About the intellectual and existential superiority of pessimism over optimism (reply to Marcus Valério)

This is an English translation of an article written by Julio Cabrera in which he makes a reply to another author. Some parts may feel out of context due to it being a response article. Nonetheless, I decided to translate and share this text since I thought there were some interesting parts. The original article in Portuguese can be accessed here.

1. Introduction.

The summary of what I want to show here is basically the following: first, that in none of the argumentative lines developed by MV is pessimism refuted or rejected, but at most situated or limited; this, I believe, stems from the fact that pessimism is philosophically irrefutable, because if MV and the optimists could openly refute it, they would have done so with great desire, instead of simply situating it or limiting it; from this directly follows my second point: that pessimism remains, from the philosophical point of view, the most solid position; optimism is based on vital emotions and attitudes, but not on arguments. The best arguments are on the side of pessimism.

The optimist may say that this is a sad victory for pessimism, since reason is not the most important aspect of life, and that “it is more important to be happy than to be wise”; there is no problem with this, because it is an open concession to the fact that optimism does not have good arguments due to not even caring about them. So this is one of MV’s lines of thought: optimism is an emotional attitude towards life, a deep and intrinsic joy (“the joy of living”) that boasts of not needing arguments (whereas the poor and unhappy pessimist needs them imperatively). I maintain that, in this first line of thought, pessimism is not rejected or refuted, but only the following is said to it: “Very well, you need reasons; then stay with your reasons, and I will take my happiness.” But this position is compatible with the idea that pessimism is rationally correct (what is claimed is not that it is incorrect, but that it is worth very little to be rationally correct); pessimism will have demonstrated that life is bad, but that does not break the immense “joy of living” of the optimist. So it is clear that, in this line, pessimism has not been refuted, but only left out.

The second line is incompatible with the first, and MV mixes them several times throughout the work. It consists in saying: pessimism is not as rational as it claims to be; it shows nothing objective, but only a subjective attitude, as subjective as optimism; it has no intellectual superiority. And he begins to attack, now on the domain of arguments, the reasons for pessimism. Well, here the line of argument has been changed: from conceding that pessimism could have the best reasons, but that they are innocuous because what matters is to be happy and not to be rational, to proceeding to discuss the alleged rationality of the pessimistic position. One could interpret this, in any case, as a graceful concession from the optimist, who is willing to leave for a moment his immense “joy of living” to discuss with the pessimist on the rational domain, not to try to rationally support the optimistic posture, but to show that pessimism does not have all this rationality that it claims to have. I will show that neither in this line is pessimism refuted or rejected, but, at best, left as a plausible option.

Up to this point in the discussion, pessimism only remained in the defensive position; but, in a third moment, it starts to attack, showing the strength of the pessimistic structural argumentation (which I defend), and specifically defending the structural asymmetry criticized in MV’s work; and, at the same time, showing all the weaknesses of the optimistic position as a philosophical position, which will oblige it to finally withdraw in an unjustifiable emotional posture through arguments. In this line, many confusions have to be dismantled, such as, in particular, the common sense connections that MV (and the optimists generally) make between “being optimistic” (in the sense of sustaining an optimistic philosophical stance) and “being happy” (in the sense of experiencing punctual joys). I will talk about this later.

Optimism is so convinced and so closed about itself (that is, the “kindnesses of life” are so obvious) that MV thinks that the text on this issue was dispensable, that it could not have even been written, that it is unnecessary and even counterproductive (page 78); it is so obvious that life is something good, that this first annex would not be necessary. On the contrary, I find this text—which pessimism obliged to write—much more substantial and interesting than the body of the dissertation, which is surrounded by serious difficulties to show its central points. The text on Optimism vs Pessimism is vigorous, talented, often genial, lively, outraged, deeply motivated; of reliable and difficult reading; and deeply personal. Much better than the central text, of heavy, laborious reading, and not at all inviting. The dispensable text is, therefore, better than the necessary text.

2. Two initial strategies in the criticism of pessimism.

I point to two initial strategies in the critique of pessimism by MV: first, a pessimist straw man is built. The pessimist would be characterized by the following traits: he is deeply unhappy, hates himself and existence (p. 2), seems especially grumpy and incapable of any joy, is a desperate person (6), who adores the negative, death and everything that is connected with non-existence, who “makes nothingness positive” and turns it into a kind of divinity (21), who has his pessimistic attitude due to personal problems to insert himself in life, among the happy people; an annoying bastard and killjoy, somewhat crazy (and possibly homosexual, especially if he speaks ill of procreation and fatherhood). I have already tried to deconstruct this stereotype of the pessimist in my article “O que é realmente ética negativa?,” from 2006, which obviously was not read.

Still within this first straw man strategy, it is curious that when an optimistic philosopher claims to have discovered something (for example, freedom, dignity of the human person, the eternal in man, etc.), it is considered that he has discovered something for humanity; but when the pessimist discovers something unpleasant (perverse infantile sexuality, mortality, structural pain), what he discovered is valid only for him and not for humanity. Ever since I began to write on these issues, objections have almost always gone in this direction: “Pessimism is a personal, subjective and non-universalizable posture; you are like that, those are your personal characteristics and of many people as sick as you”; but I never hear any criticism of “subjectivity” when the results are beautiful. (Of course, this and other outrageous asymmetries are allowed to the optimist who, as MV says cheerfully, accepts reason only when it is convenient, but reserves the right to reject it when it is not.) MV’s critique of pessimism is the best, most elaborate, and talented version of this same persistent critique of the “subjectivity” of the pessimistic stance (where pessimism appears only as “a way of seeing things”).

After putting pessimism on an “existential” and phenomenal domain of the observable and immanent, the second strategy consists in putting pessimism on a supposed “essential” metaphysical domain which would attempt to say “how things are in themselves.” Optimism would then have the advantage of being on an understandable domain, while pessimism would be an absolutist and dogmatic stance. But of course I accept as MV does that there is currently no philosophy of “essences in themselves” that is sustainable; pessimism (at least the one I defend) is as existential and phenomenal as optimism; it is relative to the human and to the observable; it is a pessimism of the human as we know it, and not an absolute truth. But it is on this existential and phenomenal domain that pessimism can demonstrate its superiority over optimism. (Of course: its intellectual superiority, the only one that interests me to prove, I do not want to show pessimism only as an emotional posture, a kind of “sadness of living” next to the optimist’s “joy of living.”) I hope to show that the pessimist is rationally correct and, on this domain, superior to optimism; that the criticism of the optimist against pessimism is not correct, and that, at a certain point in its arguments, optimism is strongly obliged to adhere to irrational theses to sustain itself. (My pessimistic argument, however, is also not purely rational in an Aristotelian-Kantian sense, but it is “logopathic,” in the sense that the reader’s pathic sensitivity is also crucial to the understanding of the issue. I am not, therefore, a “rationalist” in the traditional sense.)

3. Optimism within the system.

MV presents in his central work a philosophical system, and claims that his optimistic posture does not derive from it, but I have doubts, and I believe that optimism would be stronger if he admits its insertion into the system. Already in the main foundation of the system, what he calls “skepticism,” presented as a skepticism of certainties, one can clearly see the connection: in a skeptical system, the world cannot be said to be good or bad; we have to suspend judgment. (Skepticism is therefore also an agnosticism.) At the outset, I want to say that when a philosopher adopts the agnostic attitude about an issue that interests him (for example, the value of existence) it is because he cannot openly adopt the positive attitude: the optimist would give up the thesis that life is neither “good nor bad” (the skeptic-agnostic stance) if he could clearly show that life is good; agnosticism is a posture of consolation.

Well, leaving that aside, I observe the following: this “skeptical” system is full of certainties, or meta certainties, such as skepticism being the best initial posture of a system, etc. (We know that skepticism is paradoxical.) He begins by dividing certainties into two great groups, the “essential” and the “existential,” the first referring to the phenomenal, and the second to something beyond the phenomenal. Adopting a curious Cartesian basis (and ignoring half a century of criticism of this kind of basis, both in Continental philosophy in Heidegger’s line and in the analytical line via Ryle to Davidson), MV isolates 3 Absolute Existential Certainties, the first of which is that I exist (p.67), and with that we are already situated in the 17th century!

He retrieves the widely criticized idea that we depart from a solipsistic environment, a kind of private shell, and we then venture out into the world. (This is the idea attacked by Heidegger in Being and Time in paragraphs 18 to 21, which he tries to overcome with his idea of ​​”being-in-the-world”: in fact, at the moment of asking anything, we are already immersed in the midst of the world, there is no solipsist starting point which was adopted between the 17th and the 19th centuries, to at least Fichte.) The idea of ​​”self” was also subjected to mortal criticism by the young Sartre, in his seminal article “La transcendance de l’ego.” (I refer to this in my meta-philosophical pessimism: objections are simply ignored, and one turns back to what has been questioned as if there were no problems; this makes philosophical discussion perfectly useless.) It is not known where all these Absolute Certainties come from, or why they would be only these and not others (besides a quick proof of what it would mean to reject them, which takes only one paragraph). With which, paradoxically, it seems that one tries to say here “how things are” in the phenomenal domain (in the sense that other choices would not be possible. Or are they? Would MV accept, for example, a plurality of systems, where his skeptical system would be one among many?).

Addressing the crucial subject that I think is involved here, we might wonder why the following would also not be a phenomenal Absolute Certainty “I exist and will, at some point, cease to exist.” Oh no; this is not accepted as an Absolute Certainty! (and, it seems to me, this is the main target of all this speculation: death has to be, ab initio, set aside). When so-called “essential certainties” are mentioned, what seems to me to be the crucial point appears in a seemingly casual way: “I cannot be sure that there is no evil genius, nor can I be sure that God exists, nor can I know for sure whether I will continue existing indefinitely or not” (page 68). This is extraordinarily astute and prepares the later argument: as pessimism is fundamentally based on the idea of the ​​mortality or terminality of being, and this is something of which we cannot be absolutely sure, pessimism must then fall. Things are, therefore, carefully prepared, rapidly taking mortality from the domain of existential or phenomenal certainties. It is difficult not to discover here, then, a very strong link between skepticism and optimism.

Traditionally, this has been the fundamental strategy of optimistic metaphysics, one of the last manifestations of which was German idealism which attempts to place nature, with its inexorable terminality, in an inessential place within the system, as that which must be overcome by the work of the spirit; it is what religions that have “the successful overcoming of mortality” as one of their main objectives have always done. MV declares that he is not interested in religion, but his Cartesian strategy obtains, at first, the same as idealistic metaphysics and religions: leaving mortality out of combat, as something we cannot be sure of; we are sure that we exist now, but after that we do not know anything else; intending to say that we are going to die or that we are going to live after the death of the body or anything else are reckless “essential” theses, of which we cannot be certain. But note that this strategy ends up greatly favoring religions: if mortality were an absolute existential certainty, religions would fall; as this cannot be proven (it is a “technical tie” between materialism and theism, which MV places on the same level), religions are strengthened: from being absurd and evidently refutable they become hypotheses that cannot be discarded. (In this sense, the skeptical system of MV is religious, as defined by him in Rélica, P. 4. And I think that optimism is inevitably religious. As Hans Küng states, religion is the Yes to reality.)

Next, MV places all the “escapes of Cartesian solipsism,” both scientific and religious, on the same footing (p. 69). The belief in the independent existence of matter and the belief in the independent existence of a deity are thus on the same level. As the four positions listed on p. 69 (it seems that there have been 5 in some previous version, as indicated by a typo, which suggests that this number may not be so accurate) cannot be proven, this underlies the “skepticism” of our author, a skepticism that shelters the religious alternative very opportunely, together with its immortalism hypothesis, also unproven but possible and plausible. At one point he openly declares his primary concern: “As an example, all data suggesting that my existence and sentience will cease with the death of my body are based on the materialistic hypothesis, but this is only one of the alternative possibilities to solipsism” (70). The egocentric basis allows me only to know for certain that I and only I exist now, and nothing else. Of course, religions could not show that there will be life after the death of the body (70), but they are already well installed in the system in a much more comfortable way: instead of being humiliated and refuted by materialism, they live with it side by side without any inferiority. Further on, speaking of progressivism, he says it clearly: “There is no essential superiority between one choice of phenomenal hermeneutics, which I have interpreted as escape routes from solipsism, and another, by the fact that all are existentially equivalent” (page 74).

Finally, optimism appears officially in the system (on page 76), with everything already prepared to “work out.” Here MV makes a fundamental statement: “It is possible that my philosophy is the result of an unjustified optimism which would force the concepts, even skepticism, to be constituted in order to satisfy a prior existential vision passionately defined. (It is also possible that a similar description applies to any other system of thought of any other thinker, even if antithetical to it)” (p.76). This is very important for the first step of my argument: that optimism cannot refute pessimism as an existential possibility, since it is itself also just that, an existential possibility. Pessimism, therefore, cannot be overthrown on this systemic basis; it will remain to be shown afterwards, in a second step, that pessimism overcomes optimism within the realm of existential possibilities. That first step is accentuated by another crucial statement on the same page, much more compromising: “The ego is totally and completely devoid of any obligation, totally free to decide its existential hermeneutics. The possibilities of interpreting the world in no way can be essentially confirmed or refuted. There is no possibility of correction, and therefore the choice can never be condemned” (76).

But this means that the choice may be pessimistic, with the same freedom as the optimistic choice, which the author seems to accept perfectly. The only thing he rejects is an essential pessimism, which must lead him to equally reject any essential optimism. The skeptical stance obliges him to assert that there is nothing in the world that justifies optimism objectively. He himself concedes, further, that the option for optimism is only preferential, “so that the whole universe can be made an amusement park adapted to meet the will of the Self,” which does not prevent others from viewing the universe as a museum of horrors with the same freedom. But the weakness of this optimistic option is already visible when the author says that it has to have “the modesty of a moderate expectation.” But why moderate? Why does the optimist have to be moderate? What does the world have to be, in the phenomenal domain, so that the optimistic option may not be immoderate? The example offered is: believe in God, if you want, but do not believe that He will come down every time you need it, because it leads to “the risk of a terrible disappointment.” The advantage of pessimism shows itself in the astounding fact that it can, calmly, be as immoderate as it wants. Maybe the pessimistic option can be as immoderate as it wants because it is sure that it will never be disappointed! The world will be as bad as the pessimist always thought it was! This is already moving towards a primacy of pessimism in the existential domain of the free choices open by MV’s own system, and to the idea that there is something in the real that favors pessimism more than optimism: the possibility of the former being immoderate, which the latter does not have.

Confirming that the victory over mortality is the secret motivation of this skeptical and optimistic system (suggesting that death is also seen by him as bad—a posterior theme of discussion—because if it were not, why spend so much time on these strategies of suspension of judgment on one’s own death?), the example of immortality is resumed (on the next page), “whoever chooses to firmly believe that his existence is perpetual can never be disappointed. But he who decides to specify how such a meta-existence will take place, especially specifying its details, runs the serious risk of being confronted with a meta-existence different from what he expected. The same applies to one who bets on the future existential extinction, because contrary to what happens with the opposite posture, the experience of its refutation is possible” (77). Here the optimistic consolations arrive at a truly awkward level of sophistication, and the last paragraph of 77 is openly comforting, taking strategic turns of skepticism, egocentrism, anthropocentrism, and humanism, to deal with helplessness, social conditions, and various sorrows.

4. The system cannot reject pessimism.

The optimist boasts, from the start, of being based on feelings and not on reason, whereas the pessimist would need to justify himself rationally, which would show the weakness of his position. Here the optimist is presented as satisfied and self-sufficient, without the need to justify himself, living in a calm and happy ambit, pre-comprehensive, in an aesthetic subjectivity that needs nothing; the pessimist appears, on the contrary, as a tormented being whose experiences are not enough for him, and for which he must go looking for “reasons” to substantiate his feeling.

This way of presenting things is biased and, at the same time, unexpectedly vulnerable; biased because it is clear that optimism is totally hegemonic and predominant in the world, it possesses the sympathies of all, even occupying the place of the “natural”; it does not have to justify itself because it has the whole community in its favor (as I shall show later, not by the force of its arguments, but by a powerful voice of nature; in some ways, even the pessimist is obliged by nature to be optimistic at different moments, or in many). Thus the pessimist looks for reasons not because his position is weak, but because it is totally marginalized, disliked, mocked, persecuted, excluded and rejected by everyone; he has to reason against the mainstream and therefore his arguments have to be especially well presented, because absolutely no one poses the most basic questions of existence in a radical way, and no one wants to even hear of it being done, which is already symptomatic. (It would be like saying, “We Nazis are not like you Jews, who are hiding and do not show what you are: we do not do that, we do not pretend, we openly show ourselves.”) It is not, therefore, that pessimism needs support as a solid position, but that its arguments have to arduously fight their way through a strongly antagonistic discursive universe totally dominated by current optimism. (I remember again that the text on the subject (the value of existence) is considered by the author himself to be strictly unnecessary and dispensable; optimism is predominant in the world to such a degree.)

But this way of framing the issues is also curiously vulnerable for the following reason: optimism seems to doubt, on the one hand, the alleged intellectual superiority of pessimism; but on the other, openly admits that optimism is fundamentally an emotional stance, according to which “to be happy is more important than to be wise” (p.3). On page 6 the rejection of rationality and reason is total: “It is better to be wrong and happy than right and unhappy . . . the optimist seems to value happiness more than rationality. If reason is favorable to him, good, if not, it can be left aside without problem.” Here, a rational justification of optimism seems to be calmly given up, since its superiority would be precisely because it does not require the rational foundation that pessimism so much needs; optimism would be something direct, emotional, connected with the “joy of living,” which does not need arguments. But this is curious because pessimism has precisely always regarded optimism as being of an emotional nature and not rational, so there is a curious point of agreement here; indeed, pessimism claims (and it is the only one that claims) its intellectual and argumentative superiority in a philosophy of life, and if optimism poses itself as an emotional stance and despises pessimism for its attempt to rationally base itself, the discussion ends here; there is nothing left to say.

Here optimism seems to facilitate the task of pessimism by putting itself as a stance that is not supported by arguments, which is everything that pessimism always thought optimism was. But if this is so, then why not concede that pessimism, in the sphere of reason, is right, even absolutely right, but since what matters is to be happy, it does not matter that pessimism is rationally right? To say that both optimism and pessimism have passionate origins (p.5) is true, but that does not mean that subsequently one of them cannot have better rational justifications than the other. And if optimism is to successfully show that pessimism is not rationally correct, and that it is a purely subjective posture like optimism, it will still be necessary to adopt the rational point of view in order to show that. This is all that the pessimist wants: to continue the discussion to show that when optimism aims to defeat pessimism in the domain of reason, it fails tremendously. That is what I will show in the next pages.

On page 9 a sort of provisional summary of the situation is made, and optimism and pessimism are placed on the same level, denying the thesis of the negative or unfavorable asymmetry, in an intuitive allusion to my theses, as presented in books and articles that MV does not seem to have read. There would then be “a perfect equivalence between the two forms of perception, the two subjectivities.” And he states that “the maintenance of the symmetry is enough for the optimist.” It seems, therefore, that the first moment of the argument for pessimism has been completed. The next step will be to show that, because the counter-arguments of the optimist do not work, pessimism may claim more than being a mere “subjective version” of the value of life.

5. Pessimism can reject the system.

As optimism is a very weak stance from the rational point of view, MV declares himself satisfied with the tie, in the impossibility of winning. Hence, it is crucial to optimism that the supposed “pessimistic asymmetry” of negative ethics (such as heard in the corridors) be demolished. So I find myself here obliged to again expose the structural asymmetry, even though with no hope of being understood (meta-philosophical pessimism). The fundamental asymmetry favorable to pessimism is this: while there is back and forth, coming and going in life (for example: today I am sick, tomorrow I am healthy; today I have money, tomorrow I am “broke”; today I understand a book, tomorrow I do not understand it, etc.), it is false or absurd to say: today I have aged but tomorrow I will be younger; today I have entered, due to my age, into a risk statistic (for example, of heart disease), but tomorrow I come out of that statistic; today I am farther away from the date of my death, but tomorrow I will be even further from it, etc. We are placed in a terminal or mortal structure that begins with birth and is unidirectional; it is a kind of fall, a countdown that will not alternate with a progressive count. (Of course, the “skeptical” system will say that we have no proof that death is not a new rebirth; I will soon say why I do not accept this.)

This is the fundamental asymmetry: while the facts in life allow alternation, the facts of life (of the vital process of being born and dying) do not allow it. This, of course, is not bad in an absolute sense, but bad in relation to a being like the human being, that is, something perfectly “existential,” not “essential,” but enough for the pessimistic thesis; it means that beings like humans, with their nervous system, their brain, their sexuality, their mechanism of desire, etc., cannot see their own decay as being something good; they experience it as a gradual and irreversible loss of the good (and even very good) things that they can do and be; all positive values are generated within life, and are generated as a systematic opposition against the irreversible and unidirectional fall of the mortal structure of being.

There is here a subtlety of pessimism which, decidedly, is not understood by common sense, including common philosophical sense. One might think that if people consider decaying and losing their lives to be bad, then life has value (“if death is bad, life should be good”). But pessimism does not think this is the case: life and death are inseparable parts of the same process; so if dying is experienced as something bad, life (having been born terminal) must be bad too; in such a way, being born and dying are both bad, because it is illusory to think that they go in opposite directions: to be born is to begin to die, and to die is to finish dying; this is intolerable to human beings, and we have to cling to something; precisely, one of the evils of life is that it forces us to cling to it without conditions, even when life is of terrible quality. We always think it is worth continuing; but this is part of its lack of value, and not a value of it. (It is like the singing of the sirens of Ulysses.) The bad thing about being born is that now I have to cling unconditionally to life, even against moral requirements; I was thrown into a mechanism of overwhelming desire. The so-called “love of life,” far from being a good thing, is one of its irrational and immoral spells, its own siren song: to continue living, to live at any cost, I am willing to run over reason and morality. Of course, common sense will have a hard time accepting this, but I had the naivety of thinking that we were having a discussion between philosophers. If we surrender to common sense, the discussion, again, ends here (for total incompatibility of conceptions of philosophy).

It is curious that the optimist still insists that it must be shown that death, pain, and old age are bad (p.15). On a phenomenal domain, these things are experienced as bad, even by the optimist, who thinks that happiness is possible “despite death, pain, old age.” That life, pleasure, and youth are good, is part of the badness of life, since life follows the direction of loss (very fast and unidirectional) of all these things. So the fact that these things are good and mortal composes the two crucial elements of structural pessimism. And not even eternity would solve it (MV is right at this point); what is bad is to have been born, such that eternity would also be terminal somehow. When it is said that “death is not wholly negative, because it can save us from worse suffering,” this proves that it is not death that is bad, but birth; being born can be so bad as to render death desirable. Life is not bad because we die, but because we are born; dying is but a derivation from birth; death and eternity have both a derived badness. (Here the internal life-death unity, structural death (SD) is fundamental; a theme of of my unread philosophy.) Thus, the fact that death is bad does not prove that life is good, because life and death are not substantively different things: death is simply the foreseeable consummation of the terminal life; in a mortal life, if death is bad, being born must be bad too. The asymmetry is not, therefore, “subjective” (only “a way of seeing things”), if we see it as a reflection of the life-death unity: life-death is terminal independently of the good things (undeniable) that happen within it. Happiness is not denied; only the optimism based on it! (I develop this better later.)

The pessimistic asymmetry can also be explained by a metaphor: suppose we live in a prison and one day our jailers call us and explain to us the following: that at some point they will summon us, torture us and kill us, and that our deaths can be more or less painful, but without us knowing how much; all this will not happen for the time being, so we can go and do whatever we want; when we ask them when all this is going to happen, they tell us that it can happen anytime, tomorrow or 10 years from now or 50 years from now, but we will not be informed of the date, we will only know it when it actually happens. We can then disperse and walk around the world and have happy experiences if we are able to bet heavily on the present without thinking of tomorrow, and to the extent that we are able to forget that we can be called at any moment. This is the human condition. Happiness is possible, but it is burdened and alienated, and it depends on the capacity for forgetfulness, insensitivity and moral flexibility that we are able to develop.

It is obvious that the argument of the pessimistic asymmetry is simply demolishing, and cannot be denied if we remain within rationality. (This was what I referred to in my messages to the group when I spoke of “indisputable results.” Optimistic or pessimistic attitudes are different responses to the same structural asymmetry, which is not in discussion because it is not part of any system, and which evidently does not prevent one from being optimistic, as it seems to me that MV believes.) The strength of the asymmetry is so great and so overwhelming that at this point the optimist is forced to leave rationality in an evident and embarrassing way. In the particular case of MV, he relies on Buddhism to challenge the unidirectional nature of the mortality of being; because it has to be denied without adopting any religion; but everything was prepared before, in the skeptical system, to enable this move without problems, even (at least apparently) without religion. He presents the Buddha’s doctrine as “a pessimism far more radical and profound than Western writers could ever conceive,” (p.7) but I do not agree at all; Buddhist “pessimism” can be “more radical” only by paying the price of irrationality. It presupposes accepting pearls of wisdom such as perpetual rebirth, migration of spirits between different bodies, including animals, karma, future lives, the idea that those who are not born will be born anyway, etc. (You do not need to be an analytic or positivist “rationalist” to be shocked by these things, but only to have the rationality of any person willing to think.)

The “skeptical” system has prepared everything so that these things can be presented, if not as true (which is what the optimist is desperate to accept), at least as “not susceptible to refutation”; but the matter has serious logical problems (not of mere empirical proof): one of them is the criteria of identity of the considered entities; it is absurd to say that “the same” people that I do not create will nevertheless be created, or that “the same” people who are human today were once giraffes; what is the criteria for considering that they are the same entities? A second logical problem is that many things, even absurd ones, are irrefutable; but being irrefutable is not enough for something to be considered even as a plausible hypothesis; the monster that reads Hegel in German at the bottom of the Caspian Sea and hides when someone approaches cannot be refuted; should we accept it as a plausible hypothesis? It is not we who should refute this, but those who postulate these entities who must prove them. As Hanson said in an old paper on science and religion: if we do not have any rational reason to accept an idea, the correct attitude is not “suspension of judgment,” but its pure and simple rejection!

When MV declared that “to be happy is more important than to be wise,” and that “reason should be placed in the service of happiness,” there was already a very strong hesitation shown toward rationality, but it was not so serious because it only demanded irrationality (or emotionality, or strategic rationality) for one’s position; but now things get worse because something irrational is presented as a supposed critical element against opposing stances: the theory of the terminality of being must be false because Buddha cannot be refuted! This is like saying that the thesis that animals cannot read must be false because the existence of the monster that reads Hegel in German at the bottom of the Caspian Sea and hides when someone approaches has not yet been refuted. This simply seems to make any philosophical discussion unfeasible! If I have to give up structural pessimism and the negative asymmetry only because it is not irrefutably proven that we are really going to die, and that we will not be migrating from body to body, then I am willing to grant anything!

Far from being more “radical and profound,” Buddha’s doctrine is much less radically pessimistic than negative ethics, because it facilitates an “exit,” which Schopenhauer, who was a Buddhist, took advantage of; unless the thesis that gives more hope is considered to be “more profound,” because, as it is well known, the optimist cannot accept that the bad is at the end, there must be a happy ending; and it seems “profound” because it is absurd and, above all, very old, which adds that mystery that the books of Benatar or mine do not have. A “pessimism” that states that when I die, I will continue to suffer in other bodies, is not at all “more radical” than a pessimism that states that our lives are irreversibly terminal. Fantasy does not add radicality to a thought; only absurd expectations, or, in the very terminology of the text, “immoderate,” because “they enter into existential shock with other phenomena” (pp. 76/77).

MV’s exposition at this point becomes simply delirious, because, at a given moment, he no longer exposes Buddha’s doctrine only as a “plausible hypothesis” (which it is not), but as a theory that deserves serious consideration. For example, he states that this doctrine “offers a solution of very difficult implementation to the problem, and the number of people who actually succeeded in obtaining it and who escaped the perpetual wheel of suffering would not even be able to fill an airliner” (p.10). Here it is spoken of an effective method that few chosen people would have really succeeded in accomplishing, with a tone of curiously “immoderate” conviction, which leaves the reader of the work totally baffled and not knowing what to do. He insists that his critique of pessimism does not include Buddhist pessimism. Well, of course, because it is no longer “pessimistic” at all! It establishes ultimate disappearance as an option, and no longer as a terrifying fate!: “Although it establishes insurmountable pessimism, Buddhism offers a solution, which although difficult, is still accessible, or at least has a remarkable degree of efficiency in reducing suffering, even if not wholly obtained” (11). But what he presents as advantages of the Buddhist attitude (Buddhists never cause suffering to others, are altruistic, etc.) are virtues that need not have any connection with the fantastic Buddhist doctrines, even if the beliefs in them can stimulate people to act morally.

Is Buddhism then an important part of what MV has to present against the pessimistic asymmetry? “the radicality of Buddhist pessimism is best appreciated simply because existence is impossible to be ceased with pure and simple physical death, which in fact is especially terrifying for the Western pessimist who, having already rid himself of the terrors, as well as the benefits of traditional theologies, sees in death the liberation from all evils” (11). But a supposed pessimism based on the idea that sufferings will continue after death does not sustain itself rationally, even if it is not possible to refute it; and, in this sense, Buddhism does not differ from the religions that have been criticized before, at least on this point: both place our ultimate disappearance in the hands of humans, or in transcendent salvation or in the game of Karma, etc. All are ways of mitigating the terrors of the pessimistic asymmetry, which seems simply irrefutable. These extreme resources begin once again to show the despair of the optimist, which, against the clichés, may be far greater than the supposed despair of the pessimist; the optimist simply cannot face the irreversible structural suffering and generates all sorts of mechanisms to make it disappear. (The author himself cites later, in a particularly consoling page, the construction of “complex systems of thought that can comfort us throughout our existence,” page 13.)

Of course, from the “skeptical system” one can always say that the thesis of structural pessimism is an internal thesis to “materialism,” and therefore arbitrary. However, one does not need something as complex as philosophical “materialism” to affirm the pessimistic asymmetry, but only the perfectly phenomenal experiences of the individual that suffers the hardships of the world simply because he has been placed in it. The placing of Buddhism and materialism on the same domain presupposes a curious philosophy of science and a particular mechanism for the invention of hypotheses. The Buddhist idea of ​​reincarnation is not even a hypothesis, since we do not have the elements to raise it as a hypothesis. MV says that the immortality hypothesis can be proven but its refutation cannot: it is clear that, after our deaths, there will be no one there to prove that there was, after all, no life after death, but this proves nothing in favor of the supposed hypothesis of there being one; the fact is that we do not have the elements to even raise this hypothesis and, therefore, neither the conditions of its verification. Notwithstanding this, our author uses this “uncertainty” in the face of mortality to discredit a possible devaluation of existence based on a characteristic such as terminality, as if it were as “hypothetical” as the migrations of spirits or the animal that reads Hegel in the Caspian Sea (see also 23).

This would be the objection raised against the asymmetry from skepticism. From subjectivity, MV insists that the tendency of pessimism to see only the “negative aspects” is only a subjective decision; but this remains a profound misunderstanding of the asymmetry: “good” and “bad” aspects are not situated on the same level, but the good ones are reactions to the structural decay. (This is another way of describing the asymmetry.) Here the common-sense confusion between “adopting the optimistic posture” and “being happy” is shown, on the one hand; and between “being pessimistic” and “being unhappy” on the other. Pessimism does not deny that a life full of satisfactions where death is insignificant is possible (p.12). In fact, we all do this, we are forced to be optimists (and this obligation to be optimistic—that optimism cannot be totally an option—is precisely one of the elements of structural pessimism).

Pessimism does not deny the existence of happy states (and how could it deny them?), but only asks two things about them: first, where in the holistic network of human experiences are these happy states situated? What is the significance they gain when viewed in the general economy of existence, and not in a decontextualized way? Secondly, what are the sensible, and above all, ethical prices that states of happiness must pay? Can we simply enjoy ourselves and indulge in these punctual states of happiness without asking ourselves how much unhappiness and immorality they generate? Pessimism is not based on the idea that happiness is impossible, but on everything painful that must happen to make it possible. The “happy man” can be an insensitive and morally flexible type of human; after all, the only thing that interests him is “to be happy,” and the others should fend for themselves!

Driven by the first strategy, that of the straw man, MV endlessly confuses the grounding of a philosophical position (optimistic or pessimistic), with indications about how to live a happy life, as if being pessimistic were a guarantee of an unhappy life. The instant and compulsive joys are like tickling, they can arise in funerals or concentration camps and are present also in the life of the pessimist (and how could they not be?), once one rejects the stereotype of the pessimist who would be locked up at home while thinking about death all the time with supreme pleasure. The optimist thinks that the pleasant experiences that are present in his life and by virtue of which he declares himself optimistic, are absent from the life of the pessimist. But these pleasant experiences are also present in the life of the pessimist, who may have a sense of humor and the ability to benefit from these joys as much as or more than the optimist. The crucial difference is that the pessimist does not think that the presence of such punctual happiness is a reason to adopt an optimistic philosophical stance, that is the point. They are two different things: pessimism is a philosophical stance that is not contradictory with the feelings of joy and personal accomplishment. It is not inevitable to be optimistic, but it is inevitable to feel joys and accomplishments. Having states of happiness and rationally upholding an optimistic attitude are different things that in the text (and common sense) are constantly merged.

The first pessimistic questionings about joys appear as related to the idea, already stated in the main text, that it is very difficult to be mistaken when one believes oneself to be happy or unhappy (p. 26); in annex 1 the same thing is insisted upon: “There is a sovereignty in subjectivity that cannot be disputed” (Annex 1, page 5). But we may disagree about this if we distinguish between an external point of view and an internal point of view on life situations, which may be dissonant: if I consider my life imprisonment to be good, there is no denying that I consider it as good; but I can say that this person is mistaken about the value of that situation: a life imprisonment will not become good because someone likes it (just as Auschwitz will never be a good thing only because someone has found the meaning of their life in this concentration camp); so one cannot doubt that these people are feeling what they feel, but one can doubt that what they undoubtedly feel is something that the object deserves. The value of an object cannot be inferred from its human experience (these have a powerful, biological and psychological tendency, to react positively to the greatest calamities, and to always conclude that everything is well, “despite everything”).

Secondly, one can also doubt whether people are truly feeling what they say they feel, since we live in a society where we are literally taught to enjoy ourselves, to have a good time, to be happy, to laugh, etc., and where we easily internalize all or much of what is socially imposed. The alleged hegemony of the first person may be a myth. This is important because it leads, further on, to denying that life has value simply because someone values it. On the contrary, valuation may be necessary because, without it, there would be no such value (see also page 6).

Pages 13, 14, and 17 of the text are almost self-help, and they are just as depressing as the attempt to describe how we can live and be happy “despite everything.” Here the “positive aspects” of the intra-world are accentuated without touching the structural ones, which is impossible (as it is perfectly possible for the prisoners of my metaphor to be happy but unable to escape from prison or change the fact that they can be called, at any time, to suffer and die). All these consolations are reactive to what is being denied as allegedly “subjective” and “arbitrary”: terminal suffering can take years, our health is never regained (p.13), physical and mental decline is apparent, eating and other pleasures are burdened and bring pain; it is possible to die precisely from pleasures, from the body parts or organs that we use the most; everything has its price, forgetting the dead can be unethical, etc. That we are able to accommodate ourselves to the bad, does not deny this bad, but rather affirms and consolidates it.

MV is right, when speaking of the “paradox of the positive nothingness,” (20) when he points to the paradoxes and problems associated with the good/bad terminology, which would be better abandoned. But the pessimistic thesis does not need this obsolete terminology. What there is is the attrited terminal decay, suffered phenomenally by beings like humans, and that acts against their interests and makes them suffer. Mortality, therefore, is not “bad,” but it is attrited (the small child who gets burned and calls the fire “bad”; it is obvious that the fire is not “good” or “bad” but this should not lead us to deny that its burn has harmed, injured, delayed, perished, shocked, made an impact, frightened, hurt, scared us, all negative terms even without the metaphysical weight of “bad”). Thus, structural pessimism does not depend on good/bad metaphysical terminology; so it may be fallacious to say that because I cannot consider what is harmful to me as “bad,” then it does not harm me.

Faced with the overwhelming intellectual superiority of pessimism, it remains for the optimist to ask himself, as MV does: after all, what does one gain by being pessimistic? In any case, we have to live, and one lives better by being optimistic. As I said before, we are, in a way, forced to be optimists to continue living; but this, far from refuting pessimism as a philosophical stance, reinforces it remarkably. The world is so bad that we cannot even be pessimists, we cannot observe the truth of our condition without it destroying us. We are therefore obliged to embrace compulsively what has no value, trying at all times to build the values ​​that will ultimately be destroyed. This is structural pessimism, and not any common-sense pessimism, based on a mere empirical predominance of evils over goods. (I would very much like my objectors to understand at once this important distinction between common-sense pessimism and structural pessimism, without which there will be neither understanding nor communication.) What does one gain by being pessimistic? It seems to me that the theoretical advantages of accepting a better grounded philosophical position is once again confused with the practical advantages gained by being unhappy in everyday life. The optimist fears that the proven argumentative solidity of pessimism will take away his everyday happiness, which is absurd. Keeping ourselves at the strict level of philosophical inquiry, and like many other (and perhaps all) philosophical results, pessimism only intends to present a philosophical discovery of importance, even if it is useless. It is a work of excavation, of archaeological discovery, buried beneath concealment, as innocuous as the Sheffer stroke or Frege’s definition of number. But on the other hand, perhaps from the consciousness of one’s own misery a deep ethical feeling may arise. (See the “Little Survival Manual,” in my unread Critique of Affirmative Morality.)

6. Phenomenology of the baby.

MV reacts against the thought experiment (as outlined in the book Because I Love You, You Will Not Be Born), specifically against the idea that if a rational being could choose between being born and not being born, they would certainly choose the non-being. His argument interests me especially because he elicits the example of a baby. According to him, since we cannot consult the possible being who is not yet born, we should consult the baby who is “the closest existence to the pre-existential condition, which is the condition of the newly existent” (24). MV says that here any rejection of life would fall to the ground, because the baby is pure desire for existence, pure vitalist pulse, he just desires, exists and acts, craves phenomenal experiences; in more primitive forms, such as the zygote, the ovum, the spermatozoa, their craving to come into existence is clear. If we could consult them we would not get an answer, but a very strong drive to jump into existence.

It should already be clear from all that has been said before that this phenomenology is biased and incomplete, and that the natural or animal craving to live, live, live, which has never been questioned, has nothing to do with a supposed sensible and ethical value of existence; which is the point that concerns negative ethics and structural pessimism. Terminality of being means much more than mortality or dying. It means, fundamentally, to be born terminal, to become terminal, to be born in a form of being that begins to decline at the very moment of emergence. This decline has a process of development, stages, which comprise a certain maturation; the being who is born ends through a process whose early movements (childhood, adolescence, youth) are hidden aging, which does not hurt but surprises pleasantly (“How these children have grown!” “He’s already the same size as his father!”); but the period from early infancy to adolescence is a face of the terminality of a terminal being as much as the others. The baby is already moving toward the end. Terminality is then, first of all, the inexorable advance of time in the path of deterioration, up until the consummation, more or less slowly (it can happen at birth or at age 100).

But the terminality of being is not only that; it is also attrition, friction, rubbing. This process of deterioration is accompanied by suffering in the very course of the terminal being, in the sense of time that passes faster and faster, having influence on the body and mind; the most noticeable friction of terminality is disease, but even without important diseases, the friction of simply deteriorating remains inexorable; diseases accompany all human life, from childhood illnesses to those of old age; in addition to the mere friction of continued existence, of elapsed time, and the frictions caused by diseases, there are the frictions of natural disasters, and, finally, human frictions, largely motivated by other frictions. Therefore, terminality is not only to die, but to pass through mortality with friction; we do not simply disappear, but we suffer the rubbing, the friction of the terminality in interconnected natural and social unfoldings (human managements cause diseases in others).

Terminality is experienced by beings like humans as uncomfortable or evitanda, but it has to be faced, because ever since we have memory, it is an insurmountable fact; when I reflect on being, I already am, I have already been; I have always been in terminality. The terminality is attrited and I have to protect myself or I will be destroyed. The human being is created inside a cozy cubicle in which he remains for months, with no idea of ​​what awaits him; he is “incubated” and prepared to face the friction of being. MV says that the rejection of life appears in later states, but that at the time of birth, and already before, everything is acceptance of life. But, is this so? What can be said of the outcry with which children are born, of the primordial cry, of the first traumatic contact (studied by Freud) with the world? Is the child’s outcry not already his first philosophical opinion about the world? Why is he not born laughing, or at least calm? When the baby is dumped into the world at the time of childbirth, his first reaction is pessimistic, a protest against disregard and disturbance, an initial outcry that he did not have to learn, as he will have to learn to laugh in the first few weeks or even months of life (which already marks, in the very inaugural act of being, the pessimistic asymmetry: the baby learns to laugh, but is born crying); the baby is born, forced by the desires of others, in an initial desperation, in a cry of deep and abysmal helplessness, in a primordial terror that, immediately, through movements, caresses, comforts, etc., adults will try to soften; movements that will be repeated throughout his life: initial despair followed by protective comforts; but the comforts are posterior to the despair; the despair comes first, and the comforts are the reactions. They are not on the same level. Asymmetry!

Then the baby is brought into the world by force, and expresses his displeasure at being put into terminality, from which he was apparently only protected within the mother; in fact, already at the most elementary level of creation, terminality appeared; the baby is not, of course, aware of this, but already experiences his terminality existentially through the movements of his body, his reactions to the light, his first interactions, helpless and fearful, with others, etc.; he is already Heideggerian Dasein from end to end, an existent, long before being a rational Aristotelian deliberative agent. Heidegger would say: he is already an entire being-towards-death. Terminality is experienced as uncomfortable by beings like humans, so the baby was disturbed to be brought into terminality; not, as they say, when withdrawn from the mother’s womb, but already in the initial moment in which he was conceived, because the maternal warmth is already part of the terminal being’s creation, its process of consummation has already begun.

The baby is therefore brought into the world without his consent, without being able to give consent, but already manifesting a deep displeasure for what they are doing to him and trying to defend himself; from there onwards, he will be forced to cling to what he can in order to withstand the friction of terminality; MV interprets these desperate movements of self-defense as “pure desire for existence.” The frictions initially come from the primary needs, hunger, thirst, cold, heat, ramifications of the original terminality, which are lived with great anxiety in the first days and months, anxieties that are constantly attenuated and softened by the parents and other people in charge of the baby, reiterating the same movement as before: always an anxiety first, a despair, an emptiness, and immediately the protective, attenuating reaction: exactly the movement that will be repeated throughout all and any human life. The supposed “desire for existence” is a desperate reaction to an incredible initial aggression.

So, the desperate clinging of the terminal being for life does not mean at all adherence to something valuable, or that this being wants life, as is said; this desire has nothing voluntary or free, not even on this primary existential level; the clinging is a reaction to the initial friction of being; it is a self-protective craving, absolutely necessary (not free) to be able to survive the frictions of terminality given at birth. (You do not try to protect yourself from something good, something valuable.) It is not that the baby desires life, but he is forced to react in order to not disappear; he has been brought, has been the object of total manipulation and he, from the beginning, is obliged to defend himself, and his desperate defenses are interpreted as if they were an endorsement of his birth. What the baby is already looking for are elements of his intra-world that help him in the urgent task of resisting the frictions of the terminality he has just gained, following the will of others.

Small children continue to cry a lot for several years; they weep and weep endlessly; they may bother us often, but they are right and we must accept their tears as a perfectly fair reaction to what has been done to them; some weep until well advanced ages, until finding other forms of protest and manifestation of the suffering; even as adults, we continue to cry in a variety of ways. The small child is a true nest of explosive and irresistible needs, longings, and desires; the small child uses no phrase more than “I want, I want”; they are constantly tormented by the desires that they are now obliged to have in order to endure the life which has been asymmetrically given to them and to which they are obliged to cling; but since life is terminality, and children do not want it (after all, they are already complete human beings from the existential point of view, and do not like to be hurt by friction), they are obliged to covet and demand from their parents all kinds of protective objects that shelter them from the mortal rays of the mortality of being: this is, of course, the role of toys, and all the paraphernalia of objects that parents are now forced to place between their small child and the terminal being who is already advancing inexorably forward, toward the end. We see in the streets and shopping malls, in a painful and embarrasing way, small children wailing, asking for this, asking for that, being dragged by their satisfied parents, over-attentive or indifferent, who do not even have any remaining sensitivity to listen to their child’s complaints, who is not even listened to, or listened with smiles and ironies, as if their small demand were disproportionate and exaggerated and did not deserve the prolonged attention of the adults. It will be said that, minutes later, the child will already be smiling again; but note that they laugh, and only for a while, when they gain some distraction (some ice cream, some candy, some toy, or even some object to look at), that is, something that can divert them from their helplessness during some time that does not last a lot.

So, the following assertion seems totally false: “Then, any chance of an answer that rejects life would fall to the ground, by the simple fact that desiring non-existence is a contingent and minority condition only possible to an already well-developed stage of the human being. In the opposite sense, what we see is pure vitalist pulse. The baby, in its apparent non-cognition, is pure vitality, pure existential impulse. He only desires, exists, and acts, the primary characteristics of human existence” (p.25). I hope it has become clear that the fact that the baby imperatively wants does not imply that he approves of life in its value, but only manifests the imperative desire to which he is subjected by the tyranny of life imposed unilaterally on him, and from which to defend himself he must cling to anything that appears. Precisely, his crying is the existential rejection of life (something that may or may not be later rationalized), and clinging to it is trying to find some protective element against its initial friction. MV’s description is marked by optimistic subjectivity, which his own system allows to criticize. The pessimistic view is also situated on the phenomenal-existential domain, but it seems to have the support of the fundamental asymmetry that is already given at birth.

But in any case I think MV is right in his conclusion (p.25), precisely because it is a hyper-pessimistic conclusion: the conclusion that, in spite of everything, the pre-being would choose to come to life, in the thought experiment of prior consultation. He is right: if we imagine the pre-being with all the characteristics of a human being, they will accept life, because they will already be equipped with these powerful biological and psychological mechanisms of attraction to life, to any life, no matter how terrible it may be; and it will be of no use to explain to them that these are reactions to something which they do not yet have, and which could be avoided; they will want to try it anyway. It is quite possible that the pre-being would choose to come into existence (p.24), even in sensible pain and moral indignity; clinging to life unconditionally is part of its badness (desire, craving). So if the pre-being is like an adult human, maybe most or all of them would indeed choose to be born. I hope it has become clear that none of this shows a value of life. (Although everything that is valuable attracts us, not everything that attracts us is valuable, that is the point.)

The argument that if one does not like life then one can commit suicide always seemed to me of a profound immorality (p.26); first, not being born is not the same as having to end one’s life; secondly, suicide is very difficult, it is by no means an “extremely accessible resource”; many suicides fail, especially by women (who try more than men, by statistics, but also fail more); many are left crippled or traumatized; there are thousands of technical issues, besides familial, legal, etc. The parent knows perfectly well that they are giving a product of dubious quality only for their own accomplishment and happiness; in admitting that the person may want to return it, they themselves fully understand the dubious nature of the gift.

5 thoughts on “About the intellectual and existential superiority of pessimism over optimism (reply to Marcus Valério)

  1. you equivocate a lot in this article. You use “optimism” and “happiness” interchangeably, and fail to even provide ad adequate philosophical definition of happiness, i.e. eudaimonia (so a big straw man there). Furthermore, you mention “Kantian-Aristotelian” thought, which is nonexistent, as those two philosophers are almost perfect inverses of each other. So I am curious why you cite Aristotle when you seem to not really know much about him. Not to mention, all pessimism and existentialism, when carried to their logical conclusions, requires death or suicide in the end. Reason being, that the desire to live on, by definition, presupposes purpose. So, if you have not yet killed yourself, despite being thoroughly convinced of the premises that’d demand you to do so, then you live on, and in this, living towards and end or purpose, and thus necessarily placing, get this, hope and optimism in that purpose. This is problematic, because you argue pessimism is the “intellectually superior” or logical argument, but if you deny the necessary logical conclusion of it, thus unhinging yourself from the authority of reason, how could you possible hold other to the standard of reason either? The quest, in and of itself, to know the purpose of existence, whether there is such a purpose, is one that presupposes purpose, hope, and optimism. Now I agree, that complete unbridled hope, not tempered by any sort of reasonableness, is foolish, and counterproductive. But hope premised in reason and probability is not a bad thing. Pessimism premised in reason, however, is entirely bad. There is nothing redeemable about it, and if you argue its value in terms of utility, that it provides then, a lens whereby you can more accurately scrutinize the world around yourself (and presumably come closer to truth), that’s hardly pessimism. This is, of course, a very practical examination of your arg, as I am a firm believer in grounding philosophical discussion in praxis above all else. also, Aristotle’s position on hope, or optimism, is somewhat nuanced as well. Hope is not one of his virtues as it stands, but it is presupposed in courage, which would require a sort of hope sourced in probability. As opposed to brashness, the vicious overdraft of courage wherein hope is entirely groundless, and cowardice, the total absence of courage, where hope is nonexistent. Overall, even if you’d argued pessimism sufficiently (you didn’t), it’d still be untenable practically. And I perhaps equivocate myself somewhat, namely between hope and optimism, but this is only to bypass the philosophical jargon and place the argument in the realm of praxis.

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