1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Pessimism

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PESSIMISM (from Lat. pessimus, worst), a word of modern coinage,[1] denoting an attitude of hopelessness towards life, a vague general opinion that pain and evil predominate in human affairs. It is the antithesis of “optimism,” which denotes the view that on the whole there is a balance of good and pleasure, or at least that in the long run good will triumph. Between optimism and pessimism is the theory of “meliorism,” according to which the world on the whole makes progress in goodness. The average man is pessimist or optimist not on theoretical grounds, but owing to the circumstances of his life, his material prosperity, his bodily health, his general temperament. Perhaps the most characteristic example of unsystematic pessimism is the language of Ecclesiastes, who concludes that “all is vanity.”

Pessimism and optimism have, however, been expressed in systematic philosophical forms, a brief summary only of which need here be given. Such systems have been elaborated chiefly by modern thinkers, but the germs of the ideas are found widely spread in the older Oriental philosophies and in pre-Christian European thought. Generally speaking, pessimism may be found in all pantheistic and materialistic systems. It is important, however, to point out an essential distinction. The thinker who sees man confronted by the infinite non-moral forces presumed by natural pantheism inevitably predominating over the finite powers of men may appear to the modern Christian theologian or to the evolutionist as a hopeless pessimist, and yet may himself have concluded that, though the future holds out no prospect save that of annihilation, man may yet by prudence and care enjoy a considerable measure of happiness. Pessimism, therefore, depends upon the individual point of view, and the term is frequently used merely in a condemnatory sense by hostile critics. The attitude of a man who denies the doctrine of immortality and rejoices in the denial is not strictly pessimistic. A Christian again may be pessimistic about the present; he must logically be optimistic about the future — a teleological view of the universe implies optimism on the whole; the agnostic may be indifferent to, or pessimistic, regarding the future, while exceedingly satisfied with life as he finds it.

This complex view of life is exemplified by Plato, whose general theory of idealism is entirely optimistic. In analysing the world of phenomena he necessarily takes a pessimistic view because phenomena are merely imitations more or less removed from reality, i.e. from the good. Yet the idealistic postulate of a summum bonum is in result optimistic, and this view predominated among the Stoics and the Neoplatonists. The Epicureans, on the other hand, were empirical pessimists. Man is able to derive a measure of enjoyment from life in spite of the nonexistence of the orthodox gods; yet this enjoyment is on the whole negative, the avoidance of pain. A similar view is that of the ancient sceptics.

Oriental pessimism, at least as understood by Europeans, is best exemplified in Buddhism, which finds in human life sorrow and pain. But all pain and sorrow are incidental to the human being in his individual capacity. He who will cast aside the “Bonds,” the “Intoxications,” the “Hindrances,” and tread the Noble Eightfold Path (see Buddhism) which leads to Nirvana, will attain the ideal, the “Fruit of Arahatship,” which is described in terms of glowing praise in the Pali hymns. This, the original doctrine of the Buddha, though not adopted in the full sense by all his followers, is in fact at least as optimistic as any optimism of the West. To call it “pessimism” is merely to apply to it a characteristically Western principle according to which happiness is impossible without personality. The true Buddhist on the contrary looks forward with enthusiasm to this absorption into eternal bliss.

In Europe on the whole the so-called pessimistic attitude was commoner in the Teutonic north than in the Mediterranean basin. But even here the hopefulness as regards a future life, in which the inequalities of the present would be rectified, compensated for the gloomy fatalism with which the present was regarded. The advent of Christianity, with its categorica assertion of future happiness for the good, to a large extent did away with pessimism in the true sense. In Leibnitz we find a philosophic or religious optimism, which saw in the universe the perfect work of a God who from all possibilities selected the best. Kant, though pessimistic as regards the actual man, is optimistic regarding his moral capacity. To Hegel similarly the world, though evil at any moment, progresses by conflict and suffering towards the good.

Passing over the Italian Leopardi we may notice two leading modern pessimists, Schopenhauer and von Hartmann. Schopenhauer emphasizes the pessimistic side of Hegel's thought. The universe is merely blind Will, not thought; this Will is irrational, purposeless and therefore unhappy. The world being a picture of the Will is therefore similarly unhappy. Desire is a state of unhappiness, and the satisfaction of desire is therefore merely the removal of pain. Von Hartmann's doctrine of the Unconscious is in many respects similar to Schopenhauer's doctrine of the Will. The Unconscious which combines Will and Reason is, however, primarily Will. The workings of this Will are irrational primarily, but, as in its evolution it becomes more rationalized and understands the whole meaning of the Weltschmerz, it ultimately reaches the point at which the desire for existence is gone. This choice of final nothingness differs from that of Schopenhauer in being collective and not individual. The pessimism of Schopenhauer and Hartmann does not, however, exclude a certain ultimate mysticism, which bears some analogy to that of Buddhism.

Pessimism is naturally connected with materialist, optimism with idealist, views of life. The theories of the modern evolutionist school, however, have introduced into materialistic theory a new optimistic note in doctrines such as that of the survival of the fittest. Such doctrines regard the progress of humanity as on the whole tending to the greater perfection, and are markedly optimistic in contrast with earlier theories that progressive differentiation is synonymous with progressive decay. Similarly the cynical contempt which Nietzsche shows for morality and the conventional virtues is counterbalanced by the theory of the Übermensch, the highest type of manhood which by struggle has escaped from the ordinary weaknesses of normal humanity.

See James Sully, Pessimism: A History and a Criticism (1877); Caro, Le Pessimisme au xixe siècle (1878); Saltus, The Anatomy of Negation (1886); Tulloch, Modern Theories on Philosophy and Religion (1884); William James, The Will to Believe; Dühring, Der Werth des Lebens (1865); Meyer, Weltelend und Weltschmerz (1872); E. Pfleiderer, Der moderne Pessimismus (1875); Agnes Taubert (Hartmann), Der Pessimismus und seine Gegner (1873); Gass, Optimismus und Pessimismus (1876); Rehmke, Die Philos. des Weltschmerzes (1876); Huber, Der Pessimismus (1876); von Golther, Der moderne P. (1878); Paulsen, Schopenhauer, Hamlet, Mephistopheles (1900); Kowalewski, Studien zur Psychologie des P. (1904).


  1. The earliest example given in the New English Dictionary is in S. T. Coleridge's Letters (1794).