Are You a Passive Pessimist, ala Schopenhauer, or an Agressive Pessimist, ala Nietzsche?: A Review of Joshua Dienstag’s Book, “Pessimism”

Pessimism (Princeton 2006), by Joshua Foa Dienstag, is excellent on many levels, but its chief value is in the way it locates “pessimism” as an identifiable philosophical position.

The author traces the pessimistic tradition through the Dionysian pre-Socratics, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Camus (as well as some lesser known philosophers). He suggests that the pessimistic tradition has led to two chief responses (an active one, embodied by people like Nietzsche and Camus, and a passive one, embodied by misanthropic quietists like Schopenhauer).

I especially like the way the book meditates, not just on philosophy, but on theatre, art, and literature. The author, for example, spends time addressing some key aspects of Camus’ novels, and Camus’ ideas about the nature of theatre. The author also devotes time to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, which is a reflection on Greek theatre. There is also a chapter on Don Quixote, and aphorism as a literary genre. The book, in short, is a nutritious and wide-ranging meditation on the “pessimistic” philosophical tradition.

Pessimism, as characterized by the author, is simply looking at the world in an unblinkered fashion. That is, it is a place where life and consciousness are subject to time and chance, and without apparent purpose or direction. I think it is fair to say that Ecclesiastes might be another starting point for this perspective. In other words, our wishes frequently do not match what a world in flux can give us. By acknowledging this state of affairs, and not denying it with false optimism, we are free to engage in certain gestures of our own meaning-making (Camus) or withdrawal (Schopenhauer).

I thus think that this book is a good primer, not just to pessimism, but to existentialist and nihilistic philosophical traditions. It’s difficult (in my mind) to neatly untangle them. It’s hard to know what the cluster of “nihilistic,” “Camus-like existentialist,” and “pessimistic” impulses in western philosophy should be called.

The author of this book has chosen to call it “pessimism.”

Here’s the link to the book at Amazon:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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