Pessimism

Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

Joshua Foa Dienstag
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sw6h
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Pessimism
    Book Description:

    Pessimism claims an impressive following--from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse--an accusation of a bad attitude--or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species--who would actually counsel pessimism?

    Joshua Foa Dienstag does. InPessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been--and can again be--an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal--of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism--is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2748-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. PART I

    • Chapter One THE ANATOMY OF PESSIMISM
      (pp. 3-46)

      Can it really be the case that an entire tradition of thought has gone missing from our standard histories of political theory? A claim like this sounds extravagant on first hearing. In some sense, perhaps, it is extravagant—but not in the way that immediately comes to mind. In attempting to reframe the history of political thought so that pessimism becomes one of its major strands, I will not be arguing for paying attention to a series of writers who have hitherto been wholly unknown. While there certainly are authors, important to identify, who have been unjustly neglected on account...

  7. PART II

    • Chapter Two “A PHILOSOPHY THAT IS GRIEVOUS BUT TRUE”: CULTURAL PESSIMISM IN ROUSSEAU AND LEOPARDI
      (pp. 49-83)

      If pessimism can be said to have an identifiable starting point in the philosophical tradition, it must be found in the contradictory figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is not to say, of course, that Rousseau’s pessimism is without precursors and influences. In earlier French authors such as Montaigne and Pascal, one can trace an increasing concern with inwardness and psychological depth; in Machiavelli and other Florentine writers, there is a developing interest in historical time; and in critics such as Vauvenargues, La Rochefoucauld, and Montesquieu, one can find a growing suspicion that the increase of knowledge and civilization since the...

    • Chapter Three “THE EVILS OF THE WORLD HONESTLY ADMITTED”: METAPHYSICAL PESSIMISM IN SCHOPENHAUER AND FREUD
      (pp. 84-117)

      Pessimism first achieved real recognition as a species of philosophy (a recognition that it quickly lost) through the popularity and influence of Arthur Schopenhauer. Although I have argued in the previous chapters that the true history of pessimism ought to be reckoned as beginning earlier, no account of the pessimistic spirit could deny pride of place to its most famous and relentless exponent. We should, however, resist the idea that Schopenhauer defines pessimism and vice versa. Schopenhauer himself certainly would not have claimed this.¹ He was well aware of his debts to earlier Western philosophers, from Heraclitus to Kant—indeed,...

    • Chapter Four “CONSCIOUSNESS IS A DISEASE”: EXISTENTIAL PESSIMISM IN CAMUS, UNAMUNO, AND CIORAN
      (pp. 118-158)

      In the twentieth century, pessimism has been the philosophy that dares not speak its name. Although the writers I will discuss here—Albert Camus, Miguel de Unamuno, and E. M. Cioran—often went out of their way to defend the idea of pessimism,¹ they did not always adopt this label for themselves, or not with any consistency. My concern, however, is not with their practices of self-identification. Each of these writers, in fact, tried to disassociate themselves fromallaffiliations and often presented themselves as writers “without party.” Thus Camus frequently rejected the tag of “existentialist” with which he was...

  8. PART III

    • Chapter Five NIETZSCHE’S DIONYSIAN PESSIMISM
      (pp. 161-200)

      The prior chapters have attempted to give the reader a sense of the breadth and complexity of the pessimistic spirit. It is a long and diverse tradition, sympathetic to the plight of the human condition but, on the whole, not pitying of it. The pessimists, more than any other group of theorists, have attempted to come to grips with the burden placed on human beings by virtue of our residency in linear time. If we cannot return to a cyclical view of history and if narratives of progress now seem suspect, it is pessimism, I submit, that holds the richest...

    • Chapter Six CERVANTES AS EDUCATOR: DON QUIXOTE AND THE PRACTICE OF PESSIMISM
      (pp. 201-225)

      In the last chapter, I depicted Nietzsche’s Dionysian pessimism as an ethic of radical possibility linked to radical insecurity. The lack of natural boundaries both between and within humans permits, simultaneously, our capacity for novelty and distinctiveness as well as our capacity for enormous cruelty. We cannot, on this account, have one without the other. But if Dostoevsky provides a horrible image of what such a world would look like, he does not offer the only one. As the quotations above indicate, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer before him, felt a profound affinity between the worlds they describe in philosophy and the...

    • Chapter Seven APHORISMS AND PESSIMISMS
      (pp. 226-243)

      The aphorism is not dead—but itisin danger of being misplaced. Is it not remarkable that aphorisms are not in use more widely? They seem so appropriate for our age, where the average attention span is rapidly diminishing. And yet, in a perverse way, this is probably the reason for their rarity in contemporary Anglophone philosophy. Thinking to fight against the banalization and abbreviation of our culture, philosophers write ever-longer, more serious, more studious tomes—while publishers beg them to write shorter, sexier ones. But while our culture may become truly simple, an aphorism merely appears so. Its...

    • Chapter Eight PESSIMISM AND FREEDOM (THE PESSIMIST SPEAKS)
      (pp. 244-264)

      “All the tragedies which we can imagine return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.” These words appear in a lesson-plan found in one of Simone Weil’s notebooks (Weil 1978, 197). The next sentence is equally striking: “Time is also the origin of all forms of enslavement.” Animals can be tortured, imprisoned, exploited, and killed, in horrific fashion, but they cannot be enslaved. They have no past or future to steal.

      The motley cow.Our measurements of time are a chaos of conflicting histories. From the Babylonians, we derive the twenty-four-hour day; from the...

  9. AFTERWORD
    (pp. 265-272)

    InFreedom and Necessity, the economic historian Joan Robinson wrote, “Anyone who writes a book, however gloomy its message may be, is necessarily an optimist. If the pessimists really believed what they were saying there would be no point in saying it” (1970, 124). This, I suppose, will be a common response to the foregoing; certainly, many others have repeated it. Even for those inclined to be sympathetic to what I have written, there will be the urge to find some kind of happy conclusion to it all, so that one will be able to say, in the end, it’s...

  10. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 273-282)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 283-293)