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Home » editorials

The Place for Pessimism

Submitted by on August 18, 2011 – 11:16 am9 Comments


By Alain de Botton

Today I want to advance the unusual idea that we’d be a great deal more cheerful if we learnt to be a little more pessimistic.

And, from a completely secular point of view, I’d like to suggest that in the passages before they go on to promise us salvation, religions are rather good at being pessimistic. For example, Christianity has spent much of its history emphasising the darker side of earthly existence.

Yet even within this sombre tradition, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal stands out for the exceptionally merciless nature of his pessimism. In his book the Pensees, Pascal misses no opportunities to confront his readers with evidence of mankind’s resolutely deviant, pitiful and unworthy nature.

In seductive classical French, he informs us that happiness is an illusion. “Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself,” he says. Misery is the norm, he states: “If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.” And we have to face the desperate facts of our situation head on. “Man’s greatness,” he writes, “comes from knowing he is wretched.”

Given the tone, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that reading Pascal is not at all the depressing experience one might have presumed. The work is consoling, heartwarming and even, at times, hilarious.

For those teetering on the verge of despair, there can paradoxically be no finer book to turn to than one which seeks to grind man’s every last hope into the dust. The Pensees – far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, positive thinking or the realisation of hidden potential – has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet.

If Pascal’s pessimism can effectively console us, it may be because we are usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope. It is hope – with regard to our careers, our love lives, our children, our politicians and our planet – that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us.

Nurture and educate

The incompatibility between the grandeur of our aspirations and the mean reality of our condition generates the violent disappointments that rack our days and etch themselves in lines of acrimony across our faces. Hence the relief, which can explode into bursts of laughter, when we finally come across an author generous enough to confirm that our very worst insights, far from being unique, are part of the common, inevitable reality of mankind.

Our dread that we might be the only ones to feel anxious, bored, jealous, perverse and narcissistic turns out to be gloriously unfounded, opening up unexpected opportunities for communion around our dark realities.

We should honour Pascal, and the long line of pessimistic writers to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of our sinful and pitiful state. This is not a stance with which the modern world betrays much sympathy, for one of its dominant characteristics and – in my opinion – its greatest flaw is its optimism.

Despite occasional moments of panic, most often connected to market crises, wars or pandemics, the secular contemporary world maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement, based on a quasi-messianic faith in the three great drivers of change – science, technology and commerce.

Material improvements since the mid-18th Century have been so remarkable and have so exponentially increased our comfort, safety, wealth and power, as to deal an almost fatal blow to our capacity to remain pessimistic – and therefore, crucially, to our ability to stay sane and content.

It has been impossible to hold on to a balanced assessment of what life is likely to provide for us when we have witnessed the cracking of the genetic code, the invention of the mobile phone, the opening of Western-style supermarkets in remote corners of China and the launch of the Hubble telescope.

Naivety and credulousness

Yet while it is undeniable that the scientific and economic trajectories of mankind have been pointed firmly in an upward direction for several centuries, you and I do not comprise mankind. None of us as individuals can dwell exclusively amidst the ground-breaking developments in genetics or telecommunications that lend our age its distinctive and buoyant prejudices.

We may derive some benefit from the availability of hot baths and computer chips, but our lives are no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than were those of our medieval forebears. But at least our ancestors had the advantage of living in a religious era which never made the mistake of promising its population that happiness could ever make a permanent home for itself on this earth.

The secular are at this moment in history a great deal more optimistic than the religious – something of an irony given the frequency with which the religious have been derided by the non religious for their apparent naivety and credulousness. It is the secular whose longing for perfection has grown so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realised on this earth after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research.

With no evident awareness of the contradiction they may, in the same breath, gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics will together cure the ills of mankind.

The benefits of a philosophy of pessimism are to be seen in relation to love. Christianity and Judaism present marriage not as a union inspired and governed by subjective enthusiasm but rather, and more modestly, as a mechanism by which individuals can assume an adult position in society and thence, with the help of a close friend, undertake to nurture and educate the next generation under divine guidance.

Capacity for appreciation

These limited expectations tend to forestall the suspicion, so familiar to secular partners, that there might have been more intense, angelic or less fraught alternatives available elsewhere. Within the religious ideal friction, disputes and boredom are signs not of error, but of life proceeding according to plan.

These religions do recognise our desire to adore passionately. They know of our need to believe in others, to worship and serve them and to find in them a perfection which eludes us in ourselves. They simply insist that these objects of adoration should always be divine rather than human.

Therefore they assign us eternally youthful, attractive and virtuous deities to shepherd us through life while reminding us on a daily basis that human beings are comparatively humdrum and flawed creations worthy of forgiveness and patience, a detail which is apt to elude our notice in the heat of marital squabbling.

Why can’t you be more perfect? This is the incensed question that lurks beneath a majority of secular arguments. In their effort to keep us from hurling our curdled dreams at one another, religions have the good sense to provide us with angels to worship and lovers to tolerate.

A pessimistic world view does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists can have a far greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break out across their darkened horizons.

This article originally appeared in BBC News.

9 Comments »

  • gopal dasa

    What a great find. There are more than several ways in which de Botton is spot on. I am fascinated by the degree to which optimism, hope, and notions of improvement (which are strung along by technological advances — or even the prospect thereof) have been elevated to the status of immutable, sacred ideals. To advance a more pessimistic or measured view of technological and societal potential is practically an act of heresy. “If we give up hope in these things, then what are we left with?” some might say. A lot, actually, provided that you adjust your orientation.

    De Botton succeeds in arguing that a little bit of disenchantment with the vacant promises of optimism may in fact be a turning point towards the pursuit of true beauty and fulfillment — and the much greater potentiality for joy that such a pursuit can foster. I will look forward to hearing more from him.

  • atmananda

    After reading this I was thinking about how the human condition is so complex but how often it has been portrayed as simple.

    It seems that life’s choices are mostly presented as dichotomies. You can choose only one of two paths. This one will lead you to hell or this one to heaven.

    In reality we find ourselves somewhere in between but wishing that it would just be one way or other.

  • Gaura Krsna dasa

    While this is an interesting take on Pascal, I want to point out that this “exceptionally mericiless pessismism” is a result of an exceptionally deep spiritual view. It is the spirituality of Pascal that I find most interesting and relevant in my own thinking. Here’s a fuller quote from Pensees 36 that de Bottom quotes in part (all the quotes that follow are from the Penguin edition of the Pensees translated by A. J. Krailsheimer):

    “36 Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself. So who does not see it, apart from young people whose lives are all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future?
    But take away their diversion and you will see them bored to extinction. Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched than to be depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

    In other words, just try meditating and find out what you’re really made of. Pascal understands the nature of the mind:

    “24 Man’s condition. Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.”

    Pascal’s “pessismism” is really just an honest assesment of the emptiness and spiritual void within us that is masked by diverse mental constructs and diversions we constantly cultivate to hide from the reality of our condition. This condition, which is everyone’s condition(man’s condition) he calls “wretchedness.”

    “192 Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without know God makes for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness.”

    For Pascal, we must know the reality of our condition in order to receive and be properly situated within divine influence. Knowing one’s wretchedness allows one to turn away from oneself and one’s creations and towards God.

    “189 But at the same time we know our own wretchedness, because this God is nothing less than our redeemer from wretchedness. Thus we can know God properly only by knowing our own iniquities. Those who have known God without knowing their own wretchedness have not glorified him but themselves.”

    Pascal says a mediator is necessary to know God because the mediator allows own to understand one’s wretchedness. For Pascal the mediator is Christ who is the contact between God and humanity and thus allows one to account for one’s human condition. In this sense, Christ is Guru who reveals to us our shortcomings, inner condition and conditioning.

    “190 Whereas those who have know God through a mediator know their own wretchedness.”

    “149 Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and great principle of wretchedness. It must also account for such amazing contradictions. To make man happy it must show him that a God exists whom we are bound to by love; that our true bliss is to be in him, and our sole ill is to be cut off from him. It must acknowledge that we are full of darkness which prevents us from knowing and loving him, and so, with our duty obliging us to love God and our concupiscence leading us astray, we are full of unrighteousness. It must account to us for the way in which we thus go against God and our own good. It must teach us the cure for our helplessness and the means for obtaining the cure.”

    Congratulations if you’ve managed to read all this! There’s something else I want to say about Pascal but I’ll say it in a fresh comment.

  • Gaura Krsna dasa

    Blaise Pascal was a contemporary of his countryman Rene Descartes at the beginning of the 17th century. He was no mere observer of the dawn of the Age of Reason, but an active participant. During his own time he was known as a mathemetician. Inventor the first mechanical calculator (a programming language has been named after him in tribute), and among the first to conceive of the principle of the vacuum (As Bertrand Russell comments, Descartes, rejecting the idea of a vacuum thought the only vacuum was the one between Pascal’s ears), Pascal can be considered a father of the scientific revolution. And yet it is for his spiritual notes, assembled into a book by his friends after his death that he is most known today. Personally I think it’s wrong to think of him as part of a line of “pessimistic philosophers.” He was a man both rigorously rational and deeply religious; a brilliant intellectual living between the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

    It is fascinating therefore that Pascal rejects philosophical proofs of God and is explicit that one cannot understand God through reason or examples drawn from nature. He is famous for saying that “the true God is the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, and not the God of the philosophers.” God, for Pascal, can only be known through contact with a living tradition and subsequent spiritual practice whereby knowledge gradually unfolds through lived experience. God for Pascal is a person to be loved and not an abstract principle to be proven or disproven. This is consistent with his view both as a Christian and as a philosopher dissatisfied with metaphysical proofs, the Prime Mover ideas of Thomas Aquinas and such:

    “190 The metaphysical proofs for the existace of God are so remote from human understanding and so involved that they make little impact, and, even if they did help some people, it would only be for the moment during which they watched the demonstration, because an hour later they would be afraid they had made a mistake.”

    But it seems that whenever I have heard the name of Blaise Pascal invoked it is always in the context of casting doubt on the Modern project of self-improvement and self-creation. This, I think, is not wrong but we must not forget the total spiritual view from which this doubt arises. However we may think on the human condition, the question ultimately arises: how can we be happy?

    One last gem:

    “148 All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man, including those who go and hang themselves.”

    • Gaura-Vijaya

      Gaura-Krsna there is another side to Pascal. Facing the immensity of the universe, Pascal felt horror – “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Like this video by Carl Sagan http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Lm6pEhykhs, earth is just too insignificant a portion in the universe. When we look at most ancient traditions, universe is much more comforting, small (100,000 yojanas long) where even a small event in one corner of earth (like Kamsa’s cruelties in a small tract of land in Mathura) are powerful enough to get the attention of cosmic deities who cannot handle him and have to plead to Visnu to come down. So the universe was much more comfortable, small and connected where events on earth(especially in small portions of India or Middle east for the Abrahmic tradition) were really important to the cosmic deities or the God of the bible. In fact all major theistic traditions in India have teachers who are manifestations of cosmic deities and other figures (like Prahlada etc). This gives a comforting picture of the universe where a personal God attends to everything on the earth with every living being. The modern picture of the universe, which is grander but colder, makes it harder for people to accommodate the anthropomorphic conception of personal God in most traditions. Therefore, that is a challenge. I guess the comfort of the ancient traditions is actually very soothing and nice, and Pascal wanted to preserve that because the geo-centric understanding of the universe present in the Christian era was collapsing and the empty spaces in the universe were increasing to his horror. A simple heaven, hell model, 12 layers of heaven etc model was less and less likely to be reconciled with where science was heading.

  • Ishan das

    We are eternal spirit souls. If we are not, then this conversation has no meaning. Because if we cease to exist, what difference will our decisions and activities make for us? But we discuss it because in spite of our frustration, something inside us says that total fulfillment is our birthright.

    How pessimistic should one be? 100%. The words used in Srimad Bhagawatam are “akinchina gochara”. This means 100% convinced that no material arrangement, subtle or gross, within this material realm, can give me the satisfaction that I am endlessly seeking. Because I am not material.

    How optimistic should we be? 100%. Srila Rupa Goswami uses the sanskrit word “Utsahan”. Utsahan means “enthusiasm”. If we want to advance in the subjective experience of our spiritual reality, it is imperative that we be enthusiastic in applying ourselves to the scientific process of spiritual practice.

    Spiritual life is not some airy-fairy, all-paths-lead-to-Rome, sentimental nonsense. Even in our daily material lives, we are familiar with the idea that certain ways and means are “functional” and others “dysfunctional”.

    The most qualified musicians, artists, etc., have all gone through hundreds of thousands of hours of disciplined practice before they became “free”.

    So discipline means there are “do’s” and dysfunctional means there are “don’ts”.

    The first step is to find a qualified teacher who has realized knowledge, and to hear from him/her. The teacher must be a living example of the teachings. When hearing from such a teacher strikes a responsive chord within us, then we should discard our pessimism and apply ourselves to a clearly chalked out path of spiritual practice, with full enthusiasm.

    We must understand that if we are insincere we will be attracted to a cheater. And if we are sincere, Krishna, God, will put us in touch with the real deal, His bonafide representative, who can guide us home.

    Pessimism means “I refuse to be cheated any more.” But we are not stones. We still want the real taste of fullness. Pessimism means, “Look before you leap.” But leap we must. We simply require good direction. That direction is available.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  • Ishan das

    The writer of this article, de botton, concludes his verbose presentation with the thought that it is good to be a pessimist, going though life expecting little, because if sometimes things seem to go well, then such a person may experience a temporal feeling of pleasure.

    Give me a break! This article says a lot about nothing. Gaudiya Vaishnavism is for those who are convinced that this realm of existence offers one perk only: and that is that we can have the opportunity to leave it once and for all and not have to come back.

    De bottom, or de botton, as the case may be, does not even seem to be aware that such a loophole exists. All of such flowery language may be intoxicating to some, but in fact cannot serve us in the least.

    Am I an extremist? Not enough! Not yet – but I’m working on it.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  • Gaura Krsna dasa

    I like Ishan’s points, but I think it’s worth mentioning (or maybe re-mentioning, and not for his sake since I’m not objecting to anything he has said) that in the context of the author the article is referencing, pessimism should be taken as an attitude towards our inner state rather than at the world. Pascal is pessimistic about our ability to be honest with ourselves; about our tendency to cheat and lie, and reason falsely; about our ability to understand our own best interest. He is particularly concerned with the idea of diversion, that is, our tendency to create a false sense of self that obscures our true nature and diverts our devotional serving disposition by acquiring more; fortifying the false ego through the diversions of more stuff, more responsibilities, more experiences, more knowledge, more psychic and physical attainments. I’m interested in Pascal because I constantly sense this tendency at work in myself and he addresses this in a lurid detail that I’ve found in few other writers.

    If we are pessimistic, or maybe skeptical is a better word, about our own honesty and integrity, then it seems to me this is just part of exposing anarthas and there is no point in discarding this and moving on. We should never be satisfied to think we have a firm grip, that we have obtained complete understanding. As much as we may be Spirit Souls, we are always, in Pascal’s language “wretched” humans. Forgetting our humility will not serve us. I think this is a kind of pessimism that will remain with us as long as we buy into the fiction of ourself, even while under the shelter of Sri Guru, for it is under Sri Guru’s grace that our false identity -our I’s, me’s, and mine’s- becomes embarrassingly visible.

    I’m not certain that Gaudiya Vaisnavism is for those who are pessimistic about the world as a whole and only see value in the world in escaping it. It isn’t our place to reject the world. Vaisnavas, as I understand them, are not interested in the vanity of liberation, but in service to Radha-Krsna wherever that may be. There’s a big difference between love and freedom. Moreover I’m convinced that Vaisnavas serve Radha-Krsna in part by loving us as we ought to love the Vaisnavas. It seems that to reject the world means to reject those in it, which would make loving kindness and compassion a mere abstraction if not impossible. Granted, we are purely spiritual in essence, but the reality is that most of us are not realized jivas. True love requires a recognition and emptying out of the fictional self in the devotional process which Ishan describes. For me anyway, the light of Sri Guru illuminates both directly, and indirectly through many of Pascal’s ideas, the perpetual motion of my own diversion.

  • Ishan das

    Dear Gaura Krishna Prabhu,

    Your points are well taken. Sometimes I get somewhat pompous and thereby embarass myself.

    Yes, perhaps I should have phrased it a little differently, not so much to leave this world, but to leave behind worldly self-centerdness, worldly consciousness. Naturally if we develope love for Krishna, we will not mind where Krishna places us. And as you say, our love and concern for others will induce us to want to be of help to them as well, spiritually speaking, as is the case in the lives of the Krishna Conscious acharyas.

    Your ability to express yourself so eloquently – I wish to acknowledge you for this. And also, I wish to thank you for being so gentle with me. I believe I have something to learn from your kind example.

    Sincerely, respectful obeisances,

    Ishan

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