Monday, January 9, 2017

"Comfortable Pessimism"

Arthur Schopenhauer

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”:

  • Excessive individuality and self-centeredness, manifesting as isolation and a sense of entitlement/superiority
  • Aestheticization of suffering, manifesting as a romantic narrative more than a feeling
  • Acknowledgement of others’ suffering, but a general indifference to it, sometimes manifesting as amusement or disgust and a focus on one’s own priorities (“not my fucking problem” or “I’ve done ‘enough’ ”, aka not having the stomach for active participation)
  • The theoretical rejection of the world (negativity) paired with distinctly affirmative procedures, manifesting as a sort of “redemption” or “habit”, i.e. art, calligraphy, fine cuisine, philosophy, etc.
  • General melancholy, and an aversion to horror (Cioran as an exception), and a tendency to focus on maximizing one’s own comfort and security (i.e. Schopenhauer’s plush pillows and poodle)

Thus I believe that the “comfortable pessimist” betrays their own descriptive foundations by failing to follow-through and pursue their pessimism to a prescriptive end. For the comfortable pessimist, it is enough to merely recognize that suffering is everywhere, but there is no responsibility to clean it up. Instead, the comfortable pessimist focuses on making their own life as comfortable and easy as possible. Thus this sort of pessimism is often accompanied by misanthropy, which oftentimes entails other people as being unworthy of attention.

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.


  1. darthbarracuda is the wet sewage discovered in the underground in Uganda today.

  2. darthbarracuda is the most retarded stupid trash motherfucker.

  3. Hey DB,

    Thank you for contributing truly fascinating and important posts such as this on the internet. They are different and passionate to an order of magnitude over the vast majority of modern blog, etc. writing on these topics.

    It seems to be worthwhile for ANs to try to pursue what seems to be the likely only remotely possible avenue, the direct branch of the main idea, to try to have modern societies at least morally and legally recognize the rights of unfortunate people and help them escape with dignity, if it comes to that. I wonder what your thoughts on this are and if it is even remotely feasible.

    Thank you

    1. Thank you for the kind words, pigybird. If what you are referring to is the legalization of suicide, then yes, I support this and think this is potentially one of the best ways we can try to minimize suffering. I'm not an AN purist - I'm a person concerned about suffering that tends to look at things within a consequentialist framework. Keeping people alive for no reason is harmful.

      The difficult part about introducing any sort of negative philosophy to a largely affirmative society is that it inevitably brings along other issues. For example, if society straight up became AN overnight, our lives would become a lot more difficult. The active pessimist is the one who is willing to swallow this pill and commit to a harder lifestyle. Otherwise you end up being just one of millions of gushing eggheads on the internet who have Something to Say but Nothing to Do. Everyone can have an opinion, own a blog and brag about how angry they are about the world. But unless you're gonna DO something about it, the only thing you're doing is making yourself feel superior to everyone else. Which is pretty pathetic if you ask me.

    2. DB -

      Schopenhauer must have been bemused by wizened but happy old people. And to think of such geriatric folk as both “self-actualized” (in the Maslow sense if that’s even possible) and nontheist would perhaps puzzle him even more?

  4. Hmm... Yeah, the idea I wrote above could be the one of people who, for one reason or another, concern themselves with these ultimate world dilemmas; and are invested mentally, spiritually and even emotionally, and see this as the single important issue in all of lifedom. I do not doubt that such individuals exist and their numbers are not few, however things are obviously not so simple. Many, many of your more average people are always on the fence when it comes to this important stuff but the problem is getting them on your side as you will have to provide ideas in effective ways. Unfortunately with my knowledge of the world I cannot see reasonably doable ways to get something as seemingly tame and non-revolutionary as the recognition of a person's rights to their mind and body to be widely, if not universally, accepted, and respected - as much as people respect one another's personal space, for example, it's not even questioned. The big fail gets me down often so I mostly keep my business to myself. I completely agree with you that doing is so important and commend you for it. But it's so difficult by virtue of human psychology, it's big programming head with drone eyes supplying millions of little tubes to tiny drone heads to groupthink, and all... But your blog is amazing, man!

  5. darthbarracuda is the smashed potato produced in Uganda. The ancestors of darthbarracuda are the same as the excrement produced in Somalia recent decades.

  6. Pfaa LOL this is some funny shit!!

  7. darthbarracuda is the most expensive tuna salad purchased by the tallest citizen in Uganda.

  8. darthbarracuda is the most bullshit tuna salad purchased in South Africa.

  9. It is not the case that darthbarracuda is human.

  10. darthbarracuda is the beheaded chicken sold out at the supermarket located in Germany.

  11. Hey darth!

    There's a topic which will probably interest you.

    Can I send you a pm?

  12. I don't know how to send a pm here. Is there a way here to send one?

    1. Try shooting me an email or pm me over at reddit, same username.

  13. ...and you are a fucking stupid idiot. darthbarracuda is the stupid idiot smashed by the most powerful MMA fighter in New Zealand. Okay???