Should We Be More Pessimistic?


In dark times, dark thoughts have a certain appeal. Our eyes adjust. We want to know how deep the shadows go, and what sort of thing awaits beyond light’s comforting boundary.

Recently, that boundary has seemed to be receding. Darkness is hard to escape. In the United States, more than 116,000 people and counting have died from the coronavirus. Around the world, the death toll is more than 440,000, with more than 8 million infected. Economic collapse has swept away more than 40 million American jobs, creating the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. And raw, haunting footage of police brutality proliferates online, providing fresh evidence of something rotten at the very core of our society.

These overlapping national crises invite a conceptual one. Common assumptions of special protection from suffering — whether by virtue of nation, species or era — begin to unravel. Little about the pandemic and its consequences was genuinely unforeseeable, according to researchers. But too many among us — including but not limited to decision makers in the White House — found themselves unprepared to imagine them, exacerbating the damage.

In the early 19th century, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer paid special attention to the capacity for suffering in human life. Rather than something to be played down or absolved, he thought it revealed an underappreciated truth about the universe and our place in it.

“He did this big reversal in ethics where he put pain at the center of experience, rather than pleasure or well-being,” said Agnes Callard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. “That turns the tables on you in a way that I think has real implications for how you live your life.”

In his central work, “The World as Will and Representation,” Schopenhauer described human suffering as the byproduct of the fundamental indifference of nature. Every living creature is the unwitting victim of this indifference — the essence of a blind, ubiquitous and inexorable force that Schopenhauer called the Will — but the human is the most unfortunate of them all, because she is aware of herself as a pawn of a mindless game.

Schopenhauer was a forefather of a school of thought that philosophers loosely call “pessimism.” In common usage, pessimists are usually defined in the negative, the dark mirror of the bright-eyed optimist. They are those who irritatingly regard the glass as half-empty rather than half-full — black-clad Debbie Downers we do our best to avoid at parties.

And yet each of us is on some level acquainted with the darkness Schopenhauer was putting his finger on. Our lives are inevitably punctuated by grief as well as joy, randomness as well as intention, failure as well as triumph, and we receive no promises that the distribution will be equitable, or even comprehensible. We want to believe, perhaps especially now, that good fortune is around the corner. But a worldview that doesn’t meaningfully allow for the opposite can never hope to withstand the full weight of experience.

Early pessimistic philosophers, writing in pre-modern eras of much higher human mortality rates, assiduously investigated the inherent cruelties of existence.

Schopenhauer was influenced by ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, which identified suffering as the base condition of life. And a precursor of pessimism can be found in the Bible, where the sagacious author of Ecclesiastes, reporting his findings after a lifetime of pursuing “all that is done under the heavens,” concludes that it would be better to have never been born.

In today’s culture of infinite content and venture capital-backed “moonshots,” it’s much easier to be seduced by the optimistic impulse.

“If you really want to emphasize opportunity and innovation and the possible benefits of the new, as Americans do, than you’re very much going to downplay the necessary obstacles that exist in human life,” Ms. Callard said.

In some ways, President Trump, who likes to describe himself as “a cheerleader for the country,” and who made his name by selling gold-painted fantasies of capitalist invincibility, represents the apotheosis of this foundational American optimism. But the virus, with its vast and inscrutable path of destruction — its fundamental indifference — is a natural foil.

“It challenges our presumptions about being able to fully control things, and it raises existential issues about our very ability to relate to the world outside of a human-centric point of view,” said Eugene Thacker, a professor of media studies at the New School and the author of books on pessimism, including “In The Dust of This Planet” and “Infinite Resignation.” “It’s at once awe-inspiring and scary. You have a sense of wonder at something bigger than the human, but also a sense of the ground giving way beneath your feet.”

Of course, some thoughts are buried for a reason. And anticipating the hour of grief alone is no more likely to subdue it than pretending it can never arrive. Schopenhauer, a lifelong misanthrope who lived by himself, thought that the only way to cope with the misery of existence was to actively retreat from it.

The Will, he believed, could be temporarily nullified through ascetic practices and the contemplation of art, especially music. But, eventually, even these fail, and the insatiable gnaw of suffering resumes.

“Even sensual pleasure itself consists in a continual striving and ceases as soon as its goal is reached,” he wrote, in an essay called “On the Vanity of Existence.”

Schopenhauer had a spiritual predecessor in Nicolas Chamfort, a French moralist and playwright of the Enlightenment. Chamfort, politically restless, condemned the very idea of society as “an eternal conflict of all the vanities that cross each other, strike against each other, are wounded and humiliated by each other in turn” and later attempted suicide. (Famously, he botched the effort and took several months to die).

  • Updated June 16, 2020

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But facing darkness doesn’t have to mean surrendering to it. Tamsin Shaw, a professor of philosophy at New York University, self-described pessimist and survivor of Covid-19, said that being attuned to the potential for suffering in the world should elicit empathy and stir us to action.

“An enormous amount of suffering, including that caused by infectious disease, is avoidable,” she said. “So you can assume that it’s all futile and sit around and mope about it, or you can think that we should be doing everything that we can to eliminate what’s unnecessary.”

And there are some kinds of suffering that we may actually welcome. Ms. Callard put love in this category.

“Part of what makes human life good is loving things that can be taken away from us,” she said. “You can live a smaller, more solitary life that has less pain in it. But there isn’t a way to fully love someone and care about them while shielding yourself from the pain of their loss.”

For Schopenhauer, living on these terms, perpetually under the cloud of suffering, meant a kind of endless nightmare, escapable only in death.

But what makes it a nightmare? It becomes one only if you assume that things should be otherwise — that pain is an insult to pleasure, rather than its fuel, that darkness is a refutation of light, rather than a testament to its mercy. The hard part of being alive is accepting that it’s never one way or the other.

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