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.

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Accepting the Absurdity of Life

He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.

Albert Camus

The tragedies of life — a plane crash, a baby born with a terminal condition — can make one cry out, “Why, God?”. It is safe to assume one cannot expect any answer back from the heavens. The almost brutal indifference the world can show to our dreams and our prayers leads one to think that life is absurd. The French existentialist Albert Camus (1913-1960) likens the human condition to that of Sisyphus in Greek mythology:

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The Stoic Ideal

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

~ Marcus Aurelius


Stoicism is a philosophical school of thought with origins in ancient Greece around the 3rd century BCE. Stoicism was particularly popular throughout the Roman and Greek world, with the majority of its surviving literary corpus written by several prominent figures of the time including Epictetus, Seneca, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I was introduced to Stoicism in university and was drawn to its pursuit of virtue and its emphasis on individual responsibility and living ‘in accordance with nature’. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was my introduction to philosophy and sparked my interest in the use of philosophical study for the development of the inner self.

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The Ballot or the Bullet

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Certain moments in history are so profoundly prophetic in nature that one struggles to refute the intervention of the divine. Such moments — like MLK Jr’s last speech, given only one day before his assassination — are almost undeniable evidence that God does his work through certain individuals, sent by Him to teach us and correct the course of humanity. Such individuals are heroes of faith, putting aside selfish desires and conquering the natural human tendencies toward fear and satisfaction of base urges. These figures dominate religious literature: see Moses and Jesus Christ for example.

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Schrödinger’s Cat

“I went to bed with a calm and happy spirit. Great Lord, help me walk in Thy paths: (1) to flee anger by gentleness and deliberation; (2) to flee lust by self-restraint and loathing; (3) to escape from the turmoil of the world without cutting myself off from (a) the duties of my political work, (b) the cares of my household, (c) relations with my friends, and (d) the management of my finances.”

~ Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

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The Sisyphean Task

“Do not judge or you too will be judged. In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the same measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

~ Matthew 7:1-2

It is impossible as a conscious being not to formulate opinions or to categorize independent of the influence of our own unique experiences and emotions. It is what makes us human and it is unavoidable. It is an essential tool of the human conscious which has served us well over time, allowing us to defend ourselves from predators and form groups of like-minded individuals, leading to synergistic progress.

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The Constitution of Greatness

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

~ Winston Churchill

There is much to offer in reading the biographies of the great men and women of the world. History should be seen as a guide for the future; human beings, as much as we are unique, are quite similar and predictable in our actions and are therefore easily controlled. The human species has been able to flourish not simply because of our supreme cognitive abilities, but also because we are all essentially one in the same, allowing us to find common ground and understand the struggles of one another. The genetic make up of my own being is for the most part identical to that of your own; the difference genetically between individuals is estimated to be around 0.1%. This applies to other species as well; through our genetic lineage, we can see how it is possible that the behaviours exhibited in a chimpanzee are similar to that of our own. And in turn, there are innate traits that are present in each and every one of us.

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