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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In answer to the "Is the glass half empty or half full?" question, the pessimistic approach would be to pick half empty, while the optimistic approach would choose half full.

Pessimism, from the Latin pessimus (worst), is a state of mind which negatively colors the perception of life, especially with regard to future events. Value judgments may vary dramatically between individuals, even when judgments of fact are undisputed. The most common example of this phenomenon is the "Is the glass half empty or half full?" situation. The degree in which situations like these are evaluated as something good or something bad can be described in terms of one's optimism or pessimism respectively. Throughout history, the pessimistic disposition has had effects on all major areas of thinking.[1]

Philosophical pessimism is the similar but not identical idea that life has a negative value, or that this world is as bad as it could possibly be. It has also been noted by many philosophers that pessimism is not a disposition as the term commonly connotes. Instead, it is a cogent philosophy that directly challenges the notion of progress and what may be considered the faith-based claims of optimism.


Prominent philosophers of pessimism

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimism comes from his elevating of Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior. Schopenhauer pointed to motivators such as hunger, sexuality, the need to care for children, and the need for shelter and personal security as the real sources of human motivation. Reason, compared to these factors, is mere window-dressing for human thoughts; it is the clothes our naked hungers put on when they go out in public. 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.[2]

Likening human life to the life of other animals, he saw the reproductive cycle as indeed a cyclical process that continues pointlessly and indefinitely, unless the chain is broken by too limited resources to make continued life possible, in which case it is terminated by extinction. The prognosis of either pointlessly continuing the cycle of life or facing extinction is one major leg of Schopenhauer's pessimism.[2]

Schopenhauer moreover considers the desires of the will to entail suffering: because these selfish desires create constant conflict in the world. The business of biological life is a war of all against all. 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 or to free us from the sting of its goad.[2]

Schopenhauer's proof

Instead of asserting a personal opinion or viewpoint about the appearance of this world being the worst possible, such as a glass being half full or half empty, Schopenhauer attempted to logically prove it by analyzing the concept of pessimism.

But against the palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds, we may even oppose seriously and honestly the proof that it is the worst of all possible worlds. For possible means not what we may picture in our imagination, but what can actually exist and last. Now this world is arranged as it had to be if it were to be capable of continuing with great difficulty to exist; if it were a little worse, it would be no longer capable of continuing to exist. Consequently, since a worse world could not continue to exist, it is absolutely impossible; and so this world itself is the worst of all possible worlds.

Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. 46.

He claimed that a slight worsening of conditions, such as a small alteration of the planet's orbit, a small increase in global warming, loss of the use of a limb for an animal, and so on, would result in destruction. The world is essentially bad and "ought not to be".[3] These are disputable assertions, considering that the planet's orbit is not wholly consistent to begin with, global temperature fluctuates over time, and animals can still live after losing a limb. However, taking into respect the fact that major fluctuations in global temperature have typically resulted in mass extinctions in the past and an animal that loses a limb will only rarely survive long in the wild, they may appear reasonable.

Thus throughout, for the continuance of the whole as well as for that of every individual being, the conditions are sparingly and scantily given, and nothing beyond these. Therefore the individual life is a ceaseless struggle for existence itself, while at every step it is threatened with destruction. Just because this threat is so often carried out, provision had to be made, by the incredibly great surplus of seed, that the destruction of individuals should not bring about that of the races, since about these alone is nature seriously concerned. Consequently, the world is as bad as it can possibly be, if it is to exist at all. Q.E.D.


Pessimism by subject

Moral pessimism

Narratives of decline can be identified in morality: Friedrich Nietzsche's amorality, Freud’s description of co-operation as sublimation, Stanley Milgram shock experiments, the continued presence of war and genocide despite global interconnectedness, and the perceived exploitation of market fundamentalism.

Intellectual pessimism

In ~400 BCE, pre-socratic philosopher Gorgias argued in a lost work, On Nature or the Non-Existent:

  1. Nothing exists;
  2. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and
  3. Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others.

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819), characterized rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation.

Richard Rorty, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein challenge the sense of questioning whether our particular concepts are related to the world in an appropriate way, 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 a social practice and language was what served our purposes in a particular time; to this end Poststructuralism rejects any definitions that claim to have discovered absolute 'truths' or facts about the world.

Political pessimism

It is not a trait of any political party to be pessimistic in of itself. 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 Gommorah 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.

Environmental pessimism

Some environmentalists believe 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 this view, the mere existence of billions of humans overstresses the ecology of the planet, eventually leading to a Malthusian collapse. The collapse will reduce the ability of Earth to support large number of humans for a long time into the future.[citation needed]

Cultural pessimism

Cultural pessimists feel the Golden age is in the past, and the current generation is fit only for dumbing down and cultural careerism. 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 behaviour in culture. Post-modernists like Jean Baudrillard have even argued that culture (and therefore our lives) now have no basis in reality whatsoever.[1]

Some significant formulations have gone beyond this, proposing a universally-applicable cyclic model of history — notably in the writings of Giambattista Vico.

Psychology of pessimism

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 negative 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).[1]

Criticism of pessimism

As a self-fulfilling prophecy

Pessimism is sometimes understood to be a self fulfilling prophecy; that if an individual feels that something is bad, it is more likely to get worse.[4]

Pragmatic criticism

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.[5] Al-Ghazali and William James have 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 inextriably 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.

As decay

Nietzsche believed that the ancient Greeks created tragedy as a result of their pessimism. "Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak instincts ... Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?"[6]

Nietzsche's response to pessimism was the opposite of Schopenhauer's. " 'That which bestows on everything tragic, its peculiar elevating force' " – he (Schopenhauer) says in The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, P. 495 – " 'is the discovery that the world, that life, can never give real satisfaction and hence is not worthy of our affection: this constitutes the tragic spirit – it leads to resignation.' " How differently Dionysus spoke to me! How far removed I was from all this resignationism!"[7]

See also

External links


  1. ^ a b c Bennett, Oliver. Cultural pessimism. Edinburgh university press. 2001.
  2. ^ a b c Schopenhauer, Arthur (2007). Studies in Pessimism. Cosimo, Inc.. ISBN 1602063494. 
  3. ^  "Pessimism". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  4. ^ Optimism/Pessimism. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.
  5. ^ Michael R. Michau. “Doing, Suffering, and Creating”: William James and Depression.
  6. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy Or: Hellenism and Pessimism, "Attempt at a Self-Criticism," §1
  7. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy Or: Hellenism and Pessimism, "Attempt at a Self-Criticism," §6


  • Dienstag, Joshua Foa, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, Princeton University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-691-12552-X
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York: Vintage Books, 1967, ISBN 0-394-70369-3


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Pessimism is a state of mind that views life and its aspects negatively, especially in regard to future events.


  • This is a pleasant surprise, Archie. I would not have believed it. That of course is the advantage of being a pessimist; a pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant.
  • If you expect the worst from a person, you can't ever be disappointed. Only the disappointed resort to violence. The pessimist, which is another way of saying the Augustinian, takes a sort of gloomy pleasure in observing the depths to which human behaviour can sink. The more sin he sees, the more his belief in Original Sin is confirmed. Everyone likes to have his deepest convictions confirmed; that is one of the most abiding of human satisfactions.
  • Pessimism and hopelessness are two assassins that have been hired by very ourselves to kill ourselves!


  • More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
    • Woody Allen
  • Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism.
    • Arnold Bennett
  • The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.
    • James Branch Cabell
  • I don't consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.
    • Leonard Cohen
  • Pessimism is the wrong corner to turn to...
    • Mark Aaron A. Corrales
  • He that hopes no good fears no ill.
    • Thomas Fuller
  • Pessimism is, in brief, playing the sure game. You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. Having reckoned what to do in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life becomes child's play."
    • Thomas Hardy
  • If we see light at the end of the tunnel,/ It's the light of the oncoming train.
    • Robert Lowell
  • How many pessimists end up by desiring the things they fear, in order to prove that they are right.
    • Robert Mallet
  • There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.
    • Mark Twain
  • Logic and sermons never convince, The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.
    • Walt Whitman
  • Optimists are useless and merely find hope where pessimists will work.
    • Ben Dory
  • The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.
    • George F. Will
  • A pessimist is never disappointed.
    • Jack Cleary

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In popular language the term pessimist is applied to persons who habitually take a melancholy view of life, to whom painful experiences appeal with great intensity, and who have little corresponding appreciation of pleasurable ones. Such a temper is partly due to natural disposition, and partly to individual circumstances. According to Caro (after von Hartmann), it is especially prevalent in periods of transition, in which old ways of thought have lost their hold, while the new order has not yet made itself fully known, or has not secured general acceptance for its principles. In such a state of things men's minds are driven in upon themselves; the outward order appears to lack stability and permanence, and life in general tends consequently to be estimated as hollow and unsatisfactory. Metchnikoff attributes the pessimistic temper to a somewhat similar period in the life history of the individual, viz.: &#151 that of the transition from the enthusiasm of youth to the calmer and more settled outlook of maturity. It may be admitted that both causes contribute to the low estimate of life which is implied in the common notion of the pessimistic temperament. But this temperament seems to be far from rare at any time, and to depend upon causes too complex and obscure for exhaustive analysis. The poetic mind has very generally emphasized the painful aspect of life, though it is seldom wholly unresponsive to its pleasurable and desirable side. With Lucretius, however, life is a failure and wholly undesirable; with Sophocles, and still more with Æschylus, the tragic element in human affairs nearly obscures their more cheerful aspect: "It is best of all never to have been born"; the frank and unreflective joy in living and in the contemplation of nature, which runs through the Homeric poems, and is apparent in the work of Hesiod and that of the Greek lyrists, is but seldom found among those who look below the surface of things. In proportion as human affairs outgrew the naive simplicity of the early periods of history, the tendency to brood over the perplexities of emerging spiritual and social questions naturally increased. Byron, Shelley, Baudelaire and Leconte de Lisle, Heine and Leopardi are the poets of satiety, disillusion, and despair, as the genius of Goethe and Browning represents the spirit of cheerfulness and hope.

At the present moment it would seem that the variety of interests which science and education have brought within the reach of most persons, and the wide possibilities opened up for the future, have done much to discourage pessimistic feelings and to bring about the prevalence of a view of life which is on the whole of an opposite character. We must not, indeed, expect that the darker aspect of the world will ever be wholly abolished, or that it will ever cease to impress itself with varying degrees of intensity upon different temperaments. But the tendency of the present day is undoubtedly in the direction of that cheerful though not optimistic view of life which George Eliot called Meliorism, or the belief that though a perfect state may be unattainable, yet an indefinitely extended improvement in the conditions of existence may be looked for, and that sufficient satisfaction for human energy and desire may be found in the endeavour to contribute to it.


As a philosophical system, Pessimism may be characterized as one of the many attempts to account for the presence of evil in the world (see EVIL). Leibniz held that "metaphysical" evil is necessarily involved in the creation of finite existences, and that the possibility of sin and consequent suffering is inalienable from the existence of free and rational creatures. The principle from which evil arises is thus made to be an integral part of the actual constitution of nature, though its development is regarded as contingent. With Schopenhauer, the originator of Pessimism as a system, as with those who have accepted his qualitative estimate of the value of existence, evil in the full sense is not merely, as with Leibniz, a possible development of certain fundamental principles of nature, but is itself the fundamental principle of the life of man. The world is essentially bad and "ought not to be".

Schopenhauer holds that all existence is constituted by the objectivization of will, which is the sole and universal reality. Will is blind and unconscious until it is objectivized in human beings, in whom it first attains to consciousness, or the power of representation (Idea; Vorstellung). Hence arises the constant suffering which is the normal condition of human life. The essential nature of will is to desire and strive; and the consciousness of this perpetual unfulfilled desire is pain. Pleasure is merely an exception in human experience, the rare and brief cessation of the striving of the will, the temporary absence of pain. This theory recalls that of Plato ("Phædo") who regarded pleasure as the mere absence of pain; and the conception of conscious life as essentially painful and undesirable is nearly identical with the Buddhist notion (quoted with approval by Schopenhauer) that conscious existence is fundamentally and necessarily evil. Hence, further, comes the ethical theory of Schopenhauer, which may be summed up as the necessity for "denying the Will to live". Peace can be attained only in proportion as man ceases to desire; thus the pain of life can be minimized only by an ascetic renunciation of the search after happiness, and can be abolished only by ceasing to live. On the same principle, the poet Leopardi extolled suicide; and Mainländer took his own life.

Schopenhauer's philosophical system of Monism has generally been regarded as in a great degree purely fanciful and self-contradictory. The teleological function attributed to the unconscious will, which produces phenomenal existence through the intervention of quasi-Platonic ideas, is obviously out of place; and the notion that we can through consciousness perceive will as apart from consciousness in our automatic bodily functions and thence also in the external world, creates a confusion between the rational will which we know in ourselves as the cause of action, and mere tendency or instinct, for which the characteristics of will are arbitrarily assumed.

Von Hartmann endeavoured to improve upon Schopenhauer by taking the unconscious (Unbewusst) as the foundation of reality. Will and idea are with him twin functions of the unconscious, which energizes both in them and apart from them. The idea becomes conscious through its opposition to will, and from this opposition arises the incurable, because essential, evil of life. In order to induce men to continue to exist, the unconscious leads them on to the pursuit of an unattainable happiness. The delusion presents itself in three successive forms, or stages, corresponding to the childhood, youth, and manhood of the race. In the first stage happiness is considered as attainable in the present life; in the second it is relegated to a transcendental future beyond the grave, and in the third (the present day) it is looked forward to as the future result of human progress. All are equally delusive; and there occurs, as a necessary consequence, at the end of each stage, and before the discovery of the next, the "voluntary surrender of individual existence" by suicide; and when, in its old age, the race has discovered the futility of its hopes it will desire nothing but unconsciousness and so will cease to will, and therefore to be.

Meanwhile, the moral duty of man is to co-operate in the cosmic process which leads to this end. He is "to make the ends of the Unconscious his own ends", to renounce the hope of individual happiness, and so by the suppression of egoism to be reconciled with life as it is. Here von Hartmann claims to have harmonized Optimism and Pessimism, by finding in his own Pessimism the strongest conceivable impulse to effective action. With von Hartmann, life is not, as with Schopenhauer, essentially painful; but pain predominates greatly over pleasure: and the world is the outcome of a systematic evolution, by which the end of the unconscious will eventually be attained in the return of humanity into the peace of unconsciousness. The world is not, as Schopenhauer considered it, the worst possible, but the best, as is shown by the adaptation of means to ends in the evolutionary process. Nevertheless it is altogether bad, and had better not have been.

The unconscious of von Hartmann is involved in the same self-contradiction as the will of Schopenhauer. It is difficult to attach any real significance to the conception of consciousness as a function of the unconscious, or to that of purposive action by the unconscious. Considered simply as a reasoned basis for a doctrine of Pessimism, von Hartmann's system appears much like a Gnostic mythology, or such quasi-mystical imagery as that of Jacob Boehme, representing the pessimistic aspect of the actual world. From this point of view it may be said that both Schopenhauer and Hartmann rendered some service by emphasizing the perpetual contrast between desire and achievement in human affairs, and by calling attention to the essential function of suffering in human life. Schopenhauer and von Hartmann stand alone as the originators of metaphysical systems of an essentially pessimistic character. The subject has also, however, been treated from a philosophical standpoint by Bahnsen, Mainländer, Duprel, and Preuss, and has been discussed from a more or less optimistic point of view by Dühring, Caro, Sully, W. James, and many others. The extravagant speculations of Nietzsche are to a great extent founded on his early sympathy with the point of view of Schopenhauer.

The view to be taken of the contention of Pessimism depends mainly on whether the question can be settled by an estimate &#151 supposing that one can be formed &#151 of the relative amount of pleasure and pain in average human life. It may well be thought that such a calculus is impossible, since it must obviously depend in a great degree on purely subjective and therefore variable considerations. Pleasure and pain vary indefinitely both in kind and intensity with persons of differing idiosyncrasies. Life, it is contended, may still be happy, even though its pains may exceed its pleasures; or it may be worthless even if the reverse is the case. The point of view involves a judgment of values, rather than a quantitative estimate of pleasure and pain. The true pessimistic estimate of life would be that it is rather unhappy, because it is worthless, than worthless because it is unhappy. But again, values can be estimated or judged only according to the degree of personal satisfaction they imply; and we are brought back to a merely subjective view of the value of life, unless we can discover some absolute standard, some estimate of the comparative importance of its pleasures and pains which is invariable and the same for all. Such a standard of value is to be found in religious belief, and exists in its most complete form in the faith of Catholics. Religion fixes the scale of values by reference not to varying individual sensibilities, but to an eternal law which is always ideally and may be actually the reason of the individual judgment. Moreover, the recognition of such an absolute standard itself provides an absolute satisfaction, arising from action in accordance with it, which cannot exist in the absence of such recognition, and which is only travestied by Schopenhauer's pseudo-mystical delight in contemplating the "kernel of things", or by von Hartmann's personal adoption of the assumed "ends" of the unconscious.

Thus the Christian law of duty gives to action, in itself possibly quite the reverse of pleasurable, a value far outweighing that of the satisfaction arising from any specific pleasure, whether sensuous or intellectual. The inevitable Christian tendency to depreciate satisfaction arising from pleasure as against the performance of duty has caused Christianity to be classified as a system of Pessimism. This is, for example, the view taken of it by Schopenhauer, who declares that "Optimism is irreconcilable with Christianity", and that true Christianity has throughout that ascetic fundamental character which his philosophy explains as the denial of the will to live.

Von Hartmann, in like manner, rejecting as mythical the foundation of the Christian Faith and its hope of the hereafter, takes its historical and only important content to be the doctrine that "this earthly vale of tears has in itself no value whatever, but that, on the contrary, the earthly life is composed of tribulation and daily torment." It can hardly be disputed that the Christian view of life in itself is scarcely less pessimistic than that of Schopenhauer or Hartmann; and its pains are regarded as essentially characteristic of its present condition, due to the initial misdirection of human free-will. No estimate of the essential painfulness of human life could well exceed that of the 'Imitatio Christi" (see, e. g., III, xx). But the outlook is profoundly modified by the introduction of the "eternal values" Which are the special province of Christianity. The unhappiness of the world is counterbalanced by the satisfaction which arises from a peaceful conscience, and a sense of harmony between individual action and eternal law; faith and love contribute an element of joy to life which cannot be destroyed, and may even be enhanced, by temporal suffering; and in some cases at least the delights of supernatural mystical contemplation reduce merely natural pain and pleasure to comparative insignificance.

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.

Simple English

Pessimism is a philosophy and a way to see things in life. Pessimists believe that generally things are bad, and the world people live in is the worst possible world. In philosophy, pessimism often describes the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Someone who uses the philosophy is called a pessimist, they are the opposite of an optimist

An example of pessimism is seeing that a glass of water is "half empty", not "half full".

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