Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit


Pessimism claims an impressive following--from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse--an accusation of a bad attitude--or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species--who would actually counsel pessimism? Joshua Foa Dienstag does. InPessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been--and can again be--an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal--of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism--is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe.


Perhaps I should get the most difficult matter—to some no doubt the most shocking matter—out of the way first: namely, that this book on the pessimistic spirit is not an attack on that spirit but, instead, an appraisal and, indeed, an endorsement of it, at least in a certain form. That this will strike most readers as perverse cannot be helped. Indeed, it is my first request of readers that they take this reaction, quite common in itself, and examine it. Why is it that pessimism, once a respectable if not popular philosophy, has become so despised in our culture that the word “pessimist” can be used today as a term of political or intellectual abuse? Look in any American newspaper for a few days and one will immediately see that this is true. It is enough to label an idea (or a person) “pessimistic” in order to be allowed to dismiss it (or him) without further discussion as irrational, emotional, indefensible or, worst of all, unpatriotic.

Why should this be? After all, an expectation that things will go badly is not, on the surface, any more or less rational than the expectation that things will go well. An extended examination of the question could well yield a judgment in favor of the one or the other—but the label is used precisely to foreclose such an inquiry. Pessimism is dismissed before serious debate begins, not during or afterward. One might venture that, somehow, the idea of pessimism is so threatening that people decline to consider it seriously because they are afraid of the effects such a consideration might produce. But then this phenomenon itself should be enough of a curiosity to require investigation. While those so fearing might be tempted to stop at this point, I can at least dispute the common perception that pessimism must somehow necessarily issue in behaviors of resignation and withdrawal.

Of course, some pessimisms might result in such a posture. But to assume that all pessimists are thus is akin to claiming that all optimists must arrive at the attitude of Dr. Pangloss, who believed that this was the best of all possible worlds. Not every theory of progress is Panglossian and, likewise, not all pessimisms are suicidal or nihilistic. This book does not defend all pessimisms, then, but a more particular one that will emerge in the course of its chapters. One point of my title, however, is to reverse the customary understanding of pessimism as something necessarily dispiriting. in the right hands, pessimism can be—and has been—an energizing and even a liberating philosophy. While it does indeed ask us to limit and eliminate some of our hopes and expectations, it can also provide us with the means to better navigate the bounded universe it describes.

There exists today an entire literature, both scholarly and popular, de-

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