The Utility of Pessimism

We are often told, in this happiness-obsessed age of ours, to be happy. “Be happy,” they say, “Be optimistic.” The Panglossian phrase, “the best of all possible worlds” is on the tongue of every life-coach, every politician, every celebrity, every advertiser. It is almost a crime to be a nay-sayer to the idol of Happiness, though the happiness of which they speak is not the eudaimonia, the human flourishing described by Aristotle in his Ethics. No, it is the in-the-moment animal enjoyment of mindless consumption and the attendant, toothy smile plastered on the mindless consumer’s face.

Pessimism has had a bad name for the past sixty years of so, but it is now coming back into vogue, especially among the far-right in Europe and America. Suddenly we detect shades of the past, shades from the entre deux guerre era and the fin de siècle. And it is not just on the tongues of those inclined to authoritarianism – liberals in the time of Trump decry “fascism” at every turn and thus contribute to the general store of pessimism already buoyed by and buoying nationalism and populism.

A cyclical view of history is not at all an idea alien to ancient Western thinking, though it is more common in the East. In India, the Kali Yuga is the fourth and last stage of history, where dharma is at its lowest. Other adherents to Indo-European faiths likewise believed in cyclical time: the Greeks conceived of a Dark Age, and the Norse a corresponding Age of the Wolf. Their most recent incarnations could be found among thinkers such as Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) and Julius Evola (1898-1974): the former compared whole civilizations to organisms, each with a natural life including birth and death; the latter wholly embraced the concept of a Kali Yuga and an inescapable descent into matter.

But does not the idea of inexorable decline defeat the striving spirit that has animated the West (and great individuals) over the centuries? Would not “progress” be impossible with such a pessimistic – indeed, fatalistic – outlook on life? Psychologically one would think a worst-of-all-possible-worlds attitude counterproductive in terms of attaining the brilliant triumphs of the past.

I argue this is not the case. In fact, the pessimist and fatalist are best positioned to take control of a situation they think is beyond their mastery. Allow me to explain this paradox: the optimist, because he thinks he is already as near Eden as possible, becomes complacent. He is more willing to put up with injustices because he sees them as unalterable aspects of his reality. The optimist is more the fatalist than the optimist. How else can we explain the near-revolutionary fervor of nationalist and populist parties in the Western world at the moment? Surely the darker rhetoric of these groups is not inspired by a belief in “American exceptionalism” or the happy-go-lucky posturing of heads of state like Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron. To equate pessimism with defeatism is a deadly political mistake for élites worldwide.

Conversely, the pessimist is currently the greater agent of change: his picture of an America or Europe in decline, threatened by hostile regimes from without and lone-wolf terrorists from within, is a far more compelling vision. Bodies on the street, mass rapes, and anarchists run amok inspire more change than abstract – though noble – concepts such as the “free market” and “open borders”. This was certainly Trump’s appeal to the American voter, and remains the appeal of far-right figures across the Atlantic.

Does such pessimism require a far-right reaction? No, not necessarily. Does it shift center-right parties further to the center, and far-left parties further to the left? Undoubtedly. In the United Kingdom the Labour Party, refusing to adapt, is about to see its future prospects for continued relevance obliterated. The Netherlands’ center-right party, though victorious over Geert Wilders, has had to adopt some of his rhetoric, especially regarding Turkey. In Germany both the green party and Alternativ für Deutscheland have seen gains (the same applies to far-right and -left parties in Austria and the Netherlands). The far-right Sweden Democrats are the third-largest party in their country; Podemos nearly swept to power in Spain, the Golden Dawn in Greece and their far-left counterpart remain potent forces. Socialist Scotland and far-right Poland and Hungary continue their respective political polarizations. Despair of the greatest magnitudes prompts these sorts of reactions, the masses not content with the status quo.

And what I have just described are merely the effects of pessimism on the masses – the effects on the individual components of such movements is even more pronounced. Look no farther than Evola’s tract Ride the Tiger (1961), where he recommends reforming one’s individual life while all else collapses and crumbles around one. The individual is inspired to radically transform himself and his personal circumstances while ignoring the wider world. Pessimism either motivates political participation or withdrawing into oneself – or both. The two outcomes are not mutually exclusive: at some point, the anchorite finds enough of his fellows in the wilderness before deciding to take effective action.

Not all these reactions are beneficial to the states in which they occur, but to fail to understand the utility of the pessimistic outlook and the appeal it presents to so many disaffected souls is to misunderstand the thinking of both the ancients and moderns. The Kali Yuga, Dark Age, Age of the Wolf, and the cyclical conception of history and time in general are useful even if untrue. Facts do not motivate people but ideas. An idea, though patently false, can guide just as well as one that is patently true. Even Plato recognized the value of the “noble lie,” though in the Republic it is one of the inborn superiority of the ruling class, not the ineluctable decline of civilizations or human civilization overall.

The pessimist with these ideas at his disposal can never be caught awares, never made the dupe of hard-faced reality, if he denies it the slightest optimism. The worst that can occur – indeed, the only thing that can transpire – is a pleasant surprise. And sometimes this is the greatest joy available given the circumstances.

Roy Warden is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. He is actively involved in the California College Republicans and especially interested in philosophical justifications for conservatism and traditionalism.

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