Is the glass half empty or half full?
Always proceed as though it’s half-empty, is the advice of Stuart Sim. The author of A Philosophy of Pessimism articulates an argument that it’s advisable for all of us to adopt an attitude of pessimism toward the world around us.
But what is pessimism? Here’s where the contemporary misunderstanding usually arises. “Pessimism involves a striving against the odds, even when you believe these are overwhelmingly stacked against you and that the worst outcome almost inevitably looms (the ‘almost’ being crucial),” writes Sim. Think of Sisyphus, the archetypal Greek ruler who is consigned to push a boulder up a mountain for eternity: every time he almost reaches the top, the boulder rolls down again. The point, however, is not that his task seems in vain, but rather that he keeps doing it. Despite the mounting evidence of his own inevitable failure, he never gives up. It’s timely advice for the human race, which, in these times, seems torn and undecided about how to proceed, given the historical failure of our many grand narratives (countless religions, communism, capitalism) and the looming crises ahead (climate change, poverty, war, terrorism).
The point is not to give up, says Sim, but to simply acknowledge the distinct likelihood that our best efforts will be perverted or co-opted, that great struggles might eventually fail, that our present hopes may eventually unravel, and that we must keep trying .anyway. Expecting the worst means that we will be better able to deal with it when it eventually happens. We won’t try to ignore it, or render it hidden through mathematical or public relations schemes. Instead we’ll be more willing to acknowledge the truth of things and adapt our plans to cope with it.
Naturally, this advice applies at all levels, from the personal to the political. Much of the suffering and chaos of today has been caused by those who continually try to convince us that things aren’t as bad as they seem: the economy will recover, technology can overcome climate change, the job market is improving. Nonsense, says the pessimist: everything’s a mess, capitalism is a grand failure, democracy is broken, climate change is likely to doom us all. So let’s accept the matter and get on with fixing it.
It’s important, writes Sim, to recognize first what pessimism is not. It is not fatalism: the pessimist expects the worst, and recognizes it when it happens, but keeps striving anyway and trying to fix it. It is also not depression. Depression is a disabling condition, and at its worst can prevent the type of action that pessimists call for to address the problems of the present. Depression can also be akin to fatalism, if it leads to a withdrawal from active efforts to improve one’s life.
If anything, pessimism is most closely related to skepticism, says Sim. The word ‘skeptic’ is widely misused in today’s world: it refers not to someone who refuses to believe something, but to “an attitude of doubt (often extreme doubt) about what we can ever know with any certainty.” If applied properly this can lead not to an inability to act, but to a flexible state of mind that is willing to accept and acknowledge failure when it happens, and to rebound quickly onto plan B instead of clinging to the doomed hope that plan A will somehow work out despite mounting evidence to the contrary. “It would be naïve to expect the best outcome to keep on arriving just because that suits us better: the world just does not work that way.”
Having laid out a well-articulated argument for a pessimistic outlook toward life, Sim spends the bulk of his book combing through the history and culture of the western world offering examples of the many other people and things that also reflect a pessimistic approach. He seeks it out in historical belief systems (Calvinism, Islam, entropic theory, the Gaia principle, war and crime, structuralism, French feminism). He seeks it out in economic and political theory (ripping the optimistic blinkers off both neoliberal capitalism and Marxism alike). He seeks it out in philosophy (Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Adorno, Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, etc). He seeks it out in literary fiction (Sophocles, Shakespeare, Sterne, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Beckett, McCarthy, Roth, etc). And he seeks it out in the arts, exploring the aesthetic expression of a philosophy grounded in pessimism. It emerges in painting and visual arts (Goya, Munch, Picasso); in film (Bergman, Lynch, Kubrick, Stone); and in music (classical, opera, blues, country and western).
Art reflects life, and vice versa, and humankind’s failure to learn from its past mistakes becomes strikingly evident, for example when comparing America’s disastrous Vietnam War with the current global disaster it’s unleashed in the Middle East, both of which have been glaringly criticized not only by politicians but also by artists working in a range of mediums. But at the heart of it all lies a compelling pessimism: “The situation in the Middle East alone is enough to indicate that there is every reason to be pessimistic about humanity’s ability to resolve political disputes between different cultures, and to exemplify just how difficult we can find it to reach a compromise (which is not to say that we should stop trying, even if decades of this has resulted in precious little, if any, real progress being made).”
There’s no doubt: western history has produced plenty of pessimists. Sim offers a thoughtful and well-articulated sampling of pessimism in western culture. Of particular interest is his discussion of pessimism among American crime writers, a genre which is often excluded from intellectual and philosophical discussions of this type, but which offers a tremendous vantage into the motivations and cultural particularities of the society which produces it.
Sim’s work is expansive, compelling and thought-provoking to be sure. It would, however, have been strengthened if he’d returned at greater length to the theme with which he opened the book: that is, how a pessimistic philosophy can be usefully applied in today’s world. How precisely has pessimistic literature influenced political and social mores in the present? What’s been the lingering cultural impact of historical religious belief systems that were grounded in pessimism? How would a pessimistic approach grapple with the challenges posed by the extremes of capitalism and socialism alike? What, in short, would a pessimistic philosophy look like in action?
Sim doesn’t tread too far down that path, content largely to demonstrate the workings of pessimism in culture and history. The result is compelling, but leaves the reader wondering how best to apply these lessons to their own lives, and what might be done to better equip our personal, political and societal structures to gird them against the delusional dangers of unblinkered optimism.
The first step toward a solution, as we all know, is accepting that we have a problem. If we can collectively accept that yes, the glass is half-empty, then at least that’s a start. Because “sometimes being a killjoy is the right and proper thing to do.”
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