In part #9 I will show how just like reasoned optimism reasoned pessimism also emphasises an ideal life but uses this conception to highlight the worthlessness of the existing reality.
In later blogs I will take you through to what I think is a resolution of the paradox. A way to find meaning where there is none.
#9 Reasoned pessimism
Reasoned pessimism, as with reasoned optimism, does not take the ‘impulsive ejaculatory, form but wears the aspect of calm and studied affirmations.’ Like optimism, pessimism also emphasises an ideal life but uses this conception to highlight the worthlessness of the existing reality; lamentable in its direction and indifferent to human suffering and injustice. We find evidence of this in the chapters on duty, activity as and end and possibly determinism.
However, despite reasoned pessimism being a philosophy whose basic tenet is; live life by negating what exists for the benefit of a future which does not yet exist, there still exists, the possibility of a meaningful life. Such attempts are to be found in the literature of Albert Camus already discussed but more interestingly for our purposes in the work of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.
Whilst Nietzsche is regarded as a radical nihilist he took seriously the task of overcoming nihilism which he regarded as a consequence of traditional ways of thinking. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he believed he arrived at a conception of human possibility and value, and therefore the possibility of a life of value and meaning which would overcome Schopenhauerian nihilism and pessimism. In other words, this may be the worst of all possible worlds, but we may be able to palliate the misery, albeit only partially.
Although Nietzsche regarded all metaphysical interpretations of the world and us as untenable, he nonetheless believed that the very affirmation of life itself was at stake. To this extent Nietzsche’s attempt at the revaluation of values and tracing of the genealogy of morals has, through recent critique, found favour among some feminist philosophers. It seems, then, that Nietzsche’s desire that future philosophers would engage in more self-conscious attempts to assess prevailing interpretations of human life has to some extent come about. But given the nature of Nietzsche’s aphoristic and metaphorical style he has not made the task easy. Nevertheless, Nietzsche has become an important reference for post-modern ethical and political thought.
Yet for all Nietzsche may have contributed to contemporary discourse his philosophy offers little to prefer it over the problems associated with the paradox of the end. This is because Nietzsche conceived the non-linear character of events, an eternal return or eternal reoccurrence, whereby everything will repeat itself. His belief was that if we are sufficiently strong and well-disposed to endure this repetition of events we will flourish. Yet this eternal return must leave us with an utter sense of futility. For nothing we do ultimately matters for whilst there might be progress here and there for a time this will be followed by a repetition of the whole thing. Could anything be more futile? Are we not to be worn down with utter despair? It is difficult to decide which is worse, the paradox of the end or Nietzsche’s conception with the choice being between,
i) not being shocked by the fact that our ends are invented just so we might have some meaning, but are nevertheless meaningless, or
ii) accepting the utter futility of it all.
As for the Schopenhauerian world view we find pessimism personified. Whilst some pessimists attempted to furnish us with some solution to the problem of the worth of life, Schopenhauer sought only to show that existence was utterly deplorable. Yet despite being a thorough-going misanthrope even he did not live down to his own precepts; his misanthropy being largely fed by his failure to achieve a craved recognition as teacher and writer. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer’s pessimism was based on the Will being a fundamental metaphysical principle and that therefore our lives are dominated by willing. As a result we are forever struggling and dissatisfied, and so can never cease willing. So it remains a central postulate of Schopenhauer’s system that all life is suffering which only an end to willing or desiring (which we cannot cease) can permanently eliminate, although he did believe we could find respite in aesthetic experience - momentary forgetfulness.
As with the strategy of optimism let me briefly conclude with what I consider to be the failings of these perspectives. Pessimism in its Schopenhauerian form is a nihilism which simply accepts the paradox of the end. All activities and ends are explicitly meaningless. Even a less exaggerated form of pessimism still paralyses effort and at best advocates quiescence in respect of higher aims. Given the foregoing, any pessimist not fully enveloped by sloth has simply failed to follow the logic of their creed - there is nothing to be done but lament life and suffer.
In #10 I will look at the concept of meliorism and the view that the world is capable of improvement by us by rightly directed human effort.