The surprising positivity of pessimism

Questioning the meaning of life and finding none can seem like a vicious and dark spiral but the philosophy of pessimism doesn’t have to be so, well, pessimistic, writes M M Owen

Monday 07 December 2020 11:53
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<p>The big question, pessimists say, is how can we justify the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?</p>

The big question, pessimists say, is how can we justify the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?

The first season of HBO’s True Detective stars Matthew McConaughey as a lithe, taciturn detective named Rust Cohle. In the series premiere, Cohle is asked by his partner (played by Woody Harrelson) what he believes. “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution,” Cohle replies. Selfhood is an inescapable illusion, and human existence is fundamentally “a raw deal”. “In philosophical terms,” Cohle explains, “I’m what’s called a pessimist.”

McConaughey’s character represents a rare appearance in mainstream culture for a nocturnal school of philosophy that usually stays hidden. In common parlance, pessimism refers to a vague glumness, a general failure to look on the bright side. But in the history of human thought, pessimism – from the Latin for “worst” – means something denser, deeper and darker.

Whatever it is you believe about life, you probably believe it is basically OK. Accompanied by some struggles and some privations, but on the whole a good gig. Perhaps you never asked for it, but you’re okay with having it. Certainly it’s improvable. You’re aware the curtain will eventually come down, but you generally put that out of your mind. If pressed, you would answer yes, life is, as they say, a gift; yes, in my final hour, it will have been worth it, all the huffing and puffing.

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