The Utility of Pessimism

As a reliable compass for orientating yourself in life nothing is more useful than to accustom yourself to regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony. When you have done this you will order your expectations of life according to the nature of things and no longer regard the calamities, sufferings, torments and miseries of life as something irregular and not to be expected but will find them entirely in order, well knowing that each of us is here being punished for his existence and each in his own particular way. This outlook will enable us to view the so-called imperfections of the majority of men (i.e. their moral and intellectual shortcomings and the facial appearance resulting therefrom) without surprise and certainly without indignation: for we shall always bear in mind where we are and consequently regard every man first and foremost as a being who exists as a consequence of his culpability and whose life is an expiation of the crime of being born.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer is regarded as one of the most pessimistic philosophers, a sentiment clearly demonstrated in the above quote from his work Essays and Aphorisms. Despite this obviously negative view of the human experience, let’s dissect this quote and see what we can learn.

Schopenhauer suggests that you view the world as a sort of correctional facility, a place where you are sent to atone for your inevitable sins. In taking up this viewpoint, we release ourselves from the bitterness that arises when dealing with the “moral and intellectual failings” of our fellow humans. When a wrong is done to us, when we meet an opinion so clearly opposed to our own, we have the tendency to take up a defensive position, to fight our corner in the name of justice and righteousness. This is all well and good. But the reality of life is that life is not a fairy-tale: the good comes with the bad just as night comes with day and death comes with life. To expect anything otherwise is to set yourself up for disappointment, and more importantly, to condemn yourself when you inevitably do wrong yourself, “for with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:38)”.

Instead, Schopenhauer asks us to view life in a more pessimistic, but arguably more realistic way.

For what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Perhaps by expecting and accepting the worst we bring out the best in us.


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