Philosophical pessimism

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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.

Arranged alphabetically by author or source:
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B[edit]

  • 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.

C[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Joseph Conrad, "Letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham" (14th Jan. 1898)

D[edit]

  • 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.
    • Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (2006) ISBN 978-1400827480*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.
    • Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (2006) ISBN 978-1400827480

K[edit]

  • 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.

L[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

M[edit]

  • 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.

O[edit]

  • 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.

S[edit]

  • One simple test of the claim that the pleasure in the world outweighs the pain [...] is to compare the feelings of an animal that is devouring another with those of the animal being devoured.
  • 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.

V[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

W[edit]

  • 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)

Z[edit]

  • 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.

See also[edit]