October 10, 2007


Caption: This man is overcome with pessimism.

Aside from comments and links about current events, the theme for this week's Goat Rope is optimism and pessimism. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier posts.

While a little philosophical pessimism is probably a good antidote to naivete, some people run it into the ground.

A case in point is the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). He was the pessimist's pessimist. Here's a sample from his essay "On the Suffering of the World"...

Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.

In another essay charmingly titled "The Vanity of Existence," he says

Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom by the feeling of the emptiness of life?

I bet that dude knew how to party...

Maybe the attitude that is most useful to life is one that combines some elements of pessimism and optimism. A dash of pessimism could be a check on hubris and even a spur to gratitude. When you realize how bad things could be, it makes you appreciate it when they're not. I make it a practice to try to notice and be glad when I don't have a toothache or a catheter. And since I don't expect to get everything I want, I'm grateful for little victories.

Believe it or not, things could be a LOT worse...

Nietzsche once talked about "a pessimism of strength." What we need is a view of the world that fully acknowledges its dark side, dangers and difficulties but which is willing to take action to change things.

The French writer Romaine Rolland came up with an elegant expression of that approach (later popularized by Antonio Gramsci):

Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.

WHAT HE SAID. Jonathan Chait is one of my favorite New Republic writers. Here's his op-ed on the loopiness of supply side economics from yesterday's NY Times.

PLANET JUPITER UPDATE. OK, so this doesn't' have an immediate connection with economic justice--but it's cool.

MAGICAL THINKING. We're officially against torture. So if we do it it's not torture. Any questions?

"FRIENDLY FIRE." El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia, aka the Energy Sacrifice Zone, is the subject of this item from alternet.

PRISONS. A new study by the WV Council of Churches argues that a small investment on community-based corrections could save the state a lot of money and prevent other problems.



Jason nSJ said...

I don't know if you've seen "The Daily Show's" John Oliver making a similar point about torture:


El Cabrero said...

That was awesome! Thanks--I don't have cable. I loved the part about words losing definitions. Orwell would be proud, huh?