Tag Archives: pessimism

Derek Parfit

Schopenhauer makes two curiously inconsistent claims about the wretchedness of human existence. We can object, he claims, both that our lives are filled with suffering which makes them worse than nothing, and that time passes so swiftly that we shall soon be dead. These are like Woody Allen’s two complaints about his hotel: ‘The food is terrible, and they serve such small portions!’

Derek Parfit, On What Matters, Oxford, 2011, vol. 2, p. 615

John McTaggart

If it is suggested that there is no evidence that the universe is working towards a good end, the doubter is reminded of the limitations of his intellect, and on account of this is exhorted to banish his doubts from his mind, and to believe firmly that the universe is directed towards a good end. And stronger instances can be found. An apologist may admit, for example, that for our intellects the three facts of the omnipotence of a personal God, the benevolence of a personal God, and the existence of evil, are not to be reconciled. But we are once more reminded of the feebleness of our intellects. And we are invited to assert, not only that our conclusions may be wrong, not only that the three elements may possibly be reconciled, but that they are reconciled. There is evil, and there is an omnipotent and benevolent God.

This line of argument has two weaknesses. The first is that it will prove everything—including mutually incompatible propositions—equally well. It will prove as easily that the universe is tending towards a bad end as that it is tending towards a good one. There may be as little evidence for the pessimistic view as for the optimistic. But if our intellects are so feeble that the absence of sufficient evidence in our minds is no objection to a conclusion in the one case, then a similar absence can be no objection to a conclusion in the other. Nor can we fall back on the assertion that there is less evidence for the pessimistic view than for the optimistic, and that, therefore, we should adopt the latter. For if our intellects are too feeble for their conclusions to be trusted, our distrust must apply equally to their conclusion on the relative weight of the evidence in the two cases.

John McTaggart, Some Dogmas of Religion, London, 1906, pp. 67-68

C. D. Broad

The pleasure of pursuit will not be enjoyed unless we start with at least some faint desire for the pursued end. But the intensity of the pleasure of pursuit may be out of all proportion to the initial intensity of the desire for the end. As the pursuit goes on the desire to attain the end grows in intensity, and so, if we attain it, we may have enjoyed not only the pleasure of pursuit but also the pleasure of fulfilling a desire which has become very strong. All these facts are illustrated by the playing of games, and it is often prudent to try to create a desire for an end in order to enjoy the pleasures of pursuit. As Sidgwick points out, too great a concentration on the thought of the pleasure to be gained by pursuing an end will diminish the desire for the end and thus diminish the pleasure of pursuit. If you want to get most pleasure from pursuing X you will do best to try to forget that this is your object and to concentrate directly on aiming at X. This fact he calls “the Paradox of Hedonism.”

It seems to me that the facts which we have been describing have a most important bearing on the question of Optimism and Pessimism. If this question be discussed, as it generally is, simply with regard to the prospects of human happiness or misery in this life, and account to be taken only of passive pleasures and pains and the pleasures and pains of fulfilled or frustrated desire, it is difficult to justify anything but a most gloomy answer to it. But it is possible to take a much more cheerful view if we include, as we ought to do, the pleasures of pursuit. From a hedonistic standpoint, it seems to me that in human affairs the means generally have to justify the end; that ends are inferior carrots dangled before our noses to make us exercise those activities from which we gain most of our pleasures; and that the secret of a tolerably happy life may be summed up in a parody of Hegel’s famous epigram about the infinite End, viz., “the attainment of the infinite End just consists in preserving the illusion that there is an End to be attained.”

C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory, London, 1930, pp. 191-192

Adolfo Bioy Casares

Mi pensamiento es pesimista; mi sentido vital es optimista. A mí me encanta la vida, yo me divierto con vivir. Si oigo una frase que me hace gracia, estoy contentísimo; si he soñado un sueño que me parece divertido, de algún modo estoy encantado; si se me ocurre una idea, lo mismo… Me gusta leer, me gusta ir al cine… Yo tengo la impresión de que, cuando hago el balance de mis días, en general puedo decir que me he divertido y que, en los días estériles, tampoco lo pasé tan mal. En cambio, si yo reflexiono sobre la vida, pienso que nada tiene demasiada importancia porque seremos olvidados y desapareceremos definitivamente. Eso es lo que yo pienso. Yo creo que nuestra inmortalidad literaria es a corto plazo, porque un día habrá tanta gete, que no se podrán acordar de todos los escritores que hubo en un momento. O se acordarán muy imperfectamente. Ya no seremos materia de placer para nadie: seremos materia de estudio para ciertos especialistas, que quieran estudiar tal y tal tendencia de la literatura argentina de tal año. Y, después de todo eso, un día la Tierra chocará con algo, ya que la Tierra, como todas las cosas de este mundo, es finita. Un día desaparecerá la Tierra, y entonces no quedará el recuerdo de Shakespeare, y menos aún el de nosotros. Así que pienso que, teniendo en cuenta todas estas cosas, nada de la vida es muy importante. Entonces, yo casi podría reducir la importancia de la vida a una idea: la idea de que son importantes las cosas que, por lo menos, nos hacen estar complacidos. Vale decir: a mí, por ejemplo, me duele algo que es cruel o es deshonesto. O inclusive algo que sea desconsiderado con otra persona: eso me duele. Entonces, salvo hacer esas cosas y salvo hacer las que dan placer y dan alegría, nada tendría importancia.

Adolfo Bioy Casares, in Fernando Sorrentino, Siete conversaciones con Adolfo Bioy Casares, Buenos Aires, 1992, pp. 240-241

Jorge Luis Borges

En tiempos de auge la conjetura de que la existencia del hombre es una cantidad constante, invariable, puede entristecer o irritar: en tiempos que declinan (como éstos), es la promesa de que ningún oprobio, ninguna calamidad, ningún dictador podrá empobrecernos.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘El tiempo circular’, in El Aleph, Buenos Aires, 1949