The promise of pessimism

Life when optimism is unconscionable

Explaining evil in a world made by God perplexed theist philosophers for centuries. When Schopenhauer confronted his ‘honest atheism’, and faced the possibility that existence has no meaning, the question was no longer a choice between optimism and pessimism, but how one can live as a pessimist, writes David Bather Woods.


When dividing one number by another, sometimes we are left with a remainder. This is how Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) viewed theistic optimism. No matter how much we try to make sense of the world as being created by a supremely wise, powerful, benevolent entity, there is always an unresolved leftover, something that just doesn’t make sense in those terms. Examples might include poverty, famine, or a deadly pandemic.

For centuries before Schopenhauer, philosophers had been trying to resolve the contradiction between the goodness of God and the misery of the world. Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) represents a high-water mark in this tradition. He even gave a name to its central task: theodicy, meaning a judicial defence of God. The word optimism originally referred to the defence of God that Leibniz tried to make, namely that God selects the best – that is, the optimal – of all possible worlds.

Schopenhauer was not the first philosopher to note that, contra Leibniz, our world doesn’t seem like the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire (1694–1778) made this point in his satire Candide, or Optimism, the story of a naïve protagonist, Candide, who doggedly clings to the doctrine of optimism which he was taught by his tutor Pangloss, a cipher for Leibniz, despite facing non-stop adversity, including earthquakes, tsunamis, slavery and torture.

No matter how much we try to make sense of the world as being created by a supremely wise, powerful, benevolent entity, there is always an unresolved leftover.

According to Schopenhauer, only one philosopher in this tradition had started to realise that we will always struggle make sense of misery and suffering if we start by assuming that God exists. This was Pierre Bayle (1647–1706). Bayle was not an atheist, but he did think that it is beyond the power of human reason to explain how we go from an all-loving, all-powerful God to plagues and forest fires. The remainder cannot be rationalised away, as Schopenhauer would put it, so if belief in God is to continue at all, then it must instead rest on the power of faith, not reason. Impressed by his scepticism about the powers of reason, Voltaire namechecks Bayle in his anti-optimistic ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’: ‘[I] turn more hopefully to learned Bayle./ With even poised scale Bayle bids me doubt’.

According to Schopenhauer, then, Bayle was ahead of the curve. Chronologically, however, Bayle’s arguments came before Leibniz’s. In fact, one of Leibniz’s main aims in doing theodicy was to refute Bayle’s position. As a committed rationalist, Leibniz insisted that faith must coincide with reason: that is, anything that is revealed in scripture can also, in principle, be proved by a rational demonstration. Still, even Leibniz resisted the call to give a full and detailed account for every misfortune in the world:

‘M. Bayle ask a little too much: he wishes for a detailed exposition of how evil is connected with the best possible scheme for the universe. That would be a complete examination of phenomena: but I do not undertake to give it; nor am I bound to do so, for there is no obligation to do that which is impossible for us in our existing state’

For Leibniz, it’s enough to prove that, assuming God exists, our world must be the best of all possible worlds. It’s beyond mere mortals like us, however, to show exactly how.

Adrian Moore, Mark Vernon and Angie Hobbs consider whether philosophy has the power to change how we think.


For Schopenhauer, this isn’t good enough. It’s not the job of philosophy to provide reassurance that, despite appearances, the world does make sense in the way that we hope. Rather, it’s the job of philosophy to make sense of the world on the basis of the way it appears to us. If seeing the world as the best of all possible worlds doesn’t make sense, because so much about it appears sub-optimal, then we should try a different way of seeing it.

Schopenhauer’s way of seeing the world has no trouble explaining the misery that optimism struggles with. After optimists ‘have sung their song of the best possible worlds’, they stumble over ‘the question of the origin of evil, of the monstrous, nameless evil, of the horrible, heart-rending misery in the world’, whereas ‘if the existence of evil is already woven together with that of the world in the foundations of a system, then it need not fear this spectre’. In other words, the best way to make sense of a world that seems bad is to think that it is bad. And that’s exactly what Schopenhauer thought.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) praised Schopenhauer’s move to abandon the assumptions of theism and instead build his philosophy on the assumption of atheism. He called this Schopenhauer’s ‘honest atheism’ and considered it a turning point in European philosophy. The important feature of Schopenhauer’s atheistic outlook, according to Nietzsche, was not just that it gave up on God, but that it faced up to the questions raised by this abandonment. In particular, Schopenhauer faced the terrifying question, ‘Does existence have any meaning at all?’ The fact that Schopenhauer dared to raise this question, rather than brush it under the carpet, was a testament to Schopenhauer’s good intellectual conscience. It would have been intellectually dishonest to continue with the theistic way of interpreting the meaning of existence, as if this interpretation remained credible.

For Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, then, the question of optimism versus pessimism is a matter of intellectual conscience. Optimism, they think, is simply unconscionable. The question then becomes not whether we should be optimists or pessimists – to remain in good conscience, we should be pessimists – but rather how we should live as pessimists.

Perhaps we can even affirm life through our sufferings – or, stronger still, it’s facing and overcoming our sufferings that give our lives their meaning.

This is where Schopenhauer and Nietzsche start to differ. For Schopenhauer, we require a way out of life, and the true way out, he thinks, is saintly asceticism. Although very few achieve it, extinguishing the flames of desire by denying oneself is the only path to salvation. In this Schopenhauer was influenced and inspired by classical Indian philosophy, especially Buddhism and Hinduism. He agreed with their picture and assessment of the world, at least as he interpreted them, as well as their ethical practices.

Nietzsche’s project, on the other hand, was many different things, but one of them was a sustained response to Schopenhauer’s life-denying pessimism. This doesn’t make Nietzsche an optimist, but just a different kind of pessimist. He still believed that human existence has an essentially tragic character, that it is typically full of pain and anguish. But in contrast to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche searched for a life-affirming philosophy, according to which we can say ‘Yes!’ to life despite its sufferings. Perhaps we can even affirm life through our sufferings – or, stronger still, it’s facing and overcoming our sufferings that give our lives their meaning. It was Nietzsche, after all, who said: ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’.

Where Schopenhauer looked to Indian philosophy for inspiration, Nietzsche, like many European philosophers before and since, looked to Greece. He did not, however, look to the Greece of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, but further back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Heraclitus, but perhaps most importantly to the Greek tragedians like Aeschylus and Sophocles. Originally a professor of classics, Nietzsche realized very early on in his philosophical writings that in their tragic age the Greeks had managed to pull off something extraordinary.

Hope depends on a degree of uncertainty, otherwise it would be prediction, expectation, or even knowledge. We hope because we aren’t sure.

Rather than hide away the darker side of life, they quite literally put it right at the centre of their culture for everyone to see: dramatized stories of incest, rape, suicide and murder. The Greeks were joyful but not naïve; they knew what lurked beneath, but instead of fleeing from it, they faced it, and in a way that only enhanced their cultural powers. After the god of wine and revelry, Nietzsche gave the name Dionysian pessimism to the kind of pessimism that has the strength to affirm life, which he contrasted with Schopenhauer’s world-renouncing pessimism.

Perhaps one of the reasons we are resistant to pessimism is that it seems incompatible with realistic hope. This may be so. But we don’t need to revert to optimism in order to preserve hope. In fact, hope depends not on any certainty about how well things will turn out. On the contrary, hope depends on a degree of uncertainty, otherwise it would be prediction, expectation, or even knowledge. We hope because we aren’t sure.

Another post-Schopenhauerian philosopher to tackle pessimism and optimism took up neither of them. Like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, William James (1842–1910) was under no impression that life seems good, and even considered ending his life (as recently discussed at length in John Kaag’s excellent book Sick Souls, Heathy Minds). Still, on reflection, he thought of pessimism as a ‘religious disease’, because like religious believers, pessimists crave for meaning in life, except they found none. The two possible cures for this disease are either to suppress and eliminate the craving for meaning, or to try, somehow, to satisfy it.

If there is any hope in the latter option, we have to regard the pessimist’s conclusion as premature. Again, this isn’t to say we should revert to the optimistic assumption that the world is truly as we’d hoped despite appearances. Rather, to use James’s language, we have to be willing to believe in the goodness of existence in order to be receptive to any evidence that it is. Let’s hope the evidence comes soon.

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