.
  • But the disease of feeling germed,
    And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;
    Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed
    How long, how long?
  • 'I know people say I'm a pessimist; but I don't believe I am naturally; I like a lot of things so much; but I could never get over the idea that it would be better for us to be without both the pleasures and the pains; and that the best experience would be some sort of sleep.
  • [P]eople call me a pessimist; and if it is pessimism to think, with Sophocles, that 'not to have been born is best,' then I do not reject the designation. I never could understand why the word 'pessimism' should be such a red rag to many worthy people; and I believe, indeed, that a good deal of the robustious, swaggering optimism of recent literature is at bottom cowardly and insincere. I do not see that we are likely to improve the world by asseverating, however loudly, that black is white, or at least that black is but a necessary contrast and foil, without which white would be white no longer. That is mere juggling with a metaphor. But my pessimism, if pessimism it be, does not involve the assumption that the world is going to the dogs, and that Ahriman is winning all along the line. On the contrary, my practical philosophy is distinctly meliorist. What are my books but one plea against 'man's inhumanity to man' — to woman — and to the lower animals? (By the way, my opposition to 'sport' is a point on which I am rather in conflict with my neighbours hereabouts.) Whatever may be the inherent good or evil of life, it is certain that men make it much worse than it need be. When we have got rid of a thousand remediable ills, it will be time enough to determine whether the ill that is irremediable outweighs the good.


  • Human suffering is so great, so endless, so awful that I can hardly write of it. I could not go into hospitals and face it, as some do, lest my mind should be temporarily overcome. The whole and the worst the worst pessimist can say is far beneath the least particle of the truth, so immense is the misery of man. It is the duty of all rational beings to acknowledge the truth. There is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs. This is a foundation of hope, because, if the present condition of things were ordered by a superior power, there would be no possibility of improving it for the better in the spite of that power. Acknowledging that no such direction exists, all things become at once plastic to our will.


  • We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.
  • Marry, and you will regret it; don't marry, you will also regret it; marry or don't marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world's foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world's foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret it [...] Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don't hang yourself, you'll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.
  • I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?


  • Everything is evil. I mean, everything that is, is wicked; every existing thing is an evil; everything exists for a wicked end. Existence is a wickedness and is ordained for wickedness. Evil is the end, the final purpose, of the universe...The only good is nonbeing; the only really good thing is the thing that is not, things that are not things; all things are bad.
  • My philosophy isn't only not conducive to misanthropy, as it might appear to a superficial reader, and as many have accused me. It essentially rules out misanthropy, it tends toward healing, to dissolving discontent and hatred. Not knee-jerk hatred but the deep-dyed hatred that unreflective people who would deny being misanthropes so cordially bear (habitually or on select occasions) toward their own kind in response to hurts they receive—as we all do, justly or not—from others. My philosophy holds nature guilty of everything, it acquits mankind completely and directs our hate, or at least our lamentations, to its matrix, to the true origin of the afflictions living creatures suffer, etc.
  • Noia is plainly an evil: to suffer it is to suffer utter unhappiness. So what is noia? Not a specific sorrow or pain (noia, the idea and nature of it, excludes the presence of any particular sorrow or pain) but simply ordinary life fully felt, lived in, known; it's everywhere, it saturates an individual. Life thus is an affliction; and not living, or being less alive (by living a shorter or less intense life) is a reprieve, or a least a lesser affliction—absolutely preferable, that is, to life.
  • What is certain and no laughing matter is that existence is an evil for all the parts which make up the universe (and so it is hard to think it is not an evil for the whole universe as well, and even harder to make, as philosophers do, "Des malheurs de chaque être un bonheur général" ["Of the misfortunes of each being a general happiness"]. Voltaire, Épître sur le désastre de Lisbonne. It is incomprehensible how out of the suffering of every individual without exception, can come a universal good; how from the whole of many misfortunes and nothing else, a good can come). That is made manifest when we see that everything in its own way necessarily suffers, and necessarily does not enjoy any pleasure, because pleasure does not exist strictly speaking. Now given that that is the case, how can you not say that existence is in itself an evil?
  • Not only individual men, but the whole human race was and always will be necessarily unhappy. Not only the human race but the whole animal world. Not only animals but all other beings in their way. Not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds.
  • Thus I reply to you [Nature]. I am well aware you did not make the world for the service of men. It were easier to believe that you made it expressly as a place of torment for them. But tell me: why am I here at all? Did I ask to come into the world? Or am I here unnaturally, contrary to your will? If however, you yourself have placed me here, without giving me the power of acceptance or refusal of this gift of life, ought you not as far as possible to try and make me happy, or at least preserve me from the evils and dangers, which render my sojourn a painful one? And what I say of myself, I say of the whole human race, and of every living creature.
  • It seems as though death were the essential aim of all things. That which has no existence cannot die; yet all that exists has proceeded from nothing. The final cause of existence is not happiness, for nothing is happy. It is true, living creatures seek this end in all their works, but none obtain it; and during all their life, ever deceiving, tormenting, and exerting themselves, they suffer indeed for no other purpose than to die.
  • If, on the one hand, I were offered the fortune and fame of Cæsar or Alexander, free from the least stain; and, on the other hand, death to-day, I should unhesitatingly choose to die to-day.
  • Death is not an evil, because it frees us from all evils, and while it takes away good things, it takes away also the desire for them. Old age is the supreme evil, because it deprives us of all pleasures, leaving us only the appetite for them, and it brings with it all sufferings. Nevertheless, we fear death, and we desire old age.
  • For better or worse, pessimism without compromise lacks public appeal. In all, the few who have gone to the pains of arguing for a sullen appraisal of life might as well never have been born. As history confirms, people will change their minds about almost anything, from which god they worship to how they style their hair. But when it comes to existential judgments, human beings in general have an unfalteringly good opinion of themselves and their condition in this world and are steadfastly confident they are not a collection of self-conscious nothings.
  • Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees-a blunder of blind nature, according to Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not what we are--contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating.
  • Here, then, is the signature motif of the pessimistic imagination that Schopenhauer made discernible: Behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world. For Zapffe, the evolutionary mutation of consciousness tugged us into tragedy. For Michelstaedter, individuals can exist only as unrealities that are made as they are made and that cannot make themselves otherwise because their hands are forced by the "god" of philopsychia (self-love) to accept positive illusions about themselves or not accept themselves at all. For Mainlander, a Will-to-die, not Schopenhauer's Will-to-live, plays the occult master pulling our strings, making us dance in fitful motions like marionettes caught in a turbulent wake left by the passing of a self-murdered god. For Bahnsen, a purposeless force breathes a black life into everything and feasts upon it part by part, regurgitating itself into itself, ever-renewing the throbbing forms of its repast. For all others who suspect that something is amiss in the lifeblood of being, something they cannot verbalize, there are the malformed shades of suffering and death that chase them into the false light of contenting lies.
  • Immune to the blandishments of religions, countries, families, and everything else that puts both average and above-average citizens in the limelight, pessimists are sideliners in both history and the media. Without a belief in gods or ghosts, unmotivated by a comprehensive delusion, they could never plant a bomb, plan a revolution, or shed blood for a cause.
  • Optimism has always been an undeclared policy of human culture—one that grew out of our animal instincts to survive and reproduce—rather than an articulated body of thought. It is the default condition of our blood and cannot be effectively questioned by our minds or put in grave doubt by our pains. This would explain why at any given time there are more cannibals than philosophical pessimists.
  • As a species with consciousness, we do have our inconveniences. Yet these are of negligible importance compared to what it would be like to feel in our depths that we are nothing but human puppets—things of mistaken identity who must live with the terrible knowledge that they are not making a go of it on their own and are not what they once thought they were. At this time, barely anyone can conceive of this happening—of hitting bottom and finding to our despair that we can never again resurrect our repressions and denials. Not until that day of lost illusions comes, if it ever comes, will we all be competent to conceive of such a thing. But a great many more generations will pass through life before that happens, if it happens.
  • Consciousness makes it seem as if [1] there is something to do; [2] there is somewhere to go; [3] there is something to be; [4] there is someone to know. This is what makes consciousness the parent of all horrors, the thing that makes us try to do something, go somewhere, be something, and know someone, such as ourselves, so that we can escape our MALIGNANTLY USELESS being and think that being alive is all right rather than that which should not be.


  • In the immense sphere of living things, the obvious rule is violence, a kind of inevitable frenzy which arms all things in mutua funera. Once you leave the world of insensible substances, you find the decree of violent death written on the very frontiers of life. Even in the vegetable kingdom, this law can be perceived: from the huge catalpa to the smallest of grasses, how many plants die and how many are killed! But once you enter the animal kingdom, the law suddenly becomes frighteningly obvious. A power at once hidden and palpable appears constantly occupied in bringing to light the principle of life by violent means. In each great division of the animal world, it has chosen a certain number of animals charged with devouring the others; so there are insects of prey, reptiles of prey, birds of prey, fish of prey, and quadrupeds of prey. There is not an instant of time when some living creature is not devoured by another [...] Thus is worked out, from maggots up to man, the universal law of the violent destruction of living beings. The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite until the consummation of the world, the extinction of evil, the death of death.


  • Out—out are the lights—out all!
    And, over each quivering form,
    The curtain, a funeral pall,
    Comes down with the rush of a storm,
    While the angels, all pallid and wan,
    Uprising, unveiling, affirm
    That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
    And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.


  • Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.


  • So they were, and so they are; and as they came are coming others,
    And among them are the fearless and the meek and the unborn;
    And a question that has held us heretofore without an answer
    May abide without an answer until all have ceased to mourn.
    For the children of the dark are more to name than are the wretched,
    Or the broken, or the weary, or the baffled, or the shamed:
    There are builders of new mansions in the Valley of the Shadow,
    And among them are the dying and the blinded and the maimed.
  • Your fly will serve as well as anybody,
    And what's his hour? He flies, and flies, and flies,
    And in his fly's mind has a brave appearance;
    And then your spider gets him in her net,
    And eats him out, and hangs him up to dry.
    That's Nature, the kind mother of us all.
    And then your slattern housemaid swings her broom,
    And where's your spider? And that's Nature, also.
    It's Nature, and it's Nothing. It's all Nothing.
    It's all a world where bugs and emperors
    Go singularly back to the same dust,
    Each in his time; and the old, ordered stars
    That sang together, Ben, will sing the same
    Old stave to-morrow.


  • On this vista the curtain may be drawn. Neither poet nor seer can look beyond. Nature, who is unconscious in her immorality, entrancing in her beauty, savage in her cruelty, imperial in her prodigality, and appalling in her convulsions, is not only deaf, but dumb. There is no answer to any appeal. The best we can do, the best that has ever been done, is to recognise the implacability of the laws that rule the universe, and contemplate as calmly as we can the nothingness from which we are come and into which we shall all disappear. The one consolation that we hold, though it is one which may be illusory too, consists in the belief that when death comes, fear and hope are at an end. Then wonder ceases; the insoluble no longer perplexes; space is lost; the infinite is blank; the farce is done.
  • Fichte, Kant's immediate successor, declared, in direct contradiction to Leibnitz, that this world was the worst one possible, and was only consoled by thinking he could raise himself by the aid of pure thought into the felicity of the "supersensible." "Men," he says, "in the vehement pursuit of happiness grasp at the first object which offers to them any prospect of satisfaction, but immediately they turn an introspective eye and ask, 'Am I happy?' and at once from their innermost being a voice answers distinctly, 'No, you are as poor and as miserable as before.' Then they think it was the object that deceived them, and turn precipitately to another. But the second holds as little satisfaction as the first.... Wandering then through life, restless and tormented, at each successive station they think that happiness dwells at the next, but when they reach it happiness is no longer there. In whatever position they may find themselves there is always another one which they discern from afar, and which but to touch, they think, is to find the wished delight, but when the goal is reached discontent has followed on the way and stands in haunting constancy before them."
  • The question, then, as to whether life is valuable, valueless, or an affliction can, with regard to the individual, be answered only after a consideration of the different circumstances attendant on each particular case; but, broadly speaking, and disregarding its necessary exceptions, life may be said to be always valuable to the obtuse, often valueless to the sensitive; while to him who commiserates with all mankind, and sympathizes with everything that is, life never appears otherwise than as an immense and terrible affliction.
  • The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.
  • If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.
  • The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instil in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.
  • The state of human happiness, for the most part, is like certain groups of trees, which seen from a distance look wonderfully fine; but if we go up to them and among them, their beauty disappears; we do not know wherein it lay, for it is only trees that surround us. And so it happens that we often envy the position of others.
  • For whence did Dante take the materials for his hell but from this our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell of it. And when, on the other hand, he came to the task of describing heaven and its delights, he had an insurmountable difficulty before him, for our world affords no materials at all for this.
  • And to this world, to this scene of tormented and agonised beings, who only continue to exist by devouring each other, in which, therefore, every ravenous beast is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of painful deaths; and in which the capacity for feeling pain increases with knowledge, and therefore reaches its highest degree in man, a degree which is the higher the more intelligent the man is; to this world it has been sought to apply the system of optimism, and demonstrate to us that it is the best of all possible worlds. The absurdity is glaring. But an optimist bids me open my eyes and look at the world, how beautiful it is in the sunshine, with its mountains and valleys, streams, plants, animals, &c. &c. Is the world, then, a peep show? These things are certainly beautiful to look at, but to be them is something quite different.
  • If, finally, we were to bring to the sight of everyone the terrible sufferings and afflictions to which his life is constantly exposed, he would be seized with horror. If we were to conduct the most hardened and callous optimist through hospitals, infirmaries, operating theatres, through prisons, torture-chambers, and slave-hovels, over battlefields and to places of execution; if we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it shuns the gaze of cold curiosity, and finally were to allow him to glance into the dungeon of Ugolino where prisoners starved to death, he too would certainly see in the end what kind of a world is this meilleur des mondes possibles.
    • Arthur Schopenhauer, trans. E. F. J. Payne, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1 (1969), p. 325
  • I cannot help but feel the suffering all around me, not only of humanity but of the whole of creation. I have never tried to withdraw myself from this community of suffering. It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain which lies upon the world.
  • Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.
  • Not to be born is the first choice,
    the prize beyond any other.
    But once he has seen the light,
    the next best is to go back
    to that dark place from which he came
    as soon as possible.
    In thoughtless youth
    all seems well at first—
    then suffering begins
    and every blow strikes home:
    envy, factions, war, and murder.
    Troubles abound. And afterwards
    comes hateful, feeble old age,
    crabbed and friendless—
    the evils compound.
    • Sophocles, trans. Ruth Fainlight and Robert J. Littman, Oedipus at Colonus 1224–1238
    • Description: Said by Antistrophe.


  • My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires I should not have know what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death - complete annihilation.
  • I could give no reasonable meaning to any single action or to my whole life. I was only surprised that I could have avoided understanding this from the very beginning - it has been so long known to all. Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? ... How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.
  • There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes a twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. and this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all. The deception of the joys of life which formerly allayed my terror of the dragon now no longer deceived me. No matter how often I may be told, "You cannot understand the meaning of life so do not think about it, but live," I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long. I cannot now help seeing day and night going round and bringing me to death. That is all I see, for that alone is true. All else is false.
  • Sakya Muni, a young, happy prince, from whom the existence of sickness, old age, and death had been hidden, went out to drive and saw a terrible old man, toothless and slobbering. The prince, from whom till then old age had been concealed, was amazed, and asked his driver what it was, and how that man had come to such a wretched and disgusting condition, and when he learnt that this was the common fate of all men, that the same thing inevitably awaited him - the young prince - he could not continue his drive, but gave orders to go home, that he might consider this fact. So he shut himself up alone and considered it. And he probably devised some consolation for himself, for he subsequently again went out to drive, feeling merry and happy. But this time he saw a sick man. He saw an emaciated, livid, trembling man with dim eyes. The prince, from whom sickness had been concealed, stopped and asked what this was. And when he learnt that this was sickness, to which all men are liable, and that he himself - a healthy and happy prince - might himself fall ill tomorrow, he again was in no mood to enjoy himself but gave orders to drive home, and again sought some solace, and probably found it, for he drove out a third time for pleasure. But this third time he saw another new sight: he saw men carrying something. 'What is that?' 'A dead man.' 'What does *dead* mean?' asked the prince. He was told that to become dead means to become like that man. The prince approached the corpse, uncovered it, and looked at it. 'What will happen to him now?' asked the prince. He was told that the corpse would be buried in the ground. 'Why?' 'Because he will certainly not return to life, and will only produce a stench and worms.' 'And is that the fate of all men? Will the same thing happen to me? Will they bury me, and shall I cause a stench and be eaten by worms?' 'Yes.' 'Home! I shall not drive out for pleasure, and never will so drive out again!' And Sakya Muni could find no consolation in life, and decided that life is the greatest of evils; and he devoted all the strength of his soul to free himself from it, and to free others; and to do this so that, even after death, life shall not be renewed any more but be completely destroyed at its very roots. So speaks all the wisdom of India.
  • "What is it all about?" Mitja (in Brothers Karamazov) felt that though his question may be absurd and senseless, yet he had to ask just that, and he had to ask it in just that way. Socrates claimed that an unexamined life is not worthy of man. And Aristotle saw Man's "proper" goal and "proper" limit in the right exercise of those faculties which are uniquely human. It is commonplace that men, unlike other living organisms, are not equipped with built-in mechanisms for automatic maintenance of their existence. Man would perish immediately if he were to respond to his environment exclusively in terms of unlearned biologically inherited forms of behaviour. In order to survive at all, the human being must discover how various things around him and in him operate. And the place he occupies in the present scheme of organic creation is the consequence of having learned how to exploit his intellectual capacities for such discoveries. Hence, more human than any other human endeavour is the attempt at a total view of Man's function— or malfunction—in the Universe, his possible place and importance in the widest conceivable cosmic scheme. In other words it is the attempt to answer, or at least articulate whatever questions are entailed in the dying groan of ontological despair: what is it all about? This may well prove biologically harmful or even fatal to Man. Intellectual honesty and Man's high spiritual demands for order and meaning, may drive Man to the deepest antipathy to life and necessitate, as one existentialist chooses to express it: "a no to this wild, banal, grotesque and loathsome carnival in the world’s graveyard."
  • We are thrown into an absurdly indifferent world of sticks and stones and stars and emptiness. Our "situation" is that of a man who falls out of the Empire State Building. Any attempt at "justifying" our brief, accelerating fall, the inconceivably short interlude between our breath-taking realization of our "situation" and our inexorable total destruction, is bound to be equally ludicrous; i.e., whether we choose to say: (a) "This is actually quite comfortable as long as it lasts, let us make the best of it," or (b) "Let us at least do something useful while we can," and we start counting the windows on the building. In any event, both attitudes presuppose an ability to divert ourselves from realizing our desperate "situation," to abstract, as it were, every single moment of the “fall” out of its irreparable totality, to cut our lives up into small portions with petty, short time-span goals.
  • With open, unsuspecting enthusiasm do the prelatics devote themselves to their undisputably commendable mission一to save their fellow men from such pernicious views of life that cause "ontological uncertainty" and "existential despair (frustration, vacuum)” by providing them with an impregnable metaphysical armour. The fact that a patient is classified as mentally or emotionally sick prevents the psychotherapist from enquiring into the possibility of whether, or to what extent, his patient may be cognitively right. It is perfectly possible that a person with "existential frustration," "ontological despair" or simply "sub-clinical depression" may, because of his abnormal condition, be in a better position to look through the camouflage of life that still is deceiving the "healthy" psychotherapists.
  • Were (say) Frankl to attempt to cure (say) Zapffe from his "existential frustration," "ontological despair" or "metaphysic-melancholic clairvoyance," the chances are that Zapffe (rather than "cured") would be baffled by Frankl’s sophomoric philosophizing. "You may be psychologically healthier than I," Zapffe would gladly admit, "but I must insist that I am a better philosopher. A lifelong search for a meaning of life in general, and of my life in particular, has led me— reluctantly, but with cataclysmic consistency and sleepwalker’s certainty—to realize that it’s all fantasy and delusions, divinely subsidized to put us at peace with our ‘situation.’ You are certainly right that psycho-pathological explanations of my biosophical pessimism would be totally irrelevant; but I also fail to see what you can possibly accomplish with your naive, maladroit metaphysics, behind which—if you will permit me to speak your language for once—I see but the profoundest, most fundamental trauma, and that great universal repression which prevents all fatal insight into man and his ‘cosmic conditions,’ the mysterious, grotesquely absurd origin and genesis of body and mind, their inalienable interests, and their final and complete obliteration, the return of the synthesis to the absolute zero.” The biosophist is fully aware of the many marvellous metaphysics offering "peace in heart," "reconciliation with the world" and "atonement with the almighty," or the like, to anyone who is willing to join this or that suificating sect, and replace intellectually honest experience with fictitious world views. The spiritual vacuum is often so painful that if the fiction is sufficiently permanent, it does not seem to matter much if it should turn out not to be so terribly pleasant
  • Psychologists are themselves uncertain as to where the line should be drawn between “normality” and “abnormality”. Similarly controversial is mental "disorder." This does not imply that there are no obvious cases where "cure" or "treatment" is clearly suggested. If a student has difficulties in getting to the university because of fear of stepping on cracks in the pavement, this is not a problem to be taken seriously on the cognitive level; in other words, it doesn’t raise the problem: "Is it really dangerous to step on cracks in the pavement?" It is quite a different story if the student has "working inhibitions," because he has struck up against the stark problem of death and annihilation. His stomach is clawed to shreds, his breathing throttled by the anguish of nothingness, the dread of being no more. His behavior, his feelings and emotions may deviate so far from what is presently considered customary that there is no question of their abnormality, in at least one possible sense of "abnormality." But the reasons for his "deviation" may not be troubles in adjusting to narrow "social" aspects of his environment, as in the case with our first student, but caused by an unusual awakening to a clear and penetrating awareness of a vast "cosmic" environment to which there is no adjustment possible.


  • Why did nature not ordain that one animal should not live by the death of another? Nature, being inconstant and taking pleasure in creating and making constantly new lives and forms, because she knows that her terrestrial materials become thereby augmented, is more ready and more swift in her creating, than time in his destruction; and so she has ordained that many animals shall be food for others. Nay, this not satisfying her desire, to the same end she frequently sends forth certain poisonous and pestilential vapours upon the vast increase and congregation of animals; and most of all upon men, who increase vastly because other animals do not feed upon them; and, the causes being removed, the effects would not follow. This earth therefore seeks to lose its life, desiring only continual reproduction; and as, by the argument you bring forward and demonstrate, like effects always follow like causes, animals are the image of the world.
  • A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself; but still I loved life. This ridiculous foible is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics; for is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry continually a burden which one can always throw down? to detest existence and yet to cling to one's existence? in brief, to caress the serpent which devours us, till he has eaten our very heart?
  • Life has so few charms!
    And yet we desire it.
    No more pleasure, no more power,
    in the horrors of death.
    A dead lion is not worth
    a midge that breathes.
    O unfortunate mortal!
    Whether your soul is enjoying
    the moment given to you,
    or whether death is ending it,
    both are torture.
    It is better not to have been born.
  • A caliph once, when his last hour had come,
    This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:
    "To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear
    What thou dost lack in thy immensity—
    Evil and ignorance, distress and sin."
    He might have added one thing further—hope.
  • Happiness is but a dream, and only pain is real. I have thought so for eighty-four years, and I know of no better plan than to resign myself to the inevitable, and reflect that flies were born to be devoured by spiders, and man to be consumed by care.


  • Thus, brought before the tribunal of ethics, the cosmos stands condemned. The conscience of man must revolt against the gross immorality of nature.
    • George C. Williams, "Huxleys Evolution and Ethics in Sociobiological Perspective", Zygon, Vol. 23, Iss. 4 (1988)


  • One night in long bygone times, man awoke and saw himself.
    He saw that he was naked under cosmos, homeless in his own body. All things dissolved before his testing thought, wonder above wonder, horror above horror unfolded in his mind.
    Then woman too awoke and said it was time to go and slay. And he fetched his bow and arrow, a fruit of the marriage of spirit and hand, and went outside beneath the stars. But as the beasts arrived at their waterholes where he expected them of habit, he felt no more the tiger’s bound in his blood, but a great psalm about the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive.
    That day he did not return with prey, and when they found him by the next new moon, he was sitting dead by the waterhole.
  • When a human being takes his life in depression, this is a natural death of spiritual causes. The modern barbarity of 'saving' the suicidal is based on a hair-raising misapprehension of the nature of existence.

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