In popular language the term pessimist is applied to persons who habitually take a melancholy view of life, to whom painful experiences appeal with great intensity, and who have little corresponding appreciation of pleasurable ones. Such a temper is partly due to natural disposition, and partly to individual circumstances. According to Caro (after von Hartmann), it is especially prevalent in periods of transition, in which old ways of thought have lost their hold, while the new order has not yet made itself fully known, or has not secured general acceptance for its principles. In such a state of things men's minds are driven in upon themselves; the outward order appears to lack stability and permanence, and life in general tends consequently to be estimated as hollow and unsatisfactory. Metchnikoff attributes the pessimistic temper to a somewhat similar period in the life history of the individual, viz.: — that of the transition from the enthusiasm of youth to the calmer and more settled outlook of maturity. It may be admitted that both causes contribute to the low estimate of life which is implied in the common notion of the pessimistic temperament. But this temperament seems to be far from rare at any time, and to depend upon causes too complex and obscure for exhaustive analysis. The poetic mind has very generally emphasized the painful aspect of life, though it is seldom wholly unresponsive to its pleasurable and desirable side. With Lucretius, however, life is a failure and wholly undesirable; with Sophocles, and still more with Æschylus, the tragic element in human affairs nearly obscures their more cheerful aspect: "It is best of all never to have been born"; the frank and unreflective joy in living and in the contemplation of nature, which runs through the Homeric poems, and is apparent in the work of Hesiod and that of the Greek lyrists, is but seldom found among those who look below the surface of things. In proportion as human affairs outgrew the naive simplicity of the early periods of history, the tendency to brood over the perplexities of emerging spiritual and social questions naturally increased. Byron, Shelley, Baudelaire and Leconte de Lisle, Heine and Leopardi are the poets of satiety, disillusion, and despair, as the genius of Goethe and Browning represents the spirit of cheerfulness and hope.
At the present moment it would seem that the variety of interests which science and education have brought within the reach of most persons, and the wide possibilities opened up for the future, have done much to discourage pessimistic feelings and to bring about the prevalence of a view of life which is on the whole of an opposite character. We must not, indeed, expect that the darker aspect of the world will ever be wholly abolished, or that it will ever cease to impress itself with varying degrees of intensity upon different temperaments. But the tendency of the present day is undoubtedly in the direction of that cheerful though not optimistic view of life which George Eliot called Meliorism, or the belief that though a perfect state may be unattainable, yet an indefinitely extended improvement in the conditions of existence may be looked for, and that sufficient satisfaction for human energy and desire may be found in the endeavour to contribute to it.
As a philosophical system, Pessimism may be characterized as one of the many attempts to account for the presence of evil in the world (see EVIL). Leibniz held that "metaphysical" evil is necessarily involved in the creation of finite existences, and that the possibility of sin and consequent suffering is inalienable from the existence of free and rational creatures. The principle from which evil arises is thus made to be an integral part of the actual constitution of nature, though its development is regarded as contingent. With Schopenhauer, the originator of Pessimism as a system, as with those who have accepted his qualitative estimate of the value of existence, evil in the full sense is not merely, as with Leibniz, a possible development of certain fundamental principles of nature, but is itself the fundamental principle of the life of man. The world is essentially bad and "ought not to be".
Schopenhauer holds that all existence is constituted by the objectivization of will, which is the sole and universal reality. Will is blind and unconscious until it is objectivized in human beings, in whom it first attains to consciousness, or the power of representation ( Idea; Vorstellung ). Hence arises the constant suffering which is the normal condition of human life. The essential nature of will is to desire and strive; and the consciousness of this perpetual unfulfilled desire is pain. Pleasure is merely an exception in human experience, the rare and brief cessation of the striving of the will, the temporary absence of pain. This theory recalls that of Plato ("Phædo") who regarded pleasure as the mere absence of pain; and the conception of conscious life as essentially painful and undesirable is nearly identical with the Buddhist notion (quoted with approval by Schopenhauer) that conscious existence is fundamentally and necessarily evil. Hence, further, comes the ethical theory of Schopenhauer, which may be summed up as the necessity for "denying the Will to live". Peace can be attained only in proportion as man ceases to desire; thus the pain of life can be minimized only by an ascetic renunciation of the search after happiness, and can be abolished only by ceasing to live. On the same principle, the poet Leopardi extolled suicide ; and Mainländer took his own life.
Schopenhauer's philosophical system of Monism has generally been regarded as in a great degree purely fanciful and self-contradictory. The teleological function attributed to the unconscious will, which produces phenomenal existence through the intervention of quasi- Platonic ideas, is obviously out of place; and the notion that we can through consciousness perceive will as apart from consciousness in our automatic bodily functions and thence also in the external world, creates a confusion between the rational will which we know in ourselves as the cause of action, and mere tendency or instinct, for which the characteristics of will are arbitrarily assumed.
Von Hartmann endeavoured to improve upon Schopenhauer by taking the unconscious ( Unbewusst ) as the foundation of reality. Will and idea are with him twin functions of the unconscious, which energizes both in them and apart from them. The idea becomes conscious through its opposition to will, and from this opposition arises the incurable, because essential, evil of life. In order to induce men to continue to exist, the unconscious leads them on to the pursuit of an unattainable happiness. The delusion presents itself in three successive forms, or stages, corresponding to the childhood, youth, and manhood of the race. In the first stage happiness is considered as attainable in the present life; in the second it is relegated to a transcendental future beyond the grave, and in the third (the present day) it is looked forward to as the future result of human progress. All are equally delusive; and there occurs, as a necessary consequence, at the end of each stage, and before the discovery of the next, the "voluntary surrender of individual existence " by suicide ; and when, in its old age, the race has discovered the futility of its hopes it will desire nothing but unconsciousness and so will cease to will, and therefore to be.
Meanwhile, the moral duty of man is to co-operate in the cosmic process which leads to this end. He is "to make the ends of the Unconscious his own ends", to renounce the hope of individual happiness, and so by the suppression of egoism to be reconciled with life as it is. Here von Hartmann claims to have harmonized Optimism and Pessimism, by finding in his own Pessimism the strongest conceivable impulse to effective action. With von Hartmann, life is not, as with Schopenhauer, essentially painful; but pain predominates greatly over pleasure: and the world is the outcome of a systematic evolution, by which the end of the unconscious will eventually be attained in the return of humanity into the peace of unconsciousness. The world is not, as Schopenhauer considered it, the worst possible, but the best, as is shown by the adaptation of means to ends in the evolutionary process. Nevertheless it is altogether bad, and had better not have been.
The unconscious of von Hartmann is involved in the same self-contradiction as the will of Schopenhauer. It is difficult to attach any real significance to the conception of consciousness as a function of the unconscious, or to that of purposive action by the unconscious. Considered simply as a reasoned basis for a doctrine of Pessimism, von Hartmann's system appears much like a Gnostic mythology, or such quasi-mystical imagery as that of Jacob Boehme, representing the pessimistic aspect of the actual world. From this point of view it may be said that both Schopenhauer and Hartmann rendered some service by emphasizing the perpetual contrast between desire and achievement in human affairs, and by calling attention to the essential function of suffering in human life. Schopenhauer and von Hartmann stand alone as the originators of metaphysical systems of an essentially pessimistic character. The subject has also, however, been treated from a philosophical standpoint by Bahnsen, Mainländer, Duprel, and Preuss, and has been discussed from a more or less optimistic point of view by Dühring, Caro, Sully, W. James, and many others. The extravagant speculations of Nietzsche are to a great extent founded on his early sympathy with the point of view of Schopenhauer.
The view to be taken of the contention of Pessimism depends mainly on whether the question can be settled by an estimate — supposing that one can be formed — of the relative amount of pleasure and pain in average human life. It may well be thought that such a calculus is impossible, since it must obviously depend in a great degree on purely subjective and therefore variable considerations. Pleasure and pain vary indefinitely both in kind and intensity with persons of differing idiosyncrasies. Life, it is contended, may still be happy, even though its pains may exceed its pleasures; or it may be worthless even if the reverse is the case. The point of view involves a judgment of values, rather than a quantitative estimate of pleasure and pain. The true pessimistic estimate of life would be that it is rather unhappy, because it is worthless, than worthless because it is unhappy. But again, values can be estimated or judged only according to the degree of personal satisfaction they imply; and we are brought back to a merely subjective view of the value of life, unless we can discover some absolute standard, some estimate of the comparative importance of its pleasures and pains which is invariable and the same for all. Such a standard of value is to be found in religious belief, and exists in its most complete form in the faith of Catholics. Religion fixes the scale of values by reference not to varying individual sensibilities, but to an eternal law which is always ideally and may be actually the reason of the individual judgment. Moreover, the recognition of such an absolute standard itself provides an absolute satisfaction, arising from action in accordance with it, which cannot exist in the absence of such recognition, and which is only travestied by Schopenhauer's pseudo-mystical delight in contemplating the "kernel of things", or by von Hartmann's personal adoption of the assumed "ends" of the unconscious.
Thus the Christian law of duty gives to action, in itself possibly quite the reverse of pleasurable, a value far outweighing that of the satisfaction arising from any specific pleasure, whether sensuous or intellectual. The inevitable Christian tendency to depreciate satisfaction arising from pleasure as against the performance of duty has caused Christianity to be classified as a system of Pessimism. This is, for example, the view taken of it by Schopenhauer, who declares that "Optimism is irreconcilable with Christianity ", and that true Christianity has throughout that ascetic fundamental character which his philosophy explains as the denial of the will to live.
Von Hartmann, in like manner, rejecting as mythical the foundation of the Christian Faith and its hope of the hereafter, takes its historical and only important content to be the doctrine that "this earthly vale of tears has in itself no value whatever, but that, on the contrary, the earthly life is composed of tribulation and daily torment." It can hardly be disputed that the Christian view of life in itself is scarcely less pessimistic than that of Schopenhauer or Hartmann; and its pains are regarded as essentially characteristic of its present condition, due to the initial misdirection of human free-will. No estimate of the essential painfulness of human life could well exceed that of the 'Imitatio Christi" (see, e.g., III, xx). But the outlook is profoundly modified by the introduction of the "eternal values" Which are the special province of Christianity. The unhappiness of the world is counterbalanced by the satisfaction which arises from a peaceful conscience, and a sense of harmony between individual action and eternal law ; faith and love contribute an element of joy to life which cannot be destroyed, and may even be enhanced, by temporal suffering; and in some cases at least the delights of supernatural mystical contemplation reduce merely natural pain and pleasure to comparative insignificance.
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