• darthbarracuda
    2k
    This is something that I have thought about for a very long time now. It is my belief that the classic pessimists (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran, etc) espoused what I would label “comfortable pessimism”, or perhaps “convenient pessimism”.

    What do I mean by “comfortable pessimism”? I mean a descriptive belief that establishes the world and its contents as negative in function and quality, but which there is an absent adequate prescription for its residents. In particular, an ethical prescription.

    I will now provide some examples to justify my claim.

    The first example is of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the greatest German philosophers of all time. Truly, an undeniable genius and the number-one icon for philosophical pessimism. Here we have him asking us to compare the suffering experienced by the prey with the pleasure experienced by the predator, or pointing out the tedium and pointlessness of life in general. His prescription to those who read him? Detachment from the material world, isolation, contemplation, asceticism.

    This is aesthetically pleasing. Rejecting the world of conflict and strife for a bubble of security. A simple life.

    Yet Schopenhauer betrays his own foundations when he became famous later in life. He went out partying and auctioning and traveling. Not exactly the life of an ascetic.

    But we have to make sure we separate the actions of the man with the theoretical prescriptions he provided. So I’ll attack his prescriptions, or, rather, the lack thereof.

    When Schopenhauer was in Berlin (I think?), there was a massive cholera outbreak. Schopenhauer said he was a “cholera-phobe” and promptly packed up and left, saving himself from a disease. This quotation shows his deep aversion towards the world in general, especially on the aesthetic level.

    He later travelled all across Europe, thinking himself to be the bringer of truth to humanity. In his opinion, he thought he shouldn’t interact with the common rabble in the same way Chinese missionaries shouldn’t interact with the Chinese. Thus we have a clear example of separation: a sense of entitlement and superiority.

    It’s true that Schopenhauer was very intelligent. But it’s also striking how a man as perceptive to global suffering as he was, he simultaneously seemed to care very little for it. He focused instead of pursuing Truth, and once asked himself what the world would think about himself in the year 2100. He contemplated getting a wife later in his years. After he died, he left all his money to charity - a noble gesture, yet neither did Schopenhauer have any close friends or family in which this would go to.

    Despite his acknowledgement of suffering, Schopenhauer continued to see a hierarchy in the world, one in which he no doubt thought himself as residing in the upper echelons.

    Additionally, he seemed to have thought that the world was still in some sense aesthetically redeeming. He was fascinated with nature, fascinated with finding out the ultimate reality of the universe. It is exactly this fascination that I use as justification for the view that Schopenhauer was decadent. Schopenhauer was able to enjoy himself in a surrounding world of suffering. Considering Schopenhauer saw married couples as the ultimate conspirators to the continuation of human suffering, I believe I am justified in criticizing Schopenhauer himself as an inactive bystander (passive accomplice) to a world he otherwise saw as horrible.

    If it could be summarized, then, Schopenhauers’ ethics would seem to largely consist in “not my fucking problem”. It’s simply enough to recognize that suffering exists.

    The same can be seen in the philosophies of Cioran or Leopardi. Leopardi, for example, thought the only thing that could really “save” a person was complete isolation from the material world. And Cioran curiously seemed to have embraced suffering in some sense as a livelihood - he once envied Beckett for his despair. Once again, we have the aestheticization of suffering, or the mere abstraction of a negative feeling. The romanticization of something that really is not romantic at all, but dirty, painful, narrowing, and bad.

    Buddhist ethics is a bit different in that it talks about the existence of bodhisattvas, or beings who achieve nirvana yet stick around anyway to help everyone else out. True altruists. Many Buddhist philosophers of the past could be seen as consequentialists. For Buddhists, it is not simply enough to point out the suffering in the world, but to actively promote the destruction of it, as suffering is something that should not exist.

    Then we come to Nietzsche, who wanted to say “yes” to everything, including suffering. Suffering, for Nietzsche, is also aestheticized as a necessary prerequisite for power. For Nietzsche, a single joyous experience justifies all existence. This is inspiring but ultimately implausible and actually insulting to those who are suffering greatly.

    So, to wrap up, this is what I see to be characteristic features of “comfortable/convenient pessimism”:

    • Excessive individuality and self-centeredness, manifesting as isolation and a sense of entitlement/superiority
    • Aestheticization of suffering, manifesting as a romantic narrative more than a feeling
    • Acknowledgement of others’ suffering, but a general indifference to it, sometimes manifesting as amusement or disgust and a focus on one’s own priorities (“not my fucking problem” or “I’ve done ‘enough’ ”, aka not having the stomach for active participation)
    • The theoretical rejection of the world (negativity) paired with distinctly affirmative procedures, manifesting as a sort of “redemption” or “habit”, i.e. art, calligraphy, fine cuisine, philosophy, etc.
    • General melancholy, and an aversion to horror (Cioran as an exception), and a tendency to focus on maximizing one’s own comfort and security (i.e. Schopenhauer’s plush pillows and poodle)

    Thus I believe that the “comfortable pessimist” betrays their own descriptive foundations by failing to follow-through and pursue their pessimism to a prescriptive end. For the comfortable pessimist, it is enough to merely recognize that suffering is everywhere, but there is no responsibility to clean it up. Instead, the comfortable pessimist focuses on making their own life as comfortable and easy as possible. Thus this sort of pessimism is often accompanied by misanthropy, which oftentimes entails other people as being unworthy of attention.

    Unfortunately, this makes comfortable pessimism an inactive and thus self-fulfilling prophecy. One should not be surprised when the world continues be to quite bad when one does nothing about it.

    Active, purpose-driven pessimism eschews aesthetic comfort and decadence for a prescription to end the problem once and for all. This entails participating in and supporting public institutions focused on maximizing welfare and making the world a better place, and actively advocating pessimistic philosophies, within the constraints of self-preservation.

    Active pessimism recognize how inappropriate it is to find pure enjoyment in the midst of irredeemable suffering. It recognizes that if you enjoy being a pessimist as an identity, you're doing it wrong.

    Discuss.
  • Marchesk
    981
    What is the point of active pessimism? If life is such that one should be pessimistic about it, why bother with some virtuous ascetic attempt? Why not just enjoy what you can, and avoid as much suffering as reasonably possible, without being a total asshole? You know, what most people do.

    Do you get points after you dife for having lived an actively pessimistic life? Do you get to pat yourself on the back for being virtuous and feel pride in your embracement of life's misery? Why would that matter? Or does it just make one feel good?

    Me, I'd rather drink a beer and pass the time doing something half-way enjoyable or interesting.
  • darthbarracuda
    2k
    What is the point of active pessimism?Marchesk

    Actually, I'd change this to say what is the point of comfortable pessimism? If nothing substantial changes based on your beliefs, what's the point? Especially when something like this has the inherent potential to be practical and not just theoretical.

    Me, I'd rather drink a beer and pass the time doing something half-way enjoyable or interesting.Marchesk

    As would I, but this doesn't make anything better. I'd be willing to argue that, from a consequentialist perspective, not doing anything could be considered criminal negligence in some cases (like a drowning child), or inappropriate apathy towards the rest of the world.

    Now, if everyone were consequentialist, our responsibilities would drastically decrease. Unfortunately we live in an non-ideal world where not everyone recognizes the importance of suffering, and so we have to switch to non-ideal theory.
  • javra
    81
    I get what you mean by comfortable pessimism … in some ways reminds me Pink Floyd’s “comfortably numb”.

    The active pessimist would be active in trying for a better context; from a better personal life to a better world, as the case might be. This requires some measure of hope in what could be by definition.

    The presence of hope in some possible future may then not equate to optimism. But does it still warrant the label of "pessimist”? If so, how so?

    ---------

    BTW, a quote from a guy named George Will that I find fitting:

    The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.
  • 0 thru 9
    104
    It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine). :-d (and getting deep REM sleep)
  • StreetlightX
    753
    But surely such 'active pessimism' would simply no longer be pessimism any more? Wouldn't 'active pessimism' simply be.... optimism? One of my favorite little tracts I read this year was Eugene Thacker's Cosmic Pessimism. What I very much like about it is the way it conveys pessimism as consistent precisely to the degree that it fails to be so:

    "Had it more self-assurance and better social skills, pessimism would turn its disenchantment into a religion, possibly calling itself The Great Refusal. But there is a negation in pessimism that refuses even such a Refusal, an awareness that, from the start, it has already failed, and that the culmination of all that is, is that all is for naught. Pessimism tries very hard to present itself in the low, sustained tones of a Requiem Mass, or the tectonic rumbling of Tibetan chant. But it frequently lets loose dissonant notes at once plaintive and pathetic. Often, its voice cracks, its weighty words abruptly reduced to mere shards of guttural sound".

    ..."The very term “pessimism” suggests a school of thought a movement, even a community. But pessimism always has a membership of one — maybe two. Ideally, of course, it would have a membership of none, with only a scribbled, illegible note left behind by someone long forgotten. But this seems unrealistic, though one can always hope"

    "And all of this shadowed by an impasse, a primordial insignificance, the impossibility of ever adequately accounting for one’s relationship to thought — all that remains of pessimism is the desiderata of affects — agonistic, impassive, defiant, reclusive, filled with sorrow and flailing at that architectonic chess match called philosophy, a flailing that pessimism tries to raise to the level of an art form (though what usually results is slapstick)."

    I'm just saying - doesn't an 'active pessimism' betray... pessimism?
  • The Great Whatever
    1.9k
    Nice, I agree! Most of these pessimists aestheticize their own views and are in some sense ffete and looking for escape through giving up. You can't lose if you don't play.

    But I think a thoroughgoing pessimism voids the effects of any prescription – it doesn't matter what you do, and not in a meta-prescriptive sense that you 'ought not' to do anything, either. So what we have is an observation about these men, not a criticism of them. If pessimism has truth to it, these observations cease to be interesting.
  • darthbarracuda
    2k
    I'm just saying - doesn't an 'active pessimism' betray... pessimism?StreetlightX

    This is perhaps one of the reasons why I'm tempted to eschew the term "pessimism" entirely. "Pessimism" is only "pessimistic" insofar as it is compared to more optimistic philosophies.

    Instead, I prefer the term "negative", emphasis on the "negate", as opposed to "affirmative". Or perhaps rejectionist, although this too carries ascetic connotations. "Negative" it is. While affirmative thinkers base their philosophies on the assumption that life and existence are at least acceptable, negative thinkers find inherent flaws in the system that threaten to undermine the whole thing.

    So perhaps you are right that an active pessimism betrays pessimism, but only in the sense that there are two sorts of pessimism - the psychological "everything is futile and everything will fail, waah" and the metaphysical "things are not good". And it seems that people such as Schopenhauer unknowingly adopted both at the same time. When in reality there is nothing logically preventing someone from being a pessimist and yet simultaneously euthymic about the prospects of the pessimistic goal.

    You can't lose if you don't play.The Great Whatever

    At the same time, though, they seem to find some value in the irony they produce when they advocate views like these and yet turn around act possibly even worse than their own contemporaries. If philosophy is anything to its etymology, you would think the wise would do something with their wisdom instead of keeping it all cooped up and sacred.

    But I think a thoroughgoing pessimism voids the effects of any prescription – it doesn't matter what you do, and not in a meta-prescriptive sense that you 'ought not' to do anything, either. So what we have is an observation about these men, not a criticism of them. If pessimism has truth to it, these observations cease to be interesting.The Great Whatever

    I'm not sure I would still consider that "pessimism" - just straight up nihilism. Nothing matters because what you do doesn't matter. It's interesting, if you ever take a safari over to YouTube and watch all the bickering between all the self-proclaimed torchbearers of truth, there's typically two sides that both use the same strategy. There's those who bitch and moan about those who have children ("breeders") yet are content with not doing anything about it by claiming nothing matters anyway, and then there's those who try to salvage any sort of value to birth by pretending there is no value and that nothing matters.

    To me, "nihilism" is one of those vogue terms people throw around to ignore those who don't have the opportunity to understand what nihilism even is.
  • The Great Whatever
    1.9k
    Isn't pessimism 'worse' than nihilism, in its valuation of the world? It seems that the pessimist is yet more extreme than the nihilist in the extent to which he voids the relevance of such observations.

    Unless your view is that some sort of activity can lessen the poor quality of the world, despite its being in some way fundamentally or irreparably bad. I'm not quite sure of that, largely because I believe that humans are animals that aren't smart enough to figure out how to make things better. But it's a logical possibility.
  • darthbarracuda
    2k
    Isn't pessimism 'worse' than nihilism, in its valuation of the world? It seems that the pessimist is yet more extreme than the nihilist in the extent to which he voids the relevance of such observations.The Great Whatever

    To the pessimist, nihilism is worse than pessimism because it ignores values and is thus a bystander perpetrator of the whole disvalue game.

    To the nihilist, this is all dumb and there's no value for anything at all, including nihilism.

    Like I said, I see nihilism as a cop-out. In the past, "nihilism" was seen as anything that threatened the status quo, the teleological status of human civilization set up by the Christian theologians of the middle ages. Nowadays it's seen as a rejection of all value. It's the final stance a person will adopt - a position of no position - in order to deny the reality of value in the world. For the acceptance of nihilism rests upon value itself.

    Unless your view is that some sort of activity can lessen the poor quality of the world, despite its being in some way fundamentally or irreparably bad. I'm not quite sure of that, largely because I believe that humans are animals that aren't smart enough to figure out how to make things better. But it's a logical possibility.The Great Whatever

    Too many times do people make the mistake that it's pointless to do anything because we'll never fully succeed. Will we ever get everyone to stop popping out babies? Will we ever have the opportunity to nuke the planet (I would prefer more peaceful methods...)? My bet is that we won't.

    What I still hold on to though is the fact that the world can be improved without being fully good. There's no need for a good outcome to act in the right way. Getting a C+ on a test is better than an F.
  • The Great Whatever
    1.9k
    What I still hold on to though is the fact that the world can be improved without being fully good. There's no need for a good outcome to act in the right way. Getting a C+ on a test is better than an F.darthbarracuda

    OK, that's what I thought. I'm saying that while logically possible, humans are not very smart, and aren't capable of thinking of very many things, or processing chains of cause and effect complex enough to alleviate suffering in any non-trivial and consistent way. In short, while there are a million infallible paths to unending suffering, there's not even one I'm aware of that people have come up with which leads to its alleviation reliably. So my contention is just that people don't have the skills to improve the world in that way - they're too stupid.
  • Marchesk
    981
    So my contention is just that people don't have the skills to improve the world in that way - they're too stupid.The Great Whatever

    I thought the contention was more fundamental than that. Being born an animal subjects one to a life of suffering in one form or another. Some more extreme than others, but even the richest, most comfortably lived life still has to contend with boredom, frustration, relationship difficulties, possibly addiction, maybe unhappiness or mental illness, etc.

    That problem can't really be solved. We can determine what the optimal environment is for the human animal, and aim for that, but it won't get rid of existential concerns and other problems everyone faces to some degree.

    All that being said, there is certainly a substantial difference between feeling depressed and bummed out about life, and feeling decently well, and engaged. Or between lots of pain, and minimal daily discomforts. Or I would imagine, between having plenty of food, and starving.
  • darthbarracuda
    2k
    So my contention is just that people don't have the skills to improve the world in that way - they're too stupid.The Great Whatever

    It's not perfect, and it's sort of infected by the scientistic types, but the Effective Altruism movement is perhaps one of the most effective and reliable groups that is focused on making things better than they are right now.

    At any rate I sense the same sort of isolation in your response as I did in the writings of Schopenhauer and co. You say that people are just so stupid. Not everyone is. Apparently you and I have enough brain cells to figure some of this stuff out.

    It'd be nice to be able to just say that the world is kept alive by the zombies. Unfortunately humans aren't zombies because they can feel. And every now and then there's those like you and me and others here that pop out and wonder why the fuck they're here anyway.
  • The Great Whatever
    1.9k
    Right, I think no amount of skill can free you from all suffering. The contention was about improving the lot of suffering in a substantial way, even if not perfect. I don't see humans as generally competent at achieving even this lesser goal.
  • The Great Whatever
    1.9k
    No, I'm not excluding us in saying that. I really don't know what to do to be happy etc. I simply don't understand my own body or psychology well enough, and so I stay miserable because I seriously don't understand what to do not to be. I think people as a whole are pretty much this way, and things only get worse as the situation becomes more complicated with more people.
  • darthbarracuda
    2k
    Sorry to hear that. I can't offer you any of those nauseating self-help three-steps to happiness pep-talks.

    I conceive of a threshold that people need to be kept above in order so they can take care of themselves so to speak. Prioritize those who fall below this threshold, or those who ask for help. This also means I typically don't tell people to "get help" because they probably already have tried and failed to accomplish anything productive.

    So I do share your general pessimistic evaluation of humanity as a whole. We're a sorry lot. So I focus more on non-human animal welfare, those residents of the Earth that are continually neglected and forgotten about.
  • Marchesk
    981
    So I focus more on non-human animal welfare, those residents of the Earth that are continually neglected and forgotten about.darthbarracuda

    The sorry state of chickens?
  • darthbarracuda
    2k
    Or the countless wild animals currently suffering and/or dying in some way, whether that be by disease, malnutrition, predation, infirmity, injury, etc. Hell, even penguins are known to commit suicide.
  • Marchesk
    981
    Hell, even penguins are known to commit suicide.darthbarracuda

    Penguin suicide? How do they manage that?
  • darthbarracuda
    2k
    Males are known to walk into the ice desert of Antarctica when they can't find a mate, or in general when they just hate their clan.
  • apokrisis
    1.4k
    Still regurgitating his factoid?
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