June/July 2011

Tafarella: Pessimism: Philosophy - Ethic - Spirit

A review of Pessimism: Philosophy-Ethic-Spirit by Santi Tafarella

Pessimism (Princeton 2006), by Joshua Foa Dienstag, is excellent on many levels, but its chief value is in the way it locates “pessimism” as an identifiable philosophical position.

In chapter 5; Nietzsche Dionysian Pessimism we read that “Time is the destructive power that stands behind any particular cause of suffering in the world. If one accepts the pessimistic assessment of the time bound world as a place of chaos and dissonance, one faces the choice of retreating from it or embracing it and trying to let harmony sound forth from every conflict. Pessimism fortifies us, not against the effects of time itself (death, change, suffering), but against the possible dispiriting that can come from facing time and it’s effects in pessimism’s absence. It looks toward the future , not with the expectation that better things are foreordained, but with a hope founded only on taking joy in the constant process of transformation and destruction that mark out the human condition.”

“the best pessimists have strength of character and a sense of humour”

In quoting Nietzsche the author explains that; his pessimistic form of philosophy will be best suited to those he calls “the most moderate.” Those who do not require any extreme articles of faith, those who can think of man with a considerable reduction in his value without becoming small and weak on that account. These are the humans he considers “the most strongest”—not those who can destroy the most, or the towering egoists of Ayn Rand’s imagination, but those pessimists who can withstand the most destruction without giving way to pity and resignation. “ I assess the power of a will by how much resistance to pain and torture it endures and knows how to turn it to its advantage.” Like Don Quixote, the best pessimists have a strength of character and a sense of humour—for this world both are needed.

The author traces the pessimistic tradition through the Dionysian pre- Socratics, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Camus (as well as some lesser known philosophers). He suggests that the pessimistic tradition has led to two chief responses (an active one, embodied by people like Nietzsche and Camus, and a passive one, embodied by misanthropic quietists like Schopenhauer).

I especially like the way the book meditates, not just on philosophy, but on theatre, art, and literature. The author, for example, spends time addressing some key aspects of Camus’ novels, and Camus’ ideas
about the nature of theatre. The author also devotes time to Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy,” which is a reflection on Greek theatre. There is also a chapter on Don Quixote, and aphorism as a literary genre. The book, in short, is a nutritious and wide-ranging meditation on the “pessimistic” philosophical tradition.

Pessimism, as characterized by the author, is simply looking at the world in an un-blinkered fashion. That is, it is a place where life and consciousness is subject to time and chance, and without apparent purpose or direction. In other words, our wishes frequently do not match what a world in flux can give us. By acknowledging this state of affairs, and not denying it with false optimism, we are free to engage in certain gestures of our own meaning-making (Camus) or withdrawal (Schopenhauer) and spirited activity (Nietzsche).