In defence of pessimism

The ethics of recognizing life's dark side

No one likes a pessimist. But pessimism is unfairly maligned and misunderstood. Far from being about making gloomy predictions about the future, pessimism is a philosophical outlook that acknowledges the darker side to life. Instead of seeing pain and suffering as unlucky, accidental phenomena, pessimism recognizes them as intrinsic parts of existence. That need not lead to resignation and hopelessness. Indeed pessimism can ultimately be more motivating than optimism, argues Mara van der Lugt.


In an age marked by such overwhelming cause for concern for the state of the planet and the future of mankind as ours, the word pessimism has received a surprising amount of bad press.

Noam Chomsky, in the tellingly titled collection Optimism over Despair, puts the question of optimism and pessimism as something of a forking path: we can either be optimistic about the possibilities for the future, or we can be pessimistic, i.e. desperate, i.e. just “give up”. Similarly, and almost simultaneously, Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now makes his plea for the belief in progress against what he sees as a widespread current of “pessimism”, or a belief in cultural decline.

It is generally a good idea to be at least mildly sceptical when encountering such sweeping statements, such denunciations of what is obviously or evidently a widespread fad­ – and we should be all the more suspicious when no convincing examples are given of a phenomenon of which we are all supposed to be so acutely aware. After all: who, these days, calls themselves a pessimist with any conviction? When was pessimism ever a thing that was “in vogue”? And who says that pessimism is the same thing as believing in decline or resigning in despair?

It is in fact much more difficult to find a self-proclaimed pessimist than a self-proclaimed optimist, whether in politics, philosophy, science or everyday life, and the few examples we can find are hardly ever straightforward cases. Thus John Gray, perhaps the philosopher most notorious for his pessimism, will not take on the term without qualification: “I am hopefully pessimistic”, he says on the BBC-programme Desert Island Discs. This caution, this tentative nature of his self-description, and the very adjective he chooses to moderate it, are each telling: they reveal what pessimism is often accused of and has to defend against. But the things we most often associate with pessimism are far removed from what it really is; they are based on a mixture of misgivings, prejudices, and concerns that fail to do it justice. For the truth is that pessimism represents a much richer, deeper, and more interesting view on life than the dulled-down version lets us see.

The ethics of optimism and pessimism

So, what are optimism and pessimism? The standard view is that these terms simply refer to our chosen expectations about the future: an optimist believes things will get better; a pessimist believes things will get worse. Aside from the fact that this definition gets pessimism (as well as optimism) wrong in important ways, the main problem with this representation of both optimism and pessimism is that it sets the latter up for failure. If the two outlooks are supposed to tell us what we can expect, and therefore what we can hope for from the future, then optimism obviously wins, on moral grounds. The intuition is that pessimism leads to despair, which will in turn lead to resignation: to giving up. These, again, are Chomsky’s alternatives: we can choose either optimism or despair (that is: pessimism). If this is indeed the choice before us, then Chomsky is right, and ethics itself moves against pessimism. We ought not to be pessimists if to be a pessimist means giving up on our common future, and on our fellow man. 

Far from resting in a belief that things are going to get worse, pessimism in most cases doesn’t have to do with the future at all: rather, it is a philosophy that tries to give a place to the darker side of life, to the reality of evil and pain and suffering in human (as well as animal) existence.

The problem with the common-sense view of pessimism is that it relies on a mistaken conception of what pessimism, in its deepest and most significant manifestations, really is. Far from resting in a belief that things are going to get worse, pessimism in most cases doesn’t have to do with the future at all: rather, it is a philosophy that tries to give a place to the darker side of life, to the reality of evil and pain and suffering in human (as well as animal) existence. Furthermore, insofar as pessimism is oriented on a view towards the future, most philosophical pessimists will tell you that to be a pessimist is not to expect the worst, but rather to expect nothing at all. Pessimism has to do rather with a limitation of what we can possibly know about what life has in store for us. It is, therefore, not at all a positive belief in decline, but rather a negative belief, a refusal to believe that progress is a given. Thus, to those people who would cleverly say “I’m not a pessimist or an optimist: I am a realist”, the pessimists could answer that this is just another way of saying they are a pessimist, in that they suspend judgment on the question of what is or is not going to happen.

But this view cast upon the future is only a secondary and derivative part of what philosophical pessimism is at its most ardent and most interesting: an attempt to paint an alternative picture of the reality of human life. This, not the caricature we have become accustomed to, is the beating heart of pessimism. It is also its original conception.

The reason the pessimists object so vehemently to the system of optimism is that it neglects the reality of suffering, or worse, explains it away. For instance, the optimists argue that we suffer because we have sinned, or we suffer because pain is useful to us, or we suffer by our own choice, since we have the power to rise beyond our suffering. The ethical drive of pessimism is that this is no way to speak of human experience: that this implies a failure in compassion for our fellow sufferers, or even that it can serve to make their suffering worse. No consolation could be less welcome than to be told, in your suffering, that you suffer pointlessly; that you suffer through your own doing. This, say the pessimists, is to double suffering with guilt.

On the other hand, the optimists too are driven by an ethical motivation, their argument being that pessimists exaggerate human suffering and so it is they who make suffering worse, by adding to the fact of suffering a reflection upon that suffering. The pessimists are now accused not only of ingratitude to their creator, but of moral weakness: here already is the view that there is something desperate and immoral about pessimism; that it is a failure of the will.

This moral concern on either side is, on my view, precisely what saves both philosophies: it gives them an integrity that they would lack as merely abstract considerations. It manifests a sense of engagement that takes several forms throughout the tradition, revealing itself fully in the question of how to speak sensitively and considerately of human suffering: how to find a language of compassion and consolation that nevertheless does justice to the breadth of our experiences. It is also what gives coherence to both traditions, which are defined precisely by their ethical opposition to each other. Thus what Voltaire and Rousseau, in their famous clash over the Lisbon earthquake, are really arguing about is not the abstract philosophical question of whether we live in the best of all possible worlds, but the proper grounding of consolation as well as hope. The last word of Voltaire’s Poem on the Lisbon Disaster is, famously, espérance.

Pessimism is meant to help us find some kind of consolation in the fact that our suffering is not accidental and is not exceptional, but is an intrinsic part of our existence in this world.

It is, then, tragic, that throughout the history of philosophy, and up to the current day, both traditions have failed to recognize this ethical drive in the opponent, and to take the opposing philosophy truly seriously. Hence the division that continues today in even the most commonsensical uses of the terms optimism and pessimism; hence also the caricatures that have resulted on both sides, and especially those associated with pessimism.

And yet the person most responsible for pessimism’s bad name is also the philosopher whose name is most closely associated with pessimism: that arch-pessimist, Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer’s (bad) influence

The reason for this is that Schopenhauer, in his argument that life is marked deeply and principally by suffering, to the extent that suffering is the very end of life, leads us to the exact conclusion that latter-day pessimists are most eager to avoid: that we should cease to affirm life, and turn instead to resignation. In order to achieve “salvation”, on Schopenhauer’s view, we must radically turn away from this existence, which means turning from our pleasures as well our pains. We must give up happiness as our ideal, and go beyond ourselves, our desires, and especially our will, in order to go beyond the world.

This kind of resignation, haunted as it is by dark ascetic musings, seems to confirm precisely that intuitive conception of pessimism as a kind of hopelessness, a philosophy of giving up. It also raises two questions that strike at the heart of pessimism’s bad reputation. First, doesn’t this kind of philosophical gloom make for a very potent argument for suicide? Second, doesn’t it mean we should just stop caring about anything, including our fellow man? These are the kinds of questions that have resulted in a bad name for not only Schopenhauer’s particular brand of pessimism, but for pessimism more generally. And yet Schopenhauer was the first to answer these questions in ways that should be enough to change our minds.

Far from dissuading us from ethical or political action, the point of pessimism is to motivate us.

First of all: his is not an argument for suicide. Suicide, says Schopenhauer, is not an answer to the problem posed by existence. An awareness of the reality of pessimism should place us on a path of philosophical and spiritual enlightenment, in which we learn to understand the illusory nature of most of our knowledge and even of our own identities: of that which distinguishes us from other people. Pessimism is meant to help us find some kind of consolation in the fact that our suffering is not accidental and is not exceptional, but is an intrinsic part of our existence in this world. True resignation, for Schopenhauer, is an attempt to achieve salvation by conquering ourselves, which can only be done by living in acknowledgment of our human condition, not by choosing death instead (though what precisely is meant here by “salvation” remains somewhat mysterious).

​As for the second question, far from making ethics impossible, Schopenhauer wants his argument to be a foundation for ethics: there is perhaps no philosopher who has given as much weight to the ethical mechanism of sympathy or compassion as Arthur Schopenhauer. His central idea is that, by going beyond our individual wills and pursuing an ethic of personal resignation, we will recognize that deep down we are all connected by a reality that is greater and stronger than our individual identities; hence I will recognize your suffering as my suffering, you will recognize mine as yours, and we will all want to do what we can to reduce the suffering we see in the (human as well as animal) world. It thus becomes impossible to turn away from suffering on the grounds that it isn’t I who suffer: for Schopenhauer, identity and individuality are illusory, so that a single creature’s suffering properly belongs to all creatures. While optimism, for Schopenhauer, entrenches us in our personal interests and desires and makes us insensitive to the suffering of others, pessimism grounds an ethic of extreme compassion, of suffering-with and feeling-with the other. Far from a glorification of suffering, it is an extremely compassionate philosophy. True “goodness of heart”, says Schopenhauer, “identifies all beings with its own nature.”

Hopeful pessimism

Of course, there is still reason to be uncomfortable with almost every aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of pessimism, and especially with his ethic of resignation, the giving up of any hope of happiness altogether. Schopenhauer calls this resignation, but it sounds rather like despair.

Contrary to this, there is much to be said for an optimist ethic that tells us to look for the good, the lighter side in all things; one that warns us against focusing too much on what Schopenhauer calls “the terrible side of life”, lest we lose heart and hope, lest we forfeit our capacity for goodness and kindness and for joy itself. Such an ethic would remind us that we must always believe, even in the darkest of times, that things can get better – which is a view that Schopenhauer does not allow us, though other pessimists do. This is also what Chomsky is getting at in his eulogy of optimism over despair. The question is whether what he is getting at is really optimism, or rather hope.

Could the two not go together, then? Could there be such a thing as hopeful pessimism, as John Gray suggests (which to many of us would seem like an oxymoron) – and could such hopeful pessimism not perform the same tasks as Chomsky’s optimism, and perform them better? I think it can – and should.

While it is deeply mistaken to suggest that pessimism is the same as fatalism or giving up, the concern behind this suggestion is nevertheless a valid one. This is the concern, voiced most clearly by Chomsky, that if we become too convinced that things are going to get worse whatever we do, we’ll end up doing nothing at all. But, as I have argued, this is not at all the point of pessimism, properly understood. If even that strand of pessimism most oriented towards resignation (Schopenhauer’s version) retains a profound ethical orientation; if even here the recognition of suffering in the world is tightly linked to the commitment to lessening that suffering – what this tells us about pessimism is that this is a philosophy that sees itself as charged with the highest ethical potential. Far from dissuading us from ethical or political action, the point of pessimism is to motivate us. 

More importantly, the fatalistic concern raised by Chomsky goes both ways, and cuts optimism with the same blade. If it can be said that pessimism risks demotivation, it could also be said that, if we are too optimistic, too convinced that things will turn out fine in the end, whatever we do, we’ll equally end up doing nothing. Why worry ourselves about a complex problem such as climate change if we already believe everything will sort itself out in the end; that progress will prevail? How is such an attitude more likely to motivate us than one that takes seriously the reality of damage, the reasonableness of due concern?

This is of course as unfair a representation of optimism as the opposing view is of pessimism. Again, the point behind both viewpoints and philosophies is their ethical drive: both are directed towards a common orientation, which is to make sense of suffering, to offer hope as well as consolation; and, at least to some extent, to try to improve the human condition insofar as it can be improved. The difference between both traditions resides in the kinds of moral sources that are prioritized. To remain with the example of climate change, the optimists believe we will be best motivated if we draw from humanity’s success stories, such as new technologies and the vast human potential for change and innovation, while not focusing too much on the reasons we have for despair. In contrast to this, the pessimists hold not only that ethics demands we do justice to the reality of suffering and evils (including the possibility of impending disaster), but also that this is exactly what will motivate us to want to make a difference: it is precisely a recognition of the dire state of affairs in the world that is needed to impel us to action. The disagreement, then, is ultimately over what is most capable of morally paralysing us: overemphasizing our capacity or rather our incapacity? 

While many have surely drawn hope from the belief that our happiness is entirely in our hands, this is not simply a message of hope. It can become an imperative, and as soon as it does, it reveals its ugly side, in this overburdening of the will. This, not incidentally, was precisely what early pessimists such as Bayle and Voltaire were reacting so strongly against: the idea that we are as responsible for our suffering as for our happiness. If this gains us hope, it fails in consolation.

Noam Chomsky argues for optimism over despair. We might equally, and more meaningfully, argue for hope over optimism.

If optimism risks, on the one hand, an overburdening of the will, and on the other, an understatement of the reality of true and dire damage done to the world and to ourselves – could not pessimism serve us better as a moral source? And where pessimism risks stumbling into resignation – could not hope help us to mind the gap? If optimism and pessimism both have their faces turned towards a common goal, could we not find in both the materials by which to travel forwards?

Why, then, not a philosophy of hopeful pessimism to guide us into the future?


This article is an edited version of Pessimism, originally published in The Philosopher journal.

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