This is something that I have thought about for a very long time now. It is my belief that the classic pessimists (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran, etc) espoused what I would label “comfortable pessimism”, or perhaps “convenient pessimism”.
What do I mean by “comfortable pessimism”? I mean a descriptive belief that establishes the world and its contents as negative in function and quality, but which there is an absent adequate prescription for its residents. In particular, an ethical prescription.
I will now provide some examples to justify my claim.
The first example is of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the greatest German philosophers of all time. Truly, an undeniable genius and the number-one icon for philosophical pessimism. Here we have him asking us to compare the suffering experienced by the prey with the pleasure experienced by the predator, or pointing out the tedium and pointlessness of life in general. His prescription to those who read him? Detachment from the material world, isolation, contemplation, asceticism.
This is aesthetically pleasing. Rejecting the world of conflict and strife for a bubble of security. A simple life.
Yet Schopenhauer betrays his own foundations when he became famous later in life. He went out partying and auctioning and traveling. Not exactly the life of an ascetic.
But we have to make sure we separate the actions of the man with the theoretical prescriptions he provided. So I’ll attack his prescriptions, or, rather, the lack thereof.
When Schopenhauer was in Berlin (I think?), there was a massive cholera outbreak. Schopenhauer said he was a “cholera-phobe” and promptly packed up and left, saving himself from a disease. This quotation shows his deep aversion towards the world in general, especially on the aesthetic level.
He later travelled all across Europe, thinking himself to be the bringer of truth to humanity. In his opinion, he thought he shouldn’t interact with the common rabble in the same way Chinese missionaries shouldn’t interact with the Chinese. Thus we have a clear example of separation: a sense of entitlement and superiority.
It’s true that Schopenhauer was very intelligent. But it’s also striking how a man as perceptive to global suffering as he was, he simultaneously seemed to care very little for it. He focused instead of pursuing Truth, and once asked himself what the world would think about himself in the year 2100. He contemplated getting a wife later in his years. After he died, he left all his money to charity - a noble gesture, yet neither did Schopenhauer have any close friends or family in which this would go to.
Despite his acknowledgement of suffering, Schopenhauer continued to see a hierarchy in the world, one in which he no doubt thought himself as residing in the upper echelons.
Additionally, he seemed to have thought that the world was still in some sense aesthetically redeeming. He was fascinated with nature, fascinated with finding out the ultimate reality of the universe. It is exactly this fascination that I use as justification for the view that Schopenhauer was decadent. Schopenhauer was able to enjoy himself in a surrounding world of suffering. Considering Schopenhauer saw married couples as the ultimate conspirators to the continuation of human suffering, I believe I am justified in criticizing Schopenhauer himself as an inactive bystander (passive accomplice) to a world he otherwise saw as horrible.
If it could be summarized, then, Schopenhauers’ ethics would seem to largely consist in “not my fucking problem”. It’s simply enough to recognize that suffering exists.
The same can be seen in the philosophies of Cioran or Leopardi. Leopardi, for example, thought the only thing that could really “save” a person was complete isolation from the material world. And Cioran curiously seemed to have embraced suffering in some sense as a livelihood - he once envied Beckett for his despair. Once again, we have the aestheticization of suffering, or the mere abstraction of a negative feeling. The romanticization of something that really is not romantic at all, but dirty, painful, narrowing, and bad.
Buddhist ethics is a bit different in that it talks about the existence of bodhisattvas, or beings who achieve nirvana yet stick around anyway to help everyone else out. True altruists. Many Buddhist philosophers of the past could be seen as consequentialists. For Buddhists, it is not simply enough to point out the suffering in the world, but to actively promote the destruction of it, as suffering is something that should not exist.
Then we come to Nietzsche, who wanted to say “yes” to everything, including suffering. Suffering, for Nietzsche, is also aestheticized as a necessary prerequisite for power. For Nietzsche, a single joyous experience justifies all existence. This is inspiring but ultimately implausible and actually insulting to those who are suffering greatly.
So, to wrap up, this is what I see to be characteristic features of “comfortable/convenient pessimism”:
Unfortunately, this makes comfortable pessimism an inactive and thus self-fulfilling prophecy. One should not be surprised when the world continues be to quite bad when one does nothing about it.
Active, purpose-driven pessimism eschews aesthetic comfort and decadence for a prescription to end the problem once and for all. This entails participating in and supporting public institutions focused on maximizing welfare and making the world a better place, and actively advocating pessimistic philosophies, within the constraints of self-preservation.
Active pessimism recognize how inappropriate it is to find pure enjoyment in the midst of irredeemable suffering. It recognizes that if you enjoy being a pessimist as an identity, you're doing it wrong.