I was reflecting a bit on the history of philosophy and religion and how they view human life. My question is the following: Why does it seem ( at least from my readings and knowledge, I might have confirmation bias ) that pessimism is more of prevelant view in philosophy/religion?

Eastern religions basically see everyday life as samsara (perpetual cycle of infinite suffering), something to escape and be liberated of, offering moskha or nirvana as path, which heavily relies on asceticism, denial of wordly pleasures and a need to transcend human condition in general (nirvana is literally seen as "extinguishment" of desire, will to live/become). Christianity views humans "tainted" with original sin, and it's main objective it's salvation trough union with God/Christ (this need for transcendental value its present here again, altough in very different way compared to eastern religions). The main branch of philosophy that deals with human existence, existentialism, seems again heavily influenced by this negative sentiment, all the main thinkers seem to at least partake in this view: Kierkegaard, Dostoievski, Nietzsche, etc.

We know from a biological perspective that the objective ("meaning" in some way) of life is further propagation, therefore existence is tuned towards survival and not happiness ( or more loosely positive emotion, since happiness is such an abstract concept).

It seems to me that philosophical optimism doesn't have as much as relevance or attention in opposition to philosophical pessimism. Do you think this is true or not, and why do you think it? I'd appreciate philosophical conjectures or "scientific ones" (like maybe positive emotion is less intense and frequent as negative emotion).

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    How can we tell why something seems one way or another from your readings and knowledge? And your attitudes. Readings and knowledge do not dictate that "transcending human condition" should be seen as negative rather than uplifting and inspirational. Sharing the root with "existence" does not make existentialism "the main branch of philosophy that deals with human existence". But, for what it is worth, existentialism is surely not about survival, but rather freedom, self-making and the like. You choose to see that as negative compared to complacent happiness.
    – Conifold
    Mar 16 at 22:57
  • Mmm, it is not so much denial of desire, which is just the same force in the opposite direction. It is more: realizing that chasing the desire, while perfectly ok and you can't be faulted for doing so, even while knowing better, will probably not get you what you want ultimately. It is equanimity, not push or pull. Just drop the rope, and things get better, in short, still want things, but knowing that you want things. Because "You, the Monad, have decided it." Cool?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 16 at 23:09
  • I wanted general opinions/references on the topic, you're free to disagree with my question and the general sentiment imposed with it. I didn't say existentialism is about survival, I said that it primarily deals with human existence ( I am sorry if this is not accurate, you can edit the question if you like). Mar 16 at 23:14
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    If life were a bed of roses, why would that provoke research into the difficulties of existence? Mar 16 at 23:16
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    There is nothing wrong or sinful about desire per se otherwise there would be no reproduction, or even eating. The error is in making them goals in themselves. Mar 16 at 23:23

3 Answers 3


Schopenhauer is where you should start. He's of course the canonical pessimist philosopher in the western tradition:

Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim

But he's also the clearest to explain Why pessimism is closer to truth than optimism:

I cannot place — as everyone does — the fundamental difference of all religions in the question of whether they are monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic or atheistic but only in the question of whether they are optimistic or pessimistic.

Buddhism is true because it sees the world as suffering.
Christianity is false, especially the old Testament optimistic formulation — God saw the world
and it was goodbecause it ultimately conduces to more suffering
Schopenhauer WWI

Note: Schopenhauer would have been the first to admit that he derived inspiration and insight from Buddhism which teaches that the weft and woof of life is dukha — suffering. Of course you must hear him aright when he says, Buddhism is right, Judeo-Christianity is wrong: one cannot take it literally, given:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin
Bible 1 Peter 4:1

Somewhat generalized and secularized

Nobody's life is a bed of roses. We all have crosses to bear and we all just do our best
Yoko Ono

More fringe:

Man is planted on the earth by angels so that by his suffering he can feed the moon which got detached from the earth when a comet struck the earth due to a miscalculation by the angels.

If men understood why they have been put on earth, for a cause completely alien to them, they would on principle kill themselves.
Gurdjieff Beelzebub's tales to his Grandson

Since I've talked of Buddhism above, it's important to also talk of Taoism. There is a famous painting of Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu tasting vinegar:

tasting vinegar

Buddha finds it bitter, Confucius finds it sour, Lao Tzu finds it sweet. So certainly there's a question of choice of outlook.

  • I think Gurdjieff and Alan Watts are not good guides. Seeing some of the demented things in the animal kingdom, I sometimes wonder about it being all 'good' but the argument is that the Devil came in and messed things up.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 18 at 0:11
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    @ScottRowe Oh but Gurdjieff is in no real sense a philosopher. He called himself a teacher of temple dances. I mention him here because he gives a rendering that is isomorphic to the Fall in Eden without any of the Judeo-Christian associations. [Myself: Ive no issue with the Abrahamic associations, but others very often do. So...]
    – Rushi
    Mar 18 at 2:36

The optimist thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist agrees.

I don't know the origin of the quote. Something similar is attributed online to James Branch Cabell or J. Robert Oppenheimer. The pessimist fears it is true.


Best of all possible worlds, in the philosophy of the early modern philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), the thesis that the existing world is the best world that God could have created.

Baruch Spinoza gives the best reductionist account for affect: a feeling of desire, pleasure, or pain accompanied by an idea of its cause. This does not map emotions to crisp language patterns (set theory) but it is useful, for example, to define shame as pain and the idea that the self cannot bring an end to pain; or guilt as pain and the idea that the self is the responsible cause of pain. I am assuming that only one person feels pain: the self. If I think you feel pain it is only my sense of pain mapped to the image of your body arising in my mind. Biological optimism is the pleasure and vitality generated by the body under fortunate circumstances. Biological pessimism is the pain and lack of vitality generated under unfortunate circumstances. We witness others suffer in the course of life and feel empathy and we know that we could be subject to suffering too soon or in the distant future. In a way biological optimism is either transcendence of suffering or something like childhood ignorance or even a pleasurable psychosis. William James calls the optimists the Healthy Minded and he calls those who suffer anxiety or misfortune the Sick Souls.


I guess I didn't misunderstand your question.

It is clear that in pessimism there is no more important than extroversion. The philosophy of worldly life offers us a balance between pessimism and optimism. Because people tend to make choices that they later regret, they are not honest enough to appear pessimistic, so this balance persists.

We have the possibility of interpreting philosophies such as asceticism or cynicism as gnosticism in the whole.

Gnostics approach world equilibrium from a commercial point of view. The trade balance obliges no one to remain a debtor or creditor. I identify that the aspect of this philosophy that I cannot respect is the disrespect that has been made, is being done, or will be done to the existence of all human beings. This proves that the gnostics had no moral line. Gnostics can be found in every situation where they can be found at most, and they cannot sense anything further.

What constrains the Gnostics' quest for unlimited life is that the Enlightenment contradicts this philosophy. The fact that it is a fallacy to possess the other as knowledge is contrary to the fact that the gnostics did not accept this claim.

I wouldn't argue that there's a balance between pessimism and optimism. But as long as the human continues its life as a homogenized being, it finds many reasons to believe in this balance.

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    You assume that being a "gnostic" is more self centered than no. Perhaps that is so. You further assume that that makes one less useful to other beings than if one set out to help others. That is not necessary. See the erstwhile wizard programmer and then super-successful venture-capitalist Paul Graham
    – Rushi
    Mar 17 at 2:47
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    @Rushi interesting quote from Paul Graham's blog (article: The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius) because you like math: "chasing down paradoxes in nature is fruitful in a way that chasing down paradoxes in sacred texts is not." Nature is bigger and older than our pretensions, eh?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 19 at 1:49
  • Interesting! tnx @ScottRowe. But (perhaps) not for the reason you think. 2 paras before: Ramanujan's results ... preceded by a table of numerical results, carried usually to a length from which most of us would shrink So... (Good) math is work, (serious) religion is work. Chasing paradoxes... may or may not be. BTW the great modern gnostic Gurdjieff: Better to be a conscious egoist than a stupid altruist. More centrally: The way to true altruism is through egoism. In more Gurdjieff language: Before the stage of Cosmic Consciousness that all religions speak about is Self-consciousness
    – Rushi
    Mar 19 at 4:48
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    @ScottRowe Reading your article further, I think both of us are neglecting the main point of PG: genius involves disinterested craziness. Whether it be God. Or math. Or bus tickets. Naturally I have my own relative valuations of these. But I dont see why others should share them. [If you find this conversation engaging I suggest we continue it elsewhere — it could be tangentially related to this question but not this answer]
    – Rushi
    Mar 19 at 6:32

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