The term pessimism derives from the Latin word pessimus meaning 'the worst'. It was first used by Jesuit critics of Voltaire's 1759 novel 'Candide, ou l'Optimisme'. Voltaire was satirizing the philosophy of Leibniz who maintained that this was the 'best (optimum) of all possible worlds'. In their attacks on Voltaire, the Jesuits of the Revue de Trévoux accused him of pessimisme.
Philosophical pessimism is not a state of mind or a psychological disposition, but rather it is a worldview or ethic that seeks to face up to the distasteful realities of the world and eliminate irrational hopes and expectations (such as the Idea of Progress and religious faith) which may lead to undesirable outcomes. Ideas which prefigure philosophical pessimism can be seen in ancient texts such as the Dialogue of Pessimism and Ecclesiastes (which maintains that everything is hebel, literally 'vapor' or 'breath', but could also mean 'senseless' and 'absurd'.)
In Western philosophy, philosophical pessimism is not a single coherent movement, but rather a loosely associated group of thinkers with similar ideas and a family resemblance to each other. In Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, Joshua Foa Dienstag outlines the main propositions shared by most philosophical pessimists as "that time is a burden; that the course of history is in some sense ironic; that freedom and happiness are incompatible; and that human existence is absurd."
Philosophical pessimists see the self-consciousness of man as bound up with his consciousness of time and that this leads to greater suffering than mere physical pain. While many organisms live in the present, humans and certain species of animals can contemplate the past and future, and this is an important difference. Human beings have foreknowledge of their own eventual fate and this "terror" is present in every moment of our lives as a reminder of the impermanent nature of life and of our inability to control this change.
The philosophical pessimistic view of the effect of historical progress tends to be more negative than positive. The philosophical pessimist does not deny that certain areas like science can "progress" but they deny that this has resulted in an overall improvement of the human condition. In this sense it could be said that the pessimist views history as ironic; while seemingly getting better, it is mostly in fact not improving at all, or getting worse. This is most clearly seen in Rousseau's critique of enlightenment civil society and his preference for man in the primitive and natural state. For Rousseau, "our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection".
The pessimistic view of the human condition is that it is in a sense "absurd". Absurdity is seen as an ontological mismatch between our desire for meaning and fulfillment and our inability to find or sustain those things in the world, or as Camus puts it: "a divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting". The idea that rational thought would lead to human flourishing can be traced to Socrates and is at the root of most forms of western optimistic philosophies. Pessimism turns the idea on its head, it faults the human freedom to reason as the feature that misaligned humanity from our world and sees it as the root of human unhappiness.
The responses to this predicament of the human condition by pessimists are varied. Some philosophers, mainly Schopenhauer, recommend a form of resignation and self-denial (which he saw exemplified in Indian religions). Some followers tend to believe that "expecting the worst leads to the best." Rene Descartes even believed that life was better if emotional reactions to "negative" events were removed. Others like Nietzsche, Leopardi and Camus respond with a more life-affirming view, what Nietzsche called a "Dionysian pessimism", an embrace of life as it is in all of its constant change and suffering, without appeal to progress or hedonistic calculus. Albert Camus indicated that the common responses to the absurdity of life are often: Suicide, a leap of faith (as per Kierkegaard's knight of faith), or recognition/rebellion. Camus rejected all but the last option as unacceptable and inauthentic responses.
Philosophical pessimism has often been tied to the arts and literature. Schopenhauer's philosophy was very popular with composers (Wagner, Brahms and Mahler). Several philosophical pessimists also wrote novels or poetry (Camus and Leopardi respectively). A distinctive literary form which has been associated with pessimism is aphoristic writing, and this can be seen in Leopardi, Nietzsche and Cioran. Writers which could be said to express pessimistic views in their works or to be influenced by pessimistic philosophers include Miguel de Cervantes, Lord Byron, Charles Baudelaire, Gottfried Benn, Sadegh Hedayat, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad, Charles Bukowski, Thomas Mann, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Mihai Eminescu, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Cormac McCarthy, Samuel Beckett, Dino Buzzati, Jorge Luis Borges, HP Lovecraft, Michel Houellebecq, Thomas Ligotti, Thomas Bernhard and Camilo Pessanha.
In Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the pre-socratic philosophers such as Anaximander, Heraclitus (called 'the weeping philosopher') and Parmenides represented a classical form of pessimism. Nietzsche saw Anaximander's philosophy as the "enigmatic proclamation of a true pessimist". Similarly, of Heraclitus' philosophy of flux and strife he wrote:
[Heraclitus] denied the duality of totally diverse worlds—a position which Anaximander had been compelled to assume. He no longer distinguished a physical world from a metaphysical one, a realm of definite qualities from an undefinable "indefinite." And after this first step, nothing could hold him back from a second, far bolder negation: he altogether denied being. For this one world which he retained [ . . . ] nowhere shows a tarrying, an indestructibility, a bulwark in the stream. Louder than Anaximander, Heraclitus proclaimed: "I see nothing other than becoming. Be not deceived. It is the fault of your short-sightedness, not of the essence of things, if you believe you see land somewhere in the ocean of becoming and passing-away. You use names for things as though they rigidly, persistently endured; yet even the stream into which you step a second time is not the one you stepped into before." The Birth of Tragedy. 5, pp. 51–52
Another Greek expressed a form of pessimism in his philosophy: the ancient Cyrenaic philosopher Hegesias (290 BCE). Like later pessimists, Hegesias argued that lasting happiness is impossible to achieve and that all we can do is to try to avoid pain as much as possible.
Complete happiness cannot possibly exist; for that the body is full of many sensations, and that the mind sympathizes with the body, and is troubled when that is troubled, and also that fortune prevents many things which we cherished in anticipation; so that for all these reasons, perfect happiness eludes our grasp.
Hegesias held that all external objects, events and actions are indifferent to the wise man, even death: "for the foolish person it is expedient to live, but to the wise person it is a matter of indifference". According to Cicero, Hegesias wrote a book called Death by Starvation, which supposedly persuaded many people that death was more desirable than life. Because of this Hegesias was banned from teaching in Alexandria.
From the 3rd century BCE, Stoicism propounded as an exercise "the premeditation of evils" — concentration on worst possible outcomes.
Baltasar Gracián (1601–1658) was Schopenhauer's favorite author and Gracián's novel El Criticón was his favorite book. Schopenhauer's pessimistic outlook was influenced by Gracián, and he translated Gracián's The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence into German. He praised Gracián for his aphoristic writing style (conceptismo) and often quoted him in his works. Gracian's novel El Criticón (The Critic) is an extended allegory of the human search for happiness which turns out to be fruitless on this Earth. The Critic paints a bleak and desolate picture of the human condition. His Pocket Oracle was a book of aphorisms on how to live in what he saw as a world filled with deception, duplicity and disillusionment.
Voltaire was the first European to be labeled as a pessimist due to his critique of Alexander Pope's optimistic "An Essay on Man", and Leibniz' affirmation that "we live in the best of all possible worlds." Voltaire's novel Candide is an extended criticism of theistic optimism and his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster is especially pessimistic about the state of mankind and the nature of God. Though himself a Deist, Voltaire argued against the existence of a compassionate personal God through his interpretation of the problem of evil.
The major themes of philosophical pessimism were first presented by Rousseau and he has been called "the patriarch of pessimism". For Rousseau, humans in their "natural goodness" have no sense of self-consciousness in time and thus are happier than humans corrupted by society. Rousseau saw the movement out of the state of nature as the origin of inequality and mankind's lack of freedom. The wholesome qualities of man in his natural state, a non-destructive love of self and compassion are gradually replaced by amour propre, a self-love driven by pride and jealousy of his fellow man. Because of this, modern man lives "always outside himself", concerned with other men, the future and external objects. Rousseau also blames the human faculty of "perfectibility" and human language from tearing us away from our natural state by allowing us to imagine a future in which we are different than what we are now and therefore making us appear inadequate to ourselves (and thus 'perfectible').
Rousseau saw the evolution of modern society as the replacement of natural egalitarianism by alienation and class distinction enforced by institutions of power. Thus The Social Contract opens with the famous phrase "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Even the ruling classes are not free, in fact for Rousseau they are "greater slaves" because they require more esteem from others to rule and must therefore constantly live "outside themselves".
Though a lesser known figure outside Italy, Leopardi was highly influential in the 19th century, especially for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In Leopardi's darkly comic essays, aphorisms, fables and parables, life is often described as a sort of divine joke or mistake. According to Leopardi, because of our conscious sense of time and our endless search for truth, the human desire for happiness can never be truly satiated and joy cannot last. Leopardi claims that "Therefore they greatly deceive themselves, [those] who declare and preach that the perfection of man consists in knowledge of the truth and that all his woes proceed from false opinions and ignorance, and that the human race will at last be happy, when all or most people come to know the truth, and solely on the grounds of that arrange and govern their lives." Furthermore, Leopardi believes that for man it is not possible to forget truth and that "it is easier to rid oneself of any habit before that of philosophizing."
Leopardi's response to this condition is to face up to these realities and try to live a vibrant and great life, to be risky and take up uncertain tasks. This uncertainty makes life valuable and exciting but does not free us from suffering, it is rather an abandonment of the futile pursuit of happiness. He uses the example of Christopher Columbus who went on a dangerous and uncertain voyage and because of this grew to appreciate life more fully. Leopardi also sees the capacity of humans to laugh at their condition as a laudable quality that is able to help us deal with our predicament. For Leopardi: "He who has the courage to laugh is master of the world, much like him who is prepared to die."
Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimism comes from his elevating of Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior. The Will is the ultimate metaphysical animating noumenon and it is futile, illogical and directionless striving. Schopenhauer sees reason as weak and insignificant compared to Will; in one metaphor, Schopenhauer compares the human intellect to a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulder of the blind giant of Will. Schopenhauer saw human desires as impossible to satisfy. He pointed to motivators such as hunger, thirst and sexuality as the fundamental features of the Will in action, which are always by nature unsatisfactory.
All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative only, and never positive. It is not a gratification which comes to us originally and of itself, but it must always be the satisfaction of a wish. For desire, that is to say, want [or will], is the precedent condition of every pleasure; but with the satisfaction, the desire and therefore the pleasure cease; and so the satisfaction or gratification can never be more than deliverance from a pain, from a want. — The world as will and representation, pg 319
Schopenhauer notes that once satiated, the feeling of satisfaction rarely lasts and we spend most of our lives in a state of endless striving, in this sense, we are, deep down nothing but Will. Even the moments of satisfaction, when repeated often enough, only lead to boredom and thus human existence is constantly swinging "like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents". This ironic cycle eventually allows us to see the inherent vanity at the truth of existence (nichtigkeit) and to realize that "the purpose of our existence is not to be happy".
Moreover, the business of biological life is a war of all against all filled with constant physical pain and distress, not merely unsatisfied desires. There is also the constant dread of death on the horizon to consider, which makes human life worse than animals. Reason only compounds our suffering by allowing us to realize that biology's agenda is not something we would have chosen had we been given a choice, but it is ultimately helpless to prevent us from serving it.
Schopenhauer saw in artistic contemplation a temporary escape from the act of willing. He believed that through "losing yourself" in art one could sublimate the Will. However, he believed that only a resignation from the pointless striving of the will to life through a form of asceticism (as those practiced by eastern monastics and by "saintly persons") could free oneself from the Will altogether.
Friedrich Nietzsche could be said to be a philosophical pessimist even though unlike Schopenhauer (whom he read avidly) his response to the 'tragic' pessimistic view is neither resigned nor self-denying, but a life-affirming form of pessimism. For Nietzsche this was a "pessimism of the future", a "Dionysian pessimism." Nietzsche identified his Dionysian pessimism with what he saw as the pessimism of the Greek pre-socratics and also saw it at the core of ancient Greek tragedy. He saw tragedy as laying bare the terrible nature of human existence, bound by constant flux. In contrast to this Nietzsche saw Socratic philosophy as an optimistic refuge of those who could not bear the tragic any longer. Since Socrates posited that wisdom could lead to happiness, Nietzsche saw this as "morally speaking, a sort of cowardice...amorally, a ruse". Nietzsche was also critical of Schopenhauer's pessimism because in judging the world negatively, it turned to moral judgements about the world and therefore led to weakness and nihilism. Nietzsche's response was a total embracing of the nature of the world, a "great liberation" through a "pessimism of strength" which "does not sit in judgement of this condition". Nietzsche believed that the task of the philosopher was to wield this pessimism like a hammer, to first attack the basis of old moralities and beliefs and then to "make oneself a new pair of wings", i.e. to re-evaluate all values and create new ones. A key feature of this Dionysian pessimism was 'saying yes' to the changing nature of the world, this entailed embracing destruction and suffering joyfully, forever (hence the ideas of amor fati and eternal recurrence). Pessimism for Nietzsche is an art of living that is "good for one's health" as a "remedy and an aid in the service of growing and struggling life".
In a 1945 article, Albert Camus wrote "the idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea." Camus helped popularize the idea of "the absurd", a key term in his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Like previous philosophical pessimists, Camus sees human consciousness and reason as that which "sets me in opposition to all creation". For Camus, this clash between a reasoning mind which craves meaning and a 'silent' world is what produces the most important philosophical problem, the 'problem of suicide'. Camus believed that people often escape facing the absurd through "eluding" (l'esquive), a 'trickery' for "those who live not for life itself but some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it". He considered suicide, religion and Marxism as inauthentic forms of eluding or escaping the problem of existence. For Camus, the only choice was to rebelliously accept and live with the absurd, for "there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." Camus' response to the absurd problem is illustrated by using the Greek mythic character of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. Camus imagines Sisyphus while pushing the rock, realizing the futility of his task, but doing it anyway out of rebellion.
There are several theories of epistemology which could arguably be said to be pessimistic in the sense that they consider it difficult or even impossible to obtain knowledge about the world. These ideas are generally related to nihilism, philosophical skepticism and relativism.
Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819), analyzed rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation.
Richard Rorty, Michel Foucault, and Ludwig Wittgenstein questioned whether our particular concepts could relate to the world in any absolute way and whether we can justify our ways of describing the world as compared with other ways. In general, these philosophers argue that truth was not about getting it right or representing reality, but was part of subjective social relations of power, or language-games that served our purposes in a particular time. Therefore, these forms of anti-foundationalism, while not being pessimistic per se, rejects any definitions that claims to have discovered absolute 'truths' or foundational facts about the world as valid.
Philosophical Pessimism stands opposed to the optimism or even utopianism of Hegelian philosophies such as Marxism. Emil Cioran claimed "Hegel is chiefly responsible for modern optimism. How could he have failed to see that consciousness changes only its forms and modalities, but never progresses?" Philosophical pessimism is differentiated from other political philosophies by having no ideal governmental structure or political project, rather pessimism generally tends to be an anti-systematic philosophy of individual action. This is because philosophical pessimists tend to be skeptical that any politics of social progress can actually improve the human condition. As Cioran states, "every step forward is followed by a step back: this is the unfruitful oscillation of history". Cioran also attacks political optimism because it creates an "idolatry of tomorrow" which can be used to authorize anything in its name. This does not mean however, that the pessimist cannot be politically involved, as Camus argued in The Rebel.
There is another strain of thought generally associated with a pessimistic worldview, this is the pessimism of cultural criticism and social decline which is seen in Oswald Spengler's 'The Decline of the West'. Spengler promoted a cyclic model of history similar to the theories of Giambattista Vico. Spengler believed modern western civilization was in the 'winter' age of decline (untergang). Spenglerian theory was immensely influential in interwar Europe, especially in Weimar Germany. Similarly, traditionalist Julius Evola thought that the world was in the Kali Yuga, a dark age of moral decline.
Intellectuals like Oliver James correlate economic progress with economic inequality, the stimulation of artificial needs, and affluenza. Anti-consumerists identify rising trends of conspicuous consumption and self-interested, image-conscious behavior in culture. Post-modernists like Jean Baudrillard have even argued that culture (and therefore our lives) now has no basis in reality whatsoever.
Conservative thinkers, especially social conservatives, often perceive politics in a generally pessimistic way. William F. Buckley famously remarked that he was "standing athwart history yelling 'stop!'" and Whittaker Chambers was convinced that capitalism was bound to fall to communism, though he was himself violently anti-communist. Social conservatives often see the West as a decadent and nihilistic civilization which has abandoned its roots in Christianity and/or Greek philosophy, leaving it doomed to fall into moral and political decay. Robert Bork's Slouching Toward Gomorrah and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind are famous expressions of this point of view.
Many economic conservatives and libertarians believe that the expansion of the state and the role of government in society is inevitable, and they are at best fighting a holding action against it. They hold that the natural tendency of people is to be ruled and that freedom is an exceptional state of affairs which is now being abandoned in favor of social and economic security provided by the welfare state. Political pessimism has sometimes found expression in dystopian novels such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Political pessimism about one's country often correlates with a desire to emigrate.
During the financial crisis of 2007–08 in the United States, the neologism "pessimism porn" was coined to describe the alleged eschatological and survivalist thrill some people derive from predicting, reading and fantasizing about the collapse of civil society through the destruction of the world's economic system.
Technological pessimism is the belief that advances in science and technology do not lead to an improvement in the human condition. Technological pessimism can be said to have originated during the industrial revolution with the Luddite movement. Luddites blamed the rise of industrial mills and advanced factory machinery for the loss of their jobs and set out to destroy them. The Romantic movement was also pessimistic towards the rise of technology and longed for simpler and more natural times. Poets like William Wordsworth and William Blake believed that industrialization was polluting the purity of nature.
Some social critics and environmentalists believe that globalization, overpopulation and the economic practices of modern capitalist states over-stress the planet's ecological equilibrium. They warn that unless something is done to slow this, climate change will worsen eventually leading to some form of social and ecological collapse. James Lovelock believes that the ecology of the Earth has already been irretrievably damaged, and even an unrealistic shift in politics would not be enough to save it. According to Lovelock, the Earth’s climate regulation system is being overwhelmed by pollution and the Earth will soon jump from its current state into a dramatically hotter climate. Lovelock blames this state of affairs on what he calls “polyanthroponemia”, which is when: “humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good.” Lovelock states:
The presence of 7 billion people aiming for first-world comforts…is clearly incompatible with the homeostasis of climate but also with chemistry, biological diversity and the economy of the system.
Some radical environmentalists, anti-globalization activists, and Neo-luddites can be said to hold to this type of pessimism about the effects of modern "progress". A more radical form of environmental pessimism is anarcho-primitivism which faults the agricultural revolution with giving rise to social stratification, coercion, and alienation. Some anarcho-primitivists promote deindustrialization, abandonment of modern technology and rewilding.
An infamous anarcho-primitivist is Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber who engaged in a nationwide mail bombing campaign. In his 1995 manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future he called attention to the erosion of human freedom by the rise of the modern "industrial-technological system". The manifesto begins thus:
The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.
One of the most radical pessimist organizations is the voluntary human extinction movement which argues for the extinction of the human race through antinatalism.
Pope Francis' controversial 2015 encyclical on ecological issues is ripe with pessimistic assessments of the role of technology in the modern world.
'Entropy pessimism' represents a special case of technological and environmental pessimism, based on thermodynamic principles. According to the first law of thermodynamics, matter and energy is neither created nor destroyed in the economy. According to the second law of thermodynamics — also known as the entropy law — what happens in the economy is that all matter and energy is transformed from states available for human purposes (valuable natural resources) to states unavailable for human purposes (valueless waste and pollution). In effect, all of man's technologies and activities are only speeding up the general march against a future planetary 'heat death' of degraded energy, exhausted natural resources and a deteriorated environment — a state of maximum entropy locally on Earth; 'locally' on Earth, that is, when compared to the heat death of the universe, taken as a whole.
The term 'entropy pessimism' was coined to describe the work of Romanian American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a progenitor in economics and the paradigm founder of ecological economics. Georgescu-Roegen made extensive use of the entropy concept in his magnum opus on The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Since the 1990s, leading ecological economist and steady-state theorist Herman Daly — a student of Georgescu-Roegen — has been the economists profession's most influential proponent of entropy pessimism.
Among other matters, the entropy pessimism position is concerned with the existential impossibility of distributing Earth's finite stock of mineral resources evenly among an unknown number of present and future generations. This number of generations is likely to remain unknown to us, as there is little way of knowing in advance if or when mankind will eventually face extinction. In effect, any conceivable intertemporal distribution of the stock will inevitably end up with universal economic decline at some future point.
Entropy pessimism is a widespread view in ecological economics and in the degrowth movement.
Bibas writes that some criminal defense attorneys prefer to err on the side of pessimism: "Optimistic forecasts risk being proven disastrously wrong at trial, an embarrassing result that makes clients angry. On the other hand, if clients plead based on their lawyers' overly pessimistic advice, the cases do not go to trial and the clients are none the wiser."
In the ancient world, psychological pessimism was associated with melancholy, and was believed to be caused by an excess of black bile in the body. The study of pessimism has parallels with the study of depression. Psychologists trace pessimistic attitudes to emotional pain or even biology. Aaron Beck argues that depression is due to unrealistic negative views about the world. Beck starts treatment by engaging in conversation with clients about their unhelpful thoughts. Pessimists, however, are often able to provide arguments that suggest that their understanding of reality is justified; as in Depressive realism or (pessimistic realism). Deflection is a common method used by those who are depressed. They let people assume they are revealing everything which proves to be an effective way of hiding. The pessimism item on the Beck Depression Inventory has been judged useful in predicting suicides. The Beck Hopelessness Scale has also been described as a measurement of pessimism.
Wender and Klein point out that pessimism can be useful in some circumstances: "If one is subject to a series of defeats, it pays to adopt a conservative game plan of sitting back and waiting and letting others take the risks. Such waiting would be fostered by a pessimistic outlook. Similarly if one is raking in the chips of life, it pays to adopt an expansive risk taking approach, and thus maximize access to scarce resources."
Through history, some have concluded that a pessimistic attitude, although justified, must be avoided in order to endure. Optimistic attitudes are favored and of emotional consideration. Al-Ghazali and William James rejected their pessimism after suffering psychological, or even psychosomatic illness. Criticisms of this sort however assume that pessimism leads inevitably to a mood of darkness and utter depression. Many philosophers would disagree, claiming that the term "pessimism" is being abused. The link between pessimism and nihilism is present, but the former does not necessarily lead to the latter, as philosophers such as Albert Camus believed. Happiness is not inextricably linked to optimism, nor is pessimism inextricably linked to unhappiness. One could easily imagine an unhappy optimist, and a happy pessimist. Accusations of pessimism may be used to silence legitimate criticism. The economist Nouriel Roubini was largely dismissed as a pessimist, for his dire but accurate predictions of a coming global financial crisis, in 2006. Personality Plus opines that pessimistic temperaments (e.g. melancholy and phlegmatic) can be useful inasmuch as pessimists' focus on the negative helps them spot problems that people with more optimistic temperaments (e.g. choleric and sanguine) miss.