Why Be a Pessimist Like Rustin Cohle?

The Wisdom Of Doing Away With Our Illusions

By Professor Joshua Dienstag (University of California Berkeley)

July 15, 2015         Picture: RL RN/Behance

This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy of True Detective.

In one of the first scenes of True Detective, Rust Cohle is being badgered by his partner Marty about his beliefs. Much to Marty’s surprise, Rust denies being a Christian and when Marty presses further Rust says, “I consider myself a realist, all right, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist.” When Marty asks what that means, Rust blows him off with the line “It means I’m bad at parties.” But what does it mean to be a pessimist? (See Professor David Cartwright’s answer to this question). And more importantly, why would anyone want to be one? In the scene, Rust goes on to give a bit of explanation, but the key is the little phrase “in philosophical terms.”

Ordinarily, when we use the words ‘optimist’ and ‘pessimist’, we intend them as a description of personality. Optimists are cheerful and forward-looking people; pessimists are morose downers. And, indeed, there are different personality types in the world, people who are habitually happy or unhappy. But when philosophers use the words optimistic and pessimistic they mean something else – something that has nothing to do with disposition. To a philosopher, it is ideas that are optimistic or pessimistic. Cohle may be gloomy, but when he claims to be a pessimist, it’s not a personality trait that he is talking about at all. To a philosopher, someone is an optimist or a pessimist based on their ideas about how the world hangs together (or fails to) in a basic way. Optimists are people who think there is a fundamental order to the universe that the human mind can grasp. Pessimists are people who don’t.

“Ordinarily, when we use the words ‘optimist’ and ‘pessimist’, we intend them as a description of personality but to a philosopher, it is ideas that are optimistic or pessimistic”

So lots of different world-views are optimistic – the devout Christian and the atheist scientist are equally optimistic. They both think the universe is governed by clear laws (just different ones) that we can all understand. Even if there are some particular things that are unknown or mysterious, the basic structure is something we can all get our head around. And when you know the basic laws of the universe, you are in a good position to make your life better and you have good reason to expect to succeed. You’re in the driver’s seat, even before you choose a destination. That’s why you’re a philosophical optimist if you think like this. Regardless of whether or not you are constitutionally cheerful, you believe you have the tools to succeed.

But there is a long line of philosophers who deny that the universe is like this or that we have this kind of power. In the original script for True Detective (in a line that didn’t make it onto the screen), Cohle mentions Arthur Schopenhauer, probably the most famous of these philosophical pessimists. But he’s not the only one: Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Miguel de Unamuno and many others can be gathered together under the banner of pessimism.

At one level, these writers have little in common with one another, like the Christian and the scientist. But just as the Christian and the scientist share the idea that universe is a fundamentally ordered place, the pessimists share the idea that the universe is a fundamentally disordered or contradictory place. Pessimism is not a belief that things will get worse, just a rejection of the idea that ‘it will all make sense in the end.’And that means that our world can never be fully described by any law.

That the world is chaotic is not something the pessimist enjoys or wants, just something he or she feels bound to acknowledge. But do you want a weatherman who predicts the weather as they would like it to be, or as it actually is? Worse still would be a forecaster who believed their knowledge of meteorology meant they could control what happens. To the pessimist, the optimist has the illusion that he or she has control over their life. We keep believing that we have the power to make our lives better, even in the face of all our failures to do so. No technology protects us from death and change and even the shiniest new toy will eventually rust (as Cohle’s name indicates).

“To the pessimist, the optimist has the illusion that he or she has control over their life”.

Why be a pessimist? Well, who is it that is most likely to be satisfied over the long term? Why are we constantly surprised when things don’t work out the way we plan? How many people do you know who succeed in getting everything they aim at? And how many are happy when they do?

Optimism sets us up for perpetual disappointment. We set goals for our careers and our personal lives that hardly ever come to pass, and even when they do come to pass we may find, to our surprise, that they are not what we wanted after all, or don’t give the pleasure or satisfaction we expected. Pessimism, by contrast, prepares us for a world that is constantly changing and surprising us. It tells us to banish our expectations and the illusion that we are in control of our destiny. It allows us, in fact, to stop measuring our lives against some impossible plan that we fail to live up to. 

In that sense, pessimism is a kind of freedom to take each day as it comes and to be grateful for the good that occasionally appears, whether or not it fits any plan. It’s also the reason that Rust is a better detective than Marty. Rust has no preconceptions of what he will find, so he is more attentive to details that others miss. He’s not surprised by and he doesn’t judge the people he encounters, so he makes fewer mistakes in sizing them up. Marty thinks he knows how the world works, but his image of how things should be keeps getting in the way of his seeing how they actually are.

Most fundamentally, Rust doesn’t expect to encounter rationality and law in his investigation of the world. He’s a better guide to its basic lawlessness. To be a ‘true detective’ means to be able to detect what is true. The pessimist, with fewer illusions than the optimist, is the best possible detective, even if he’s not a good party guest. Optimists are not bad people. But they are not effective truth-seekers and they are prone to disappointment. At the end of True Detective, Marty, who began with a family and a promising career, has neither. Rust, who had nothing and expected nothing, has gained a friend.

Joshua Dienstag
Joshua Dienstag
Joshua Foa Dienstag is Professor of Political Science and Law at UCLA. He is the author of 'Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (Princeton University Press, 2009)' and many other articles and books on political philosophy, film and ethics.
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  • M.W. Poe

    Your last sentence falls prey to your weatherman analogy. It seems to say that you’ll have a better life if you stop wanting a better life, which seems to be the sort of thing a romantic pessimist would gobble up, but a true pessimist would see right through it. That said, thoroughly enjoyable article AND closing line!

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  • NicolasBourbaki

    I have had a different idea of philosophical pessimism than you. Pessimistic philosophy is about the futility of our actions and the overall badness of life, not about making sense of it. Your idea is quite epistemological. Also your conception of it seems very close to the stoic prescription (set your standards low so you won’t be disappointed) than to the pessimist.

  • Josh Thomas

    Wow terrific article. This is exactly the type of professional insight that is more needed. It`s a shame that most people will think of pessimists as just a depressed or un-energetic person instead of the overall belief in existence. There should almost be a different word in Philosophy for the two streams of thought.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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