June/July 2011

Strong: Pessimism : Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

A review of Pessimism: Philosophy-Ethic-Spirit by Tracy Strong

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. In "Pessimism", 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 mayprovideacriticallyneededalternativetothe 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.

It seems that with each passing day the faith in progress becomes less sustainable, less believable, whether one consults environmental, social, or political data. The pessimistic tradition, having confronted the human situation without relying upon this faith, affords us a diverse wealth of resources for going on and even for doing worthy things. Dienstag justifies his dramatic claim that we have been ignoring the pessimistic tradition to our own impoverishment. But his articulation of this tradition, as befits the pessimistic spirit, is provisional and an invitation to others to join in its exploration. “There is no other book quite like Dienstag's.” -- Melissa A. Orlie, University of Illinois

I think this book is successful in what it sets out to do. It is extremely ambitious : it seeks to recast European political thought over the last 300 years and to make that recasting appealing to contemporary readers. I concur with most of the analyses and in all cases they are creative and enlightening. -- Tracy Strong, University of California, San Diego

PART I CHAPTER ONE: The Anatomy of Pessimism 3 PART II CHAPTER TWO: "A Philosophy That Is Grievous but True": Cultural Pessimism in Rousseau and Leopardi 49
CHAPTER THREE: "The Evils of the World Honestly Admitted": Metaphysical Pessimism in Schopenhauer and Freud 84
CHAPTER FOUR "Consciousness Is a Disease": Existential Pessimism in Camus, Unamuno, and Cioran 118
PART III CHAPTER FIVE: Nietzsche's Dionysian Pessimism 161 CHAPTER SIX: Cervantes as Educator: Don Quixote and the Practice of Pessimism 201
CHAPTER SEVEN: Aphorisms and Pessimisms 226
CHAPTER EIGHT: Pessimism and Freedom (The Pessimist Speaks)