Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Eight "D's" of Pessimism

NOTE: this is ctrl+c ctrl+v from PF that I made a while ago.

I have consolidated eight adjectives, all beginning with the letter D, that I feel aptly describes the major points brought up by the various philosophical pessimists. They are listed in a kind of "chronological" order of manifestation in some sense, although they are not “required” to appear in these orders.

1.) Desire can be characterized by a feeling of incompleteness. When we desire something, we feel as though we are lacking something important in our lives. The feeling of dissatisfaction, the striving to “complete” the ego or fulfill a need, is what constitutes Schopenhauer’s conception of the Will, or the general idea of the Buddhist tanha. Accordingly, both philosophies recommended the ceasing of unnecessary desire, for to live a life of desire is to live a life enslaved by need.

2.) Decay is the inevitable destruction of things that we hold dear. The attachment we feel for these things “sets us up”, so to speak, for the feeling of loss. Time is forever thrusting things forward, and entropy is the result. This is why we have to continue to eat, breathe, sleep, fill up our automobile’s gas tank, pay for electricity, etc. The world does not care about your attachments to things; this is also why it is so difficult to let go of people who have died, or deal with the inevitable accidents that throw someone’s life into turmoil. Everything is impermanent and in motion.

3.) Discomfort is fairly straight forward. The consequences of desire and decay are a type of discomfort, but in addition to these are the various feelings of pain, as well as psychological discomfort (i.e. a “psychache”). From a pin prick to a broken femur, from embarrassment to a suicide attempt, pain is a univocal part of our existence. To rise above pain in some instances can lead to a meaningful experience. To succumb to pain and thereby suffer leads to a meaningless existence.

4.) Disgust is, I take it, to be the next emotional step once one has come to terms with the former three aspects of existence. Existence is not perfect, it is not a dream-world. With disgust comes compassion, though, which is something to be cultivated.

5.) Disillusionment is tied in with disgust; when one has “lifted the curtain” and seen life in all its glory and horror, the fantasies of life held before, the pretty little narrative that drives us all, begin to crumble. A feeling of dissatisfaction with what is seen becomes apparent. Man’s very existence becomes suspect; suicide becomes an option. The existentialists of the twentieth century seemed to focus primarily on finding meaning after the prior meanings had been lost. What matters here, though, is that the disillusionment is felt to be permanent.

6.) Despair can follow disillusionment. Perhaps no meaning is to be found, and life is absurd and potentially even malignant at times. With the loss of hope comes the experience of despair, a complete loss of any anchors, structure, stability or control.

7) Disinterest follows disillusionment, but is also its own slice of human existence. Disinterest refers to a feeling of apathy, or boredom, to life. Weltschmerz, or world-weariness, is a classic romantic adjective used to describe such a feeling. One could also say that our desires lead to a impermanent feeling of satisfaction, which inevitably decays into a general disinterest, or boredom with what we have, which leads back to another instance of desire to keep ourselves distracted and entertained.

8.) Death is the ultimate property of being alive. It is what motivates the creation of culture, aesthetics, and other forms of distraction. Death is an inevitable event for all living creatures. To avoid it is to live invalidly and to live in fear, to accept it is to nevertheless undergo the experience.


  1. Darth,

    What is your reaction to this comment by Matthew Parris?

    “When I die, and if I have to arrange it myself, I will consult nobody, and do it unassisted if I can. I entertain not a flicker of moral or practical doubt on the subject, and never have. Speaking only for myself — in such matters one should never judge for others — if Nature does not do the job in a timely manner I shall consider it a duty to take matters into my own hands. I can’t tell you how simple I find these arguments: so simple that I’ve hardly bothered to write about the issue. Suicide is the greatest of human freedoms, underwriting all the others, for it gives us the possibility of defying every thing and every one there is. The possibility of suicide is what makes life voluntary and each new day an act of will. No wonder the faith community gnash their teeth at suicide. God Himself, if He existed, would gnash His teeth at suicide: the supreme act of defiance, the final raspberry. The knowledge that I’m here by choice, that every breath I take I take by choice, injects into my soul a transcendent joy…


    Is suicide not the greatest of all tokens of the primacy of the human will? How shall a man ever demonstrate with more finality that he is the captain of his soul, the master of his ship, than by taking it by his own choice on to the rocks? Self-inflicted death is the ultimate defiance, the one freedom in your life and mine which nothing and nobody — not even God — can take away. I have never contemplated suicide and hope I never shall. But to know that I can — to know that tomorrow I too could make that splendid, terrible two-fingered gesture to creation itself is more than life-enhancing: it is sublime.”

    1. Sure I guess I agree with the basic premise.

  2. For me the question is: Is it better to be alive or dead?

    Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all? Dying, sleeping—that’s all dying is—a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us—that’s an achievement to wish for. To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream. Ah, but there’s the catch: in death’s sleep who knows what kind of dreams might come, after we’ve put the noise and commotion of life behind us.

    This is certainly something to worry about.

    This is the consideration that makes us stretch out our sufferings so long. After all, who would put up with all life’s humiliations—the abuse from superiors, the insults of arrogant men, the pangs of unrequited love, the inefficiency of the legal system, the rudeness of people in office, and the mistreatment good people have to take from bad—when you could simply take out your knife and call it quits? Who would choose to grunt and sweat through an exhausting life, unless they were afraid of something dreadful after death, the undiscovered country from which no visitor returns, which we wonder about without getting any answers from and which makes us stick to the evils we know rather than rush off to seek the ones we don’t? Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.

    1. Life isn't too bad, so long as you don't think about it too much. Most people never go beyond the initial perturbation when contemplating their existence. It's easy and comfortable to live on auto-pilot, like a zombie.

      Once you're alive you develop attachments and become involved in the larger context. Like Sartre said:

      "Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance."

      If the pleasures of life by themselves don't justify a birth, then why should they justify the continuation of a life? That's the dilemma - life sucks, and deep down we realize this, but we are afraid of death, and so we try to find some reason to continue to live despite there being none.

      Sometimes I wonder if the reason no major public figure advocates suicide is because the ones who would have, have already killed themselves.

      Additionally what particularly sucks about out situation is that there is no "good" outcome - we live in a poor state, and then die. There is redemption story here, and those who think death counts as a redemption are only fooling themselves.

      But in general I think that life is mostly mediocre, not worth being born into but not worth killing yourself over either. It's just something we endure and find stupid things to do in the mean time.

    2. Humans are naturally biased to think that being alive is better than being dead. To some, the idea of not wanting to live is so instinctually repugnant that they literally cannot understand suicide. I do not think that is hyperbole; I think they literally are incapable of grasping it.

      What is life, and why is it valuable? Personally, I’m of the opinion that life isn’t great. That may be, and hopefully is, just an empirical contingency, and in some way, at some time, in a distant universe, there may one day be life that is great, that is worth living. However, that’s not the life we have now, so our only option is to cope with what we have. Ending life is one way of coping — not one that could be universally recommendable, but also not one that I can find a reason to condemn outright. Who am I to judge, or blame? Only the sheltered could do so ingenuously.

      Some people have genetics and life experiences which make living life a wonderful thing. For others though the reality of life is much sadder and many wish that they were never born. It is unethical to force someone to stay alive who never had a choice on whether to be born or not and who does not want to live. We should make assisted suicide accessible for people who do not want to live.

      Life is a personal responsibility and not everyone is able (or cut out) to cope with the pressures of this difficult life.

    3. Elie-

      I entirely agree. Pessimism is handy with pointing out the various structural flaws of life, but it is ultimately up to the person themselves to decide whether they want to continue to live. A robust defense of liberty and consent then is, in my opinion, the best analytic defense of antinatalism out there. The empirical facts of life, paired with the epistemic uncertainty of the future, leads to an almost non-negotiable denial of the right to conceive.

    4. Sara Perry has argued that "suicide is not wrong, but an ethically privileged, rational response to the badness of life"

      Do you agree with her?

      But Schopenhauer thought that suicide was embracing the will to live. Rather than denying the will to live and becoming ascetic, you're full heartedly embracing the will to live. To him, denial of the will to live was be fleeing life's pleasures, but suicide was fleeing life's suffering. To him, the suicidal person is someone who wants to live, but thinks that their position makes it impossible.

      How do you view all of this?

    5. Nicholas -

      I have yet to read Ms. Perry's book, but it's definitely on my reading list.

      Camus argued that suicide is what happens when someone decides that life is not worth the struggle.

      Fleeing one's suffering, in my view, is a rational strategy in the game of life. Sure, we can construct some sort of aesthetic to suffering, that Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus and others all tried to do in their own way. But I see this as a coping mechanism, nothing more. If life is so bad as to warrant not having children, then it should also not be worth living.

      In any case, it's hard to see how Schopenhauer's asceticism isn't also a form of fleeing life's suffering.

      I do have sympathies, though, for theories that advocate the continuation of life in order to maximize one's utility. Von Hartmann was one thinker who advocated this.

      In general, though, I have to agree with Sartre and Tolstoy: people continue out of ignorance or weakness. It is the strong who manage to kill themselves.

    6. Thanks.

      Do you think the following statement is true in most cases?

      "The aspects of suicide that stir us so deeply, in addition to the experience of loss, are found in its suddenness and finality.... Few acts, if any, carry the weight or profoundness of this sad statement of despair"

    7. Nicholas -

      Suicide can be a reasonable action for someone to take. This does not make it any less tragic. The suffering that a suicidal person must go through in order to even consider suicide as a legitimate option is quite sad.

  3. darth--

    Thanks. I also look forward to your review of Perry's book.

    Switching to the topic of aesthetics for a moment - I would really like to get your take on the following extracts from James Morrison's paper titled 'Why Spinoza Had No Aesthetics'

    Do you know anyone who would agree with what he says?


    The reasons for Spinoza's lack of interest in aesthetics are not solely or primarily due to a merely personal indifference to art and beauty. Nor does he openly express his reasons for his indifference or hostility to art and beauty. Rather, his reasons are philosophical and must be inferred from what he explicitly says. The general character of Spinoza's philosophy, as well as some of his central doctrines, not only provide no adequate philosophical basis for an aesthetics but lead to the neglect of aesthetics altogether. That is, I shall argue that Spinoza's philosophy represents a certain type of philosophy and "cast of mind" which is fundamentally alien to, even hostile towards, art and beauty. For Spinoza, works of art do not constitute a special domain of beings. He regards them merely as physical objects with physical predicates. Art and beauty belong to the life of imagination, sense, and passion. If the goal is to free ourselves from bondage and misery we must turn away from art and beauty, which are inseparable from them. Nevertheless, Spinoza allows that art and beauty do have a limited "medicinal" value.


    The problem is not just that Spinoza's philosophy offers a "barren soil" for cultivating an aesthetics. Rather, the ground it supplies is too hard and intractable to motivate anyone from even attempting to sow it. In other words, Spinoza's basic philosophical position, especially what I have called his naturalism and rationalism, together with their reductionist implications, provide no motivation for taking art and beauty seriously as themes of philosophical aesthetics. Naturalism means that works of art have no special metaphysical status (i.e., are not irreducible to physical objects) and that beauty is not a real (objective and absolute) quality of things. Rationalism means that only by thought (not the imagination or senses) can we know the true nature of things. Now it can be objected that none of these doctrines logically implies that art and beauty cannot be the subject-matter of a philosophical aesthetics. I am willing to grant this. But I maintain that when these metaphysical and epistemological doctrines are combined with moral rationalism the implications for aesthetics become more evident. For, as we have seen above, Spinoza's moral rationalism means that the emotions, which are linked to the imagination and senses, are the source of unfreedom, vice, and unhappiness. This implies that the good life is possible only if the passions are mastered; and this, Spinoza holds, can only be done by reason and the intellect. Herein lies, I believe, the ultimate basis of Spinoza's philosophical neglect of aesthetics. For once the good life is identified with the life of reason, and reason is opposed to emotion, imagination, and sense..... art and beauty become suspect. They are regarded as either irrelevant or hostile to man's highest and deepest interests.