Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

By Joshua Foa Dienstag | Go to book overview

Chapter One
THE ANATOMY OF PESSIMISM

The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily
one of discouragement is a puerile idea, but
one that needs too long a refutation.

—ALBERT CAMUS

CAN IT really be the case that an entire tradition of thought has gone missing from our standard histories of political theory? A claim like this sounds extravagant on first hearing. In some sense, perhaps, it is extravagant—but not in the way that immediately comes to mind. In attempting to reframe the history of political thought so that pessimism becomes one of its major strands, I will not be arguing for paying attention to a series of writers who have hitherto been wholly unknown. While there certainly are authors, important to identify, who have been unjustly neglected on account of their pessimism, that is not the only, or even the main, story. Instead, I argue that while many of the pessimists are wellknown, the nature of their common project (indeed, the very idea that they have a common project) has been obscured. Since pessimism is perceived more as a disposition than as a theory, pessimists are seen primarily as dissenters from whatever the prevailing consensus of their time happens to be, rather than as constituting a continuous alternative. The result is that each seems disconnected from the mainstream of the history of political thought. They appear as voices in the wilderness, to put it politely— or to put it less politely, as cranks. While they are often admired for their style, or respected for the critiques they offer, their apparent lack of a “positive project” is made to appear as a badge of second-rank philosophical status. They interest us; but, it is believed, they cannot possibly orient us.

With greater or lesser degrees of respect, then, pessimists have in many cases been dismissed from the upper reaches of the canon of political thought. Or when they are admitted, as in the case of a figure like Nietzsche, they are taken to be radically isolated from other elements in that canon. Nietzsche's philosophy is highly distinctive, of course, but this should not blind us to the ways in which he, like many of the other figures to be discussed here, remains part of a tradition that has itself been rendered invisible. Even as, in recent decades, the traditional list of great works has been strenuously attacked, stretched, revised, and reconsid-

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