Pessimism claims an impressive following--from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse--an accusation of a bad attitude--or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species--who would actually counsel pessimism?
Joshua Foa Dienstag does. In Pessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been--and can again be--an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal--of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism--is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe.
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Princeton University Press
July 16, 2006
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Excerpt from Pessimism by Joshua Foa Dienstag
THE ANATOMY OF PESSIMISM
The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea, but one that needs too long a refutation.
CAN IT really be the case that an entire tradition of thought has gone missing from our standard histories of political theory? A claim like this sounds extravagant on first hearing. In some sense, perhaps, it is extravagant--but not in the way that immediately comes to mind. In attempting to reframe the history of political thought so that pessimism becomes one of its major strands, I will not be arguing for paying attention to a series of writers who have hitherto been wholly unknown. While there certainly are authors, important to identify, who have been unjustly neglected on account of their pessimism, that is not the only, or even the main, story. Instead, I argue that while many of the pessimists are well-known, the nature of their common project (indeed, the very idea that they have a common project) has been obscured. Since pessimism is perceived more as a disposition than as a theory, pessimists are seen primarily as dissenters from whatever the prevailing consensus of their time happens to be, rather than as constituting a continuous alternative. The result is that each seems disconnected from the mainstream of the history of political thought. They appear as voices in the wilderness, to put it politely-- or to put it less politely, as cranks. While they are often admired for their style, or respected for the critiques they offer, their apparent lack of a "positive project" is made to appear as a badge of second-rank philosophical status. They interest us; but, it is believed, they cannot possibly orient us.
With greater or lesser degrees of respect, then, pessimists have in many cases been dismissed from the upper reaches of the canon of political thought. Or when they are admitted, as in the case of a figure like Nietzsche, they are taken to be radically isolated from other elements in that canon. Nietzsche's philosophy is highly distinctive, of course, but this should not blind us to the ways in which he, like many of the other figures to be discussed here, remains part of a tradition that has itself been rendered invisible. Even as, in recent decades, the traditional list of great works has been strenuously attacked, stretched, revised, and reconsidered, the idea of a pessimistic political theory has not been seriously entertained. There are several reasons for this--but none of them are really barriers to a reconsideration of pessimism. First, as I mentioned above, pessimism is often taken to be a state of mind, rather than a philosophy or philosophical orientation. This is perfectly understandable; there are, of course, happy and unhappy people and they do tend to have different attitudes about the world. But just as theories of progress are not the same thing as a cheerful attitude toward life, neither should pessimism be equated with a foul disposition. Nor is it even true that these attitudes and philosophies are regularly correlated in individuals. John Stuart Mill, for example, was famously optimistic in his belief about the long-term growth of mankind through the continuous application of reason, and he was just as famously depressive and dyspeptic. Schopenhauer, it is often claimed, was pessimistic in both the psychological and philosophical senses. But even were this claim true, Schopenhauer is not the whole of pessimism (though he is often mistaken for it) and, were one to proceed in this way, one could find just as many happy pessimists as sad ones. But I will not be examining the relative cheerfulness of the philosophical pessimists in any detail; nor would I suggest that anyone should do so on behalf of theorists of progress. It will, I hope, be enough to point out here that philosophy and disposition should simply not be confused with one another. The real question is whether I can demonstrate that a pessimistic philosophy, as such, exists. If I do, I hope that its distinctness from depressive attitudes will be granted as a matter of course.
A second reason that pessimistic theory has not been recognized as such is that it is often lumped together with nihilism, cynicism, skepticism, and other like philosophies. Few writers, of course, adopt the label of "nihilist" or "cynic" for themselves (though there are many self-proclaimed skeptics). But these schools of thought are nonetheless named and studied by their critics, usually for their deleterious effects on the species.1 Without getting into these debates in any detail, I think it is fair to say that, in discussions such as these, the word "pessimistic" is one of a list of adjectives used very loosely to describe any "negative" philosophy, that is, any philosophy opposed to traditional attempts at system-building or the defense of some concrete political order. While pessimism is a negative philosophy, in this sense, with the goal only of fortifying us in a limited existence, it is otherwise not directly related to skepticism or nihilism, which are generally the true objects of attack by those suspicious of negative philosophy. That is to say, insofar as pessimism has been considered at all, it has been rendered an adjunct to skepticism or nihilism. If, therefore, my description of pessimism shows it to be something genuinely distinct from these, then it will have to be considered anew, even by those still inclined to be critical of it.
Finally, the dismissal of pessimism reflects the continuing grip that ideas of progress retain on contemporary consciousness. Though supposedly slain many times (Lewis Mumford called it the "deadest of dead ideas" in 1932), this beast continues to rise from the ashes for the simple reasons that, first, it helps us to make sense of the linear time of our calendar and, second, there is no easy substitute for it.2 However much it may be denied in principle, in practice the idea of progress is difficult to displace. And from this perspective, pessimism is especially bewildering. Precisely because it asks us to rethink our sense of time, pessimism is an idea that challenges our notions of order and meaning in dramatic ways. Though it may not seem, on the surface, to be an especially political doctrine (it often appears, and is assumed to be, antipolitical), pessimism attacks the roots of modern political orders by denying their sense of time. Pessimism is a substitute for progress, but it is not a painless one. In suggesting that we look at time and history differently, it asks us to alter radically our opinion both of ourselves and of what we can expect from politics. It does not simply tell us to expect less. It tells us, in fact, to expect nothing. This posture, I argue below, while difficult, is not impossible and not suicidal either. It is neither skeptical (knowing nothing) nor nihilistic (wanting nothing). It is a distinct account of the human condition that has developed in the shadow of progress--alongside it, as it were--with its own political stance.
Pessimism, I have been saying, has been hiding in plain sight. Its exemplars could be said to include, among others: Rousseau, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Weber, Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Freud, Camus, Adorno, Foucault, and Cioran--to name just a few in what could become a very long list. It could be said to have precursors in figures like Montaigne, Lichtenburg, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld. And it could be said to have close associates in writers like Sartre, Arendt, Benjamin, Wittgenstein, and Weil. The list would grow considerably longer, of course, if one included poets and fiction writers (e.g., Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, et al.) but here (with one notable exception) we will confine ourselves to works drawn from the philosophical tradition. For whatever reason, the idea of a pessimistic novelist has never been as illegitimate as the idea of a pessimistic philosopher. (It would be an interesting project to determine just why this is so, but one I cannot pursue here.) The former has been as prominent as the latter has been invisible; and so it is only the latter whose existence I am concerned to vindicate.3
Nonetheless, I should be clear about the nature of the endeavor undertaken here. In saying that these various philosophers--all modern and European but nonetheless drawn from several centuries and countries-- should be collectively understood as pessimists, I shall not attempt to demonstrate that they share a single idea (e.g., that "life is suffering"). That, in any case, is not really a good test for the existence of a school of thought. One would be hard-pressed, I think, to name the single thought shared by, say, all liberal political philosophers or all republicans. Even where a school is said to derive from a single figure (as, say, with Platonists), there is no reason for there to be a single proposition on which all members agree. We are better off, I believe, if we utilize here Wittgenstein's notion of "family resemblance"--his term for a situation in which there is no one element in common but rather "a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing"(Wittgenstein 1958, 32). The various members of a family may all be visibly related to one another without there being a single feature they all share. But, Wittgenstein argues, that does not mean we are mistaken to call them by a single name. In fact, we do this all the time; it is only when we reflect on the practice that we mistakenly demand that each name correspond to a single feature rather than a network of overlapping similarities. Furthermore, he argues, one cannot say exactly where one family ends and another begins. Instead, Wittgenstein suggests the idea of a strand composed of many overlapping filaments: "the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through the whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres" (Wittgenstein 1958, 32). Likewise, I shall be arguing that pessimism is a strand that has been woven through the history of modern political thought, where many overlapping elements comprise a single trajectory. But this is not meant to set pessimism off from other sorts of political philosophy--modern political thought (to continue the metaphor) is, on this view, just a fabric of many such similarly constituted fibers. In the second half of this chapter, I will elaborate a series of propositions that, I claim, are characteristic of pessimism. Perhaps no pessimist subscribes to all of them, but in order to be a pessimist one must subscribe to several of them. If there is, throughout, an implicit attempt to harmonize these various propositions into a whole, this should be understood as my own effort at a sort of fusion of various horizons. It is not proposed as an interpretation of any of the pessimists in particular, but rather as an attempt to say what the thread of pessimism, built up from a variety of fibers, amounts to.
But pessimism is set off from other modern schools of philosophy (though not all of them) by something else. As I granted above, pessimists generally do not set out a scheme of ideal government structure or principles of justice. Theirs is (for the most part) a philosophy of personal conduct, rather than public order. Since such schemes or principles are, to some, the very essence of a political philosophy, this fact, by itself, has been enough to disqualify the pessimists from serious consideration in some quarters. Recently however, there have been a variety of attempts to rehabilitate such non-system-building philosophy (for it has a long history) under a variety of rubrics. In the first place, there has been renewed interest in those later Hellenistic philosophers grouped under such names as Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. These philosophers, it is generally agreed, practiced a sort of philosophy that focused much more on the individual's approach to life than on the structure of the state within which she lived. The very titles of recent works such as Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life and Martha Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire betray a renewed interest in this style of reasoning while insisting that it is no less a part of the philosophical tradition. Although both Nussbaum and Hadot have been critical of Foucault's attempts, in his late works, to use these same writers in the service of redefining philosophy as a "technique of the self," all parties to these disputes would have to agree that our understanding of political philosophy is wrongly narrowed if we limit it to that which systematizes.4 In a related development, recent interpretations of Nietzsche have focused on the idea that what is suggested to us in his books is an "art of living" in which we are directed, not to act in a particular way, but to view our actions in the light of criteria both historical and, for lack of a better word, aesthetic.5 This, in turn, has given rise to varieties of feminism and postmodernism that show a renewed concern with personal conduct, as opposed to government structure.6 Now, with the exception of Nietzsche himself, very little of this writing is, to my mind, pessimistic. So, if pessimism is indeed, by the very nature of its concerns, set off from such traditional schools of philosophy as liberalism, Marxism, republicanism, and so forth, it is certainly not alone in being so distinguished. Indeed, it is in part the renewed attention being paid to this style of philosophy that makes it easier for us now to recognize the pessimistic tradition in philosophy.
As an antisystematic philosophy, pessimism still needs to be distinguished from other such philosophies, especially such premodern ones as Stoicism and Epicureanism. As will become clear as we proceed, it undoubtedly shares certain elements with these perspectives and is in some sense a descendant of them. Nonetheless, there is a reasonably sharp divide between such earlier philosophies of the self and pessimism, marked out by their different attitudes toward time. Like the idea of progress, and the various philosophies to which it gave rise, pessimism is a modern phenomenon. The word "pessimism" itself (from the Latin pessimus--the worst) came into widespread use only in the nineteenth century.7 Although the philosophical tradition I will be examining is considerably older than that, it does have an identifiable beginning. Like optimism, pessimism relies on an underlying linear concept of time, a concept that only became a force in Western thinking in the early modern period.
My argument here relies on the fairly common idea (still contested in some quarters) that a transformation in the time-consciousness of Europe sharply distinguishes the modern era from previous ones. While it is surely an oversimplification to say that ancient notions of time were simply "cyclical" while modern ones are purely "linear," it is nonetheless true that there was a change in Western ideas of time that had a profound effect on nearly every element of society, philosophy included. Though there were a variety of ancient views on time (as on any subject), the cyclical view, in different forms, was by far the dominant one. Pythagoras, for example, taught that "events recur in cycles, and that nothing is ever absolutely new" (Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 1983, 238). Stoic cosmology held that "time is passing just as we say the year passes, on a larger circuit," and the world was perpetually destroyed and recreated such that "after the conflagration of the cosmos everything will again come to be in numerical order, until every specific quality too will return to its original state, just as it was before and came to be in that cosmos" (Sambursky 1959, 107; 1956, 201-2). Even Aristotle's more measured discussion of time links it fundamentally to motion, and since the revolution of the heavens is the fundamental motion of the universe, "all other things are discriminated by time, and end and begin as though conforming to a cycle" (Physics 223b27-28).8 Ancient political theory relied on these views in its descriptions of historical patterns--and of the place of human beings within those patterns. As a result, progress, decline, or even an endless but linear accumulation of experience, played little part in ancient philosophy.9 Modernity, by contrast (as discussed in greater detail below) has been marked out from the start by a belief in linear time and non-cyclical historical narrative.
Although this commonplace of modern historiography has had its critics, most attempts to refute this idea have only addressed it in an extreme form, as if by employing the notion of cyclical time one contends that ancient cultures all believed in some kind of reincarnation or the eternal return of the same. Some members of the Old Stoa, like Chrysippus, may have tended toward this view, but this is clearly not the case in general.10 When ancient writers like Polybius or Aristotle spoke of a cycle of regime-types, for example, they meant only that the same sort of governments could be expected to reappear on a regular basis, as one expects the springtime every year, without thinking that this spring will be identical to the last one. What is significant about such an idea is not that it predicts a recurrence of events, but that it limits the potential for innovation within the system. When Aristotle gave an inventory of the various possible political regimes, he did not expect that new ones might appear in the future, as someone who lists the four seasons does not expect to learn of a fifth.
It is also true, however, that no society has ever possessed a time-consciousness that is purely linear or purely cyclical. Even today, when we meticulously count the seconds and years in a linear fashion, great portions of our lives are governed by daily, weekly, and yearly cycles that would change very little if we gave up the progressive numbering of our annual calendar. We continue to use expressions like the "cycle of life" or "to every thing there is a season" in a perfectly comfortable way. Similarly, even when other cultures have a view of history that is nonlinear, or even have a language without a future tense, this has hardly prevented them from making plans for tomorrow, or next week, much as we do. Yet even in Arnaldo Momigliano's heroic attempts to work these plain facts up into a refutation of the thesis of a change in time-consciousness, he makes an exception for philosophers who, he acknowledges, did indeed have a circular conception of time in ancient Greece, which later philosophy abandoned.11
While many intellectual historians have agreed that a change in time-consciousness marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern period, there is less agreement as to the exact nature of the shift, its timing and causes. Reinhart Koselleck, in his influential book Futures Past, focuses largely on the emergence of ideas of progress in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and attributes these ideas to the appearance of new technologies that made material progress visible in the course of a single lifetime, something that had not happened before (Koselleck 1985, 267-88). In a similar vein, Hans Blumenberg emphasizes developments in astronomy in the sixteenth century, where comparisons between ancient and modern data gave rise to the thought of cosmic changes over long periods of time (Blumenberg 1974, 18ff.). By contrast, J.G.A. Pocock contends that it was the historical ideas of the Italian Renaissance that were crucial since "the Christian world-view . . . was based on the exclusion from consideration of temporal and secular history, and  the emergence of historical modes of explanation had much to do with the supersession of that world-view by one more temporal and secular" (Pocock 1975, 8).
Despite Pocock's claims, it must nonetheless be recognized that the decline of European paganism and its replacement with the biblical faiths had something to do with the changes in western time-consciousness. A long tradition of classical scholarship has insisted that it is the history of the Old Testament, stretching from Creation to the Prophets (and only spread to the West, but not essentially modified, by Christianity) that forms the basis for the modern view of time.12 Other scholars have argued that it is Christianity proper that provokes the change. G. J. Whit-row, for example, focuses on the uniqueness of Christ's Incarnation and argues that "the non-repeatability of events was the very essence of Christianity" (Whitrow 1972, 17). In any case, it is clear enough that Augustine, writing in the fourth century ce, produced an account of time that is notably linear--focusing as it does on the relation between past, present, and future--and that did not subordinate time to motion (Augustine 1960, 285ff).
For my purposes, the timing and nature of the change, and its diffusion into the world of politics, are ultimately more important than the exact causes that brought it about. While it seems clear that we can only speak, at best, of a growing emphasis on linearity in time-consciousness (rather than, say, a radical paradigm-shift), there are good reasons to think that such a change did occur in that period of several centuries that we now consider either late medieval or early modern. The most prominent markers of this change were the sudden ubiquity of mechanical clocks in the fourteenth century and the less sudden, but broadly coincident and ultimately very widespread agreement on, and use of, a common calendar that marked the years in an unbroken, ascending fashion.
In his acclaimed History of the Hour, Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum describes the appearance of the mechanical clock and its radical effect on almost every element of European culture.13 It is difficult for us now to register just how differently daily life was navigated in the absence of reliable time-telling devices. Before the mechanical clock was invented (the exact date and location of the invention are unknown, but it almost certainly occurred in northern Italy around 1300), the hours were generally not of fixed length but waxed and waned with the seasons so that there were twelve hours from dusk to dawn and twelve from dawn to dusk. Insofar as time was kept at all, it was done with sundials (useless in cloudy weather) and waterclocks (very unreliable, labor-intensive, and useless when temperatures were below freezing), and the hours marked were those of the monastery (Prime, Tierce, Nones, Compline, et cetera).14 Minutes and seconds were something measured only by astronomers; the degrees of precision we take for granted in ordinary conversation ("Meet me in half an hour . . ." "I'll be back in five minutes . . .") were far from routine. Short periods of time were often measured by repetitions of the Lord's Prayer.