What is Pessimism?
The Philosophy at The Heart of True Detective
By Professor David Cartwright (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)
This article is part of The Critique Exclusive No Exist From Darkness: The Philosophy of True Detective.
“I believe human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self. The secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. I think the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming: stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal” Rustin Cohle, Episode 1: The Long Bright Dark.
Despite the fact that the televised version does not explicitly reveal the provenance of these ideas, it is interesting to note that in an earlier script, Rust does make reference to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, as presumably one of the thinkers whose work he had been reading. It would seem, therefore, that in the person of Arthur Schopenhauer, True Detective fans have somewhat of an alternative access into the mind, beliefs and therefore life of Rustin. But who was Arthur Schopenhauer and what did he believe? and to what extent can his views make better sense of Detective Rustin Cohle’s nihilistic view of life?
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) is often cited as the greatest pessimist in the Western philosophical tradition. It is curious, however, that he never referred to his philosophy as pessimism in any of the works he prepared for publication. In fact, he used the ideas of “optimism“ and “pessimism” to classify religions, of which he favored Buddhism and Hinduism, religions he classified as “pessimistic.” But if a pessimist is someone who:
(1) asserts that existence is a mistake
(2) that there is no meaning or purpose to human existence
(3) that the best thing for humans is not to exist
(4) the next best is to obtain a state of being in which the world becomes nothing
(5) life is essentially suffering and suffering is evil
(6) and this is the worst of all possible worlds
then Schopenhauer more than earned that title.
Schopenhauer developed his dark and captivating world view in his main work The World as Will and Representation, which first appeared in December 1818 (the second edition in 1844 added a second volume of essays; the third edition appeared in 1859). The atheistic Schopenhauer argued in that work that everything in the world is an expression of a goalless, purposeless, and insatiable striving to be, which he denominated “will” or “will to life.” This implies that everything in nature struggles to exist, a state of affairs that makes conflict and strife constant and inevitable. Yet it is not this struggle that makes existence problematic for Schopenhauer. A world of struggling physical forces is simply a world of change. Existence becomes problematic with the appearance of animal life, the appearance of conscious beings that become aware of their frustrated willing, beings that experience boredom, pain, suffering, and death.
“Existence becomes problematic with the appearance of animal life, the appearance of conscious beings that become aware of their frustrated willing, beings that experience boredom, pain, suffering, and death”
The worst fate of all, Schopenhauer argued, is to be a human being. All animals suffer and feel pain, but the very thing that distinguishes humans from all other animals is that humans possess the ability to think conceptually, which he designated as the faculty of “reason.” He considered the possession of reason an ambivalent good. Reason enables humans to develop everything that distinguishes human life from all other living beings, but it also makes humans vulnerable to forms of misery from which other animals are free. Although reason enables humans to obtain knowledge, it also leads to doubt, error, and confusion. By marking concepts with words, humans possess language and thereby have the ability to communicate in more complex and significant ways than other animals. Yet Schopenhauer claimed that the material of this communication often misleads more than it enlightens. He also thought reason enables humans to escape the narrow confines of the immediately present, to which other animals are confined. Yet the ability to contemplate the past and anticipate the future makes humans subject to new forms of suffering. Humans can be haunted by the past and have feelings of remorse and regret, and humans can suffer from anxiety and worry about the future. More profoundly, humans are aware that their deaths await them in the future. Reason also enables humans to deliberate and plan future actions and thereby have a greater choice than is possible for other animals, which he thought are motivated by the immediately present circumstances. This freedom of choice, he argued, is only apparent, because human behavior motivated by abstract thought is equally caused and necessary.
“The ability to contemplate the past and anticipate the future makes humans subject to new forms of suffering. Humans can be haunted by the past and have feelings of remorse and regret”
Next to the drive for continued existence and personal well-being, Schopenhauer ranked sexual love as humans’ strongest and most active drive. It promises delight, but it ultimately brings despair. Satisfying the sex drive was the goal of almost all human effort, he said, and it claims half the powers of human thought. Sex confuses even the greatest minds, and it interferes with humans’ most serious occupations, disrupting the activities of politicians and intruding in the investigations of scholars. Under the power of sexual love, humans engage in fights with their friends and family, breaking the ties of the strongest and most valuable relations. Sexual love can cause the fall of the upright and honorable, and it can make traitors of those who were once loyal and faithful. To satisfy their sexual urges people will sacrifice their wealth, health, social position, and sometimes even their lives. Yet sex is the means by which the will continuously affirms itself. For this reason he regarded lovers as the traitors who perpetuate the wretchedness of life, because they produce new individuals to be thrown into this world of suffering, despair, and death. With this view of human sexuality, it is easy to understand why Schopenhauer claimed that voluntary chastity is the first step to asceticism and the denial of the will, which is redemption from the world.
Sexual love can cause the fall of the upright and honorable, and it can make traitors of those who were once loyal and faithful. To satisfy their sexual urges people will sacrifice their wealth, health, social position, and sometimes even their lives”
Schopenhauer frequently used the terms “asceticism” and “denial of the will” as synonyms. Still, he recognized other redemptive strategies, such as mysticism, as also expressing the negation of the will. Nevertheless, he tended to focus on the forms of asceticism expressed by the saints and great souls found in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The ascetic attempts to deliberately break the will by refusing the agreeable things of life, by seeking the disagreeable things of life, and by constantly debasing the will through penance and self-chastisement. Consequently, he claimed that ascetics ate little and neglected their health, gave away their possessions to alleviate the suffering of others, accepted all harm inflicted by others, embraced their suffering, and practiced chastity. The most extreme form of asceticism was a voluntarily chosen death by starvation, and he argued that this was the only form of suicide that is immune to moral criticism. Schopenhauer concluded the first volume of The World as Will and Representation by describing the perspective of the resigned ascetic, the “overcomer” of the world : “…for those in whom the will has turned and negated itself, this world of ours which is so very real with all its suns and galaxies is nothing.”
Early in his philosophical career the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was enthralled, if not bewitched by Schopenhauer’s philosophy. When he first read Schopenhauer in 1865, he was so receptive to this philosophy that he felt as if Schopenhauer wrote just for him. He admired Schopenhauer’s “honest atheism;” his heroic stance against his age, that is, his commitment to speak his truths regardless of what people wanted to hear; for taking the problem of suffering seriously; and for his raising the problem of the meaning and value of existence. Although elements of Schopenhauer’s philosophy remained viable throughout Nietzsche’s philosophic career, he ultimately was repulsed by Schopenhauer’s philosophy and called himself Schopenhauer’s “antipode.” This contrary stance toward Schopenhauer becomes increasingly apparent in Nietzsche’s books, such as Human, All Too Human (1878-80), Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882,1887), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Twilight of the Idols (1888), Ecce Homo (1888), and The Antichrist (1888).
Indeed, Nietzsche even took the term “antichrist” in opposition to Schopenhauer, who said that any view that denied the moral significance of world is that which faith had personified as “antichrist.” Schopenhauer’s pessimism had pronounced the world evil, because it was the objectification of the will. Nietzsche denied that world had any moral significance whatsoever; it is neither good nor evil. For Nietzsche, how Schopenhauer viewed the world said more about him than it did about the world. In fact, he found Schopenhauer’s pessimism, his aversion to life, to be a form of nihilism, insofar as Schopenhauer promoted asceticism and denial of Will. It was, moreover, self-defeating. To will nothingness (the denial of the will) was still a willing. So he said that Schopenhauer would rather will nothingness than not will at all. This, of course, redeemed the will. This strategy, Nietzsche argued, also revealed that Schopenhauer’s “romantic pessimism” was a twisted style of optimism, one that was the expression of sickness and weariness with life. Schopenhauer had projected all the turbulence of his inner life onto the world to deny the world, in order to enjoy tranquility, peace, and calm.
“For Nietzsche, how Schopenhauer viewed the world said more about him than it did about the world. In fact, he found Schopenhauer’s pessimism, his aversion to life, to be a form of nihilism, insofar as Schopenhauer promoted asceticism and denial of Will.
Nietzsche claimed he had suffered through the sickness of Schopenhauer’s “romantic pessimism” and overcame it by turning his own will to health into a philosophy of life, one strong enough to embrace life, despite the fact that life is essentially suffering. So in opposition to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche claimed that his philosophy was a pessimism of strength, a world view that said yes to life in full consciousness of what is terrible and questionable about existence, doing so in full consciousness of all the miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd. Thus Nietzsche viewed his “Dionysian” perspective as saying “yes” to life in contrast to Schopenhauer’s “no’.