The Personalist Project

Accessed on July 03, 2022 - 2:17:21

Misery and Pessimism

Michael Healy, May 13, 2012

Pessimism is an attempt at an “honest” solution to the problem of the miseries of life.  It tries to face squarely the reality of evil, pain, death, change, catastrophe, etc., and then offers a way to shield oneself from these inevitable facts of life by steeling oneself against them, not letting oneself be touched by them, by showing an enduring toughness and self-sufficiency in accepting them.  It espouses only a negative definition of happiness, relief from misery, without any positive components.  The problem with all this “realism” and “honesty” is the underlying assumption that evil, pain, and misery ultimately win out in life and in being.  But is this true?  Is it honest?  Is it realistic?  People from Plato to Mother Teresa have said otherwise.  What if the seeming triumph of misery in this world is not the last word?  What if pessimism is ultimately wrong?  What if the assertion of it is a lie?  What if living the pessimistic “solution” makes one inhuman? 

Three types of this pessimism might be mentioned.  First would be classical cynicism, exemplified by Diogenes the Dog—so called because to live like a dog was considered the height of wisdom.  The theory is that everyone is going to suffer no matter what, but  suffering is increased a 100 times over if you allow yourself to be dependent on any positive sources of happiness.  Therefore, joy in human relationships (including wife and family), joy in human projects or achievements, joy in any object or goal, simply demand too great a price to be worth it.  Dependency on any of these goods risks a more fearful fall into misery.  Therefore, live for the moment and the instincts and desires of the moment, make no commitments or promises, have no goals, prepare for nothing, just be ready to face whatever comes when it comes—like a dog.  Further, in this view, respect no moral or religious “calls” or obligations.  A dog doesn’t, why should you?  All such “laws” are regarded as mere social conventions and taboos limiting my animal nature and its natural unfolding.  (Come to think of it, in this respect not too far from Freud!)  Diogenes’ ideal is a naturalistic and materialistic reductionism with a goal of complete self-sufficiency and achieved indifference, i.e., neutral serenity or apathy. 

A second type of pessimism, more high-minded, would be various types of stoicism, neither as radical nor as consistent as cynicism.  The stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius, would allow for the use of reason, the pursuit of truth, and a life of goodness and justice lived according to eternal norms under the strict control of the will.  However, there is the same suspicion of anything that moves me to deep joy as (a) setting me up for deeper misery and (b) tempting me to abandon my commitment to justice.  Therefore, we still find here these ideals of self-sufficiency and neutral serenity when it comes to the positive goods of this life.  So, you can retain your enjoyment of positive goods, comforts, pleasures, and joys only if, by a disciplined spirit, you remain detached from them and regard them all (again, even wife and children) as dispensable luxuries whose loss would not “move” you.  Thus, I would interpret, you can enjoy your children, but only in the way that you might enjoy a stick of chewing gum.  Marcus Aurelius, in the Meditations 11:34, quotes the following: 

“While you are kissing your child,” Epictetus once said, “murmur under your breath, ‘Tomorrow it may be dead.’”  “Ominous words,” they told him.  “Not at all,” said he, “but only signifying an act of nature.  Would it be ominous to speak of the gathering of ripe corn?”

We see here why St. Augustine in Book XIV, Chapter 9 of The City of God says that this stoic indifference is inhuman: 

And as for those few who, with a vanity which is even more frightful than it is infrequent, pride themselves on being neither raised nor roused nor bent nor bowed by any emotion whatsoever—well, they rather have lost all humanity than won true peace.  It is one thing to be unyielding, another to be right; and what is insensible is not necessarily sound.

(For more on the proper role of the emotions and the voice of the heart as a genuine dimension of our rational and personal nature, see Von Hildebrand’s The Heart.)

 A third type of stoicism would be that of Buddhism in the east or Schopenhauer in the west—and the latter was influenced by the former.  The theory is that one’s existence as a living, striving, desiring human being is precisely the original problem and that the only “cure” is a curtailment of all desire.  This supposedly removes one’s consciousness from the torment of striving and suffering—but it means the end of all desiring, hoping, seeking, even loving.  One Buddhist saying has it (quoted at the beginning of Chapter 1, “Buddhist Charity,” in Henri de Lubac’s Aspects of Buddhism)

The person with a hundred different loves
Has a hundred different pains.
The person with ninety different loves
Has ninety different pains.
The person with eighty different loves… etc.
The person with one love
Has one pain.
The person without love
Has no pain.

This reminds me, naturally, in popular culture of Simon and Garfunkel’s famous hit song “I am a Rock:”

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain.
Its laughter and its loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries. 

What popular culture reflects here is that we are not dealing merely with an esoteric theory out of the far east nor a misogynistic philosopher from the 19th century, but a classic possibility (or temptation) of the human spirit.

Problems with these forms of pessimism?  Many, of course, all centered on the dilemma  that we must do terrible violence to who and what we are as persons in order to live this way—denying the level of reason (cynicism), denying all willing and loving (Buddhism), denying all rejoicing in positive goods (stoicism).  While claiming to be a solution to the problem of human misery, underneath it all these theories (with a partial exception to the higher forms of stoicism with an opening toward eternity) just seem to capitulate to the miseries, to involve a despair which is covered over by denouncing or renouncing all positive happiness.  Such pessimisms seem to lock the person into his own loneliness, to screw the dome of misery more tightly down over his head, and then to call on him to be proud of his independence and self-sufficiency.  Perhaps in Kierkegaardian categories, such a one would fit under the despair of defiance, which insists on being itself (though not the true self it was created to be, but a fantastic self-assertion) without God and without help from others.  It decides to create itself out of its own power into what it wants to be, regardless of consequences. spite of or in defiance of the whole of existence, he wills to be himself with it, to take it along, almost defying his torment.  For to hope in the possibility of help, …that for God all things are possible—no, that he will not do.  And as for seeking help from any other—no, that he will not do for all the world; rather than seek help he would prefer to be himself—with all the tortures of hell, if so it must be. [Sickness Unto Death, Chapter III, B, (b), (2).]

What might make such a negative theory attractive?  Perhaps three main things.  First, some concern for the relief from misery in the world, a type of truncated pity for all, would be a positive motivation.  I say "truncated" for, as De Lubac says in his article "Buddhist Charity" in Aspects of Buddhism:

Now Buddhist tenderness, even when manifested in action, even in its most sublime, never rises above pity.  And if it often appears as true human tenderness, this is in spite of its doctrine. [That is, it rises above its doctrine.]  For the individual counts as little in Buddhism--so little, that this pity is declared to be all the more perfect, the more it becomes abstract and generalized; in other words, the less human it becomes. It is more concerned with suffering in general than with each suffering being in particular. [My brackets.]

Second, the appeal to total self-sufficiency is active in motivating these types of pessimism. But, this also includes an appeal to pride and self-assertion, to think of oneself as strong and independent, towering over others in one’s power and endurance, to need no one and to solve one's own problems.

Third, there is the appeal to intellectual superiority in view of a false realism.  The person may feel that he sees what others don’t, or don’t have the courage to face.  “Others lose themselves in escapism or earthly optimism or vain hopes, but not I.  I see and have the courage to face what others miss or avoid—the real evils of life.”  As Alice von Hildebrand writes in her excellent article “On the Pseudo-Obvious,” from the volume Wahrheit, Wert, und Sein

[This] claim to a superior wisdom has an enormous appeal for many persons; it both heals intellectual inferiority complexes, and feeds the illusion of omniscience.  This exhilarating feeling of intellectual power is mistakenly interpreted as being the joy that accompanies the discovery of truth….

The discovery of truth does indeed have an exhilarating effect on the human mind…. For the joy over the grasping of truth bears all the marks of transcendence, coupled with a gratitude that such a gift has been granted to us.

It is not so in the case of the exhilaration proper to pseudo-obviousness.  Not only is it deprived of all the marks of transcendence, but it springs from the satisfaction of feeling clever. 

Dr. Von Hildebrand goes on to point out that many “fall prey to pseudo-plausible statements whose content depresses them deeply.  Although accepting these assertions with resignation, they nevertheless endorse them, be it because of the fascination exercised by false realism, be it because of their fear to fall into illusions.”  This may well be the case with many pessimists. 

I’m reminded here of someone who feels it necessary to put a bumper sticker on the back of his pick-up truck saying “S--t happens.”  As if I don’t know!  As if he had to tell me!  And yet, holy sorrow and deep mourning are more appropriate responses here than indignation. 

Again, see Bill Marra’s Happiness and Christian Hope for further elaboration.