Pessimism the opposite of Optimism (q.v.), is the doctrine that the universe is the worst possible, or the worst conceivable. This is the broadest form in which the doctrine can be stated or held. In a non-limited application it might be defined as the doctrine that human existence, in its conditions and its destiny, is only an evil. SEE EVIL and SEE ORIGIN OF EVIL. Popularly applied, pessimism might be defined as the doctrine that the evil outweighs the good in the universe at large or in the condition of man.
The term is of recent coinage, and has only become current — in its philosophical or popular meaning — within the last twenty years, chiefly through the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer (q.v.) and Eduard von Hartmann. The very recent introduction of the term indicates, if it does not prove, that the doctrine itself as a formal theory is of recent origin. It is true that all literatures and all philosophies abound in complaints and meditations and proposed remedies having respect to the evils of human existence, and the apparent defects in the constitution or the workings of the universe. But these theories and complaints and remedies all presuppose that some good reason can be given, or some valuable end suggested, as the explanation or the compensation for the evil which is accounted for or bemoaned. None of the ancient philosophies or theologies are avowedly and consistently pessimistic except that of Buddhism, which formally teaches that all the present forms of existence are only evil, and that the only good conceivable is in Nirvana. What this may be is not so clear as might be desired: whether the termination of conscious and sentient existence, or the actual cessation of all forms of active desire and hope, which work conflict or disappointment.
With the exception named, all the older philosophies and theologies are in theory optimistic, so far as they all resolve the existence of physical evil into some permanent or preponderating good, under the conduct of one supreme Deity or reason, or many subordinate deities, who in some way were supposed to bring greater good out of abounding evil. Even the theory of Lucretius cannot be said to be pessimistic. The temper in which the great thinkers and the leading philosophers of antiquity regarded the economies of the universe and the ordering of human affairs varies with the greater or less hopefulness of the times in which they wrote, and the clearness and firmness with which they held to faith in divine guidance and the divine goodness. It is worthy of observation that the universe and the condition of man never seemed darker nor more hopeless, in the judgment of reflecting and sympathizing thinkers, than a little before and after Christianity made its appearance in the world, offering the solutions and the comforts which it brought as pre-eminently a religion of contentment, thankfulness, and hope.
But with all the consolation and hope which Christianity afforded to man, it did not put to rest all speculation and misgiving in respect to the mystery of evil. Indeed, it is no more than the truth to say that Christianity brought special difficulties of its own, which, according to some interpretations made of its teachings, have seemed to darken the mystery of evil, and to complicate the explanation of its existence. It is no part of our duty to recite the theories of Christian philosophy in respect to the existence of physical and moral evil. It is enough that we call attention to the fact that their theories are in form or in fact optimistic. They all find the explanation of evil in some greater and superabounding good, of which this evil in its infliction or permission is the condition or the means. They all recognize the existence of a wise and benevolent Ruler of the universe, who from seeming evil is ever educing good, and whose wisdom and goodness will be amply justified when the reasons of his administration are fully understood. In theory and in fact, no theistic theory of the universe can be conceived of as pessimistic.
With the denial of theism, pessimism is possible, but not necessary. Spinoza seems to be an optimist when he asserts that finite evil and good are only relative conceptions; that what seems to be evil is the necessary manifestation or outworking of the universal substance. Logically considered, his argument is not valid, for, in order to make it such, it must be assumed or proved that the existence of the universal substance or God is itself a good. The philosophy of Hegel found in the necessary evolution of the absolute a place for every form of evil as a necessary stage in the process by which the idea at last comes to self-consciousness in man, and thus marks the steps of its advancement or evolution in the history of each individual, and in the progress of the race. But in order to justify the occurrence of these transient evils, this development of the lower into the higher must be assumed to be good. Pessimism is by no means excluded by this theory of Hegel, except by the assumption that an outcome of preponderating evil in the universe would be unreasonable, and unreason is evil only, and cannot be actual. But this solution only illustrates a fundamental weakness or limitation of the system itself in its conceptions of good and evil.
Schopenhauer makes the two elements or factors of the universe to be will — i.e. force and thought; i.e. Vorstellung; conceiving, however, of neither nor of both as implying a personal God. He does, indeed, make the force which is blind when it begins to work to come at the end of its operations to a consciousness of itself and of its work; but the discovery which it makes of both is anything rather than satisfactory. As soon as the blind will comes to the clear knowledge of the unsatisfactory character of its work, it recoils with horror, and strives for self-annihilation. Schopenhauer gives his reasons for holding that all life is only suffering: 1. The constitution of the human individual; 2. The nature of enjoyment; 3. The consequents of possession and gratification; 4. The relation of man to the external world; 5. The aimless operation of history. From these data he concludes that the universe is the worst possible, arguing that if it were a shade worse it could not possibly exist. The only transitory happiness which man can find or should value are the passionless pleasures of science and art. These have as little as possible of the elements of feeling and impulse, and therefore are liable to the least possible alloy.
Hartmann contends that the universe as a whole is uncontrolled by design. Each part is adapted to every other, but no design controls the whole. This he argues from the unsatisfactory results of the universe, with which he contends no reasonable being could possibly be content, and therefore the universe as a whole is neither reasonable nor good. In proof, he cites
(1) The law of nervous exhaustion;
(2) The pleasure found in relief from pain does not usually outweigh the pain;
(3) The most of our pleasures are unobtrusive; the contrary is true of pains;
(4) All gratifications are usually brief, while sufferings are enduring.
The remedy which Hartmann proposes is to elevate and strengthen the will to a passionless indifference to existence and its evils, and a passionless enjoyment of its blessings. SEE STOICISM.
The affinity of these philosophical theories with the hypotheses of blind evolutionism and the survival of the fittest, as taught by many modern expounders of natural history, is too obvious to need exposition. The moment we abandon the position that design controls the universe, and that the tendency of its forces and movements authorizes us to believe in the goodness of a personal God, it is impossible to set aside the reasonings which lead to the hopeless and repulsive conclusions of pessimism. In literature pessimism is nearly allied to nihilism, or that faithless and hopeless view of life's duties and life's activities which is the result of the overstimulated and the overindulged curiosity and tastes that characterize most of our modern life. Indeed, it is in this practical form only that pessimism is likely to be current or dangerous. There are comparatively few men who will be attracted by this doctrine as an abstract theory of the universe. Its assumptions are too remote and doubtful, and the deductions are too attenuated. But there are multitudes in this our own cultivated age who have found life so empty, and the gratification of passion so unsatisfying, and even the pursuit of art and literature so unrewarding, as to be ready to accept the conclusion that the universe is badly ordered, and human existence is only vanity and vexation of spirit. Theoretic pessimism is, on the one hand, compatible with the grossest debauchery, the most shameless self-seeking, and the most cruel oppression; and on the other with stoic indifference for one's personal sufferings, and passionless unsympathy for the sorrows of others. No influence can be more unfriendly to individual or national character than the absence of faith in God and man which such n theory implies or engenders. No heroism nor self-sacrifice nor self-culture in its highest forms can flourish in a community of educated men who have persuaded themselves that their life is a burden, that the universe is false to its promises, and that their very nature is necessarily in conflict with the impulses and hopes which impel it to action. Neither art nor literature nor philosophy can escape the blight which pessimism, as a philosophy of the universe or a theory of life, must of necessity bring upon all that is noble and aspiring in man and his achievements. See Huber, Der Pessimismus (Munich, 1876); Volkelt, Das Unbewusste und der Pessimismus: Studien zur modernen Geistesbewegung (Berlin, 1873); Taubert, Der Pessimismus und seine Gegner; Von Hartmann, Ist der pessimistische Monismus trostlos? Gesammeltephil. Abhandlungen (Berlin, 1872); Pfleiderer, Der Pessimismus (Berlin, 1875); Christlieb, Infidelity, v. 40; Ueberweg, Hist. of Philosophy (see Index); Christian Quar. April, 1874, p. 284-88; North Amer. Rev. July, 1873, art. 2.