Pessimism has been making a comeback lately, and it’s not hard to see why. Myriad frightening ecological and political crises are unfolding throughout the world, all caused by greed, hatred, and delusion—Buddhism’s three principal toxins. To some, however, what’s unfolding is not an aberration. It’s a revelation that shows us the truly hopeless nature not just of people but of reality itself.
Thomas Ligotti, dire pop-philosopher and acclaimed author in the “cosmic horror” genre, is one who embraces this view—that the underlying structure of reality is not just unfulfilling but malignant—which he dramatizes in his elegant, eerie, and deeply disturbing fiction. In this view, reality is not even depressingly neutral. Like the Halloween monster Michael Myers—who stalks the world, knife in hand, as his soulless eyes peer out behind a grey mask—reality is callous, monstrous, and utterly without sympathy for human concerns. This is pessimism turned to terror.
Eugene Thacker, a Ligotti fan and professor at The New School, teaches a popular, even hip, class on pessimism there. His style is ironic and playful as well as morose and hopeless, as shown in his recent collection of aphorisms and short essays, Infinite Resignation: On Pessimism. As he writes therein, for him “the definition that best captures pessimism is given by the joke ‘I see the glass half full, but of poison.’” Pessimism is, he writes, “more of an indictment than a philosophy.”
A thoroughgoing presentation of philosophical pessimism has also recently been offered by David Benatar, the head of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town, where he directs the university’s Bioethics Centre. Benatar, like Ligotti, is an anti-natalist, which means he believes that it is immoral for humans to procreate, because coming into existence does terrible harm to those born. He has attracted attention lately for his books The Case Against Being Born and The Human Predicament, even getting a somewhat sympathetic treatment in the New Yorker.
Although it might come as a shock to some Western Buddhists, the Buddha himself made many comments which on the first glimpse seem to resonate with those of philosophical pessimists and even purveyors of cosmic horror. Ligotti himself has drawn this connection, stating his interest in Buddhism’s stark depictions of life’s suffering, as have Benatar and Thacker.
The Buddha did make several comments one can imagine Ligotti and company approving of. He compared the pleasures of the world to a bone stripped of all meat, causing more pain than enjoyment. These pleasures, he said, lead to anxiety and conflict, and in the end are no better than the pleasure of someone with a skin disease scratching themselves to relieve the itch. He compared this universe to a mountain of corpses and a sea of tears, and he described seeing just about anything at all to being speared through the eye. Not to mention the necessity of living off other creatures, he said, makes us all like parents who have unknowingly dined on the flesh of our own children.
Are the Buddha’s teachings, then, a variety of world-weariness like that taught by today’s “new pessimists”? Did the Buddha view reality as malignant and futile? Have no fear! (Or maybe, sorry to disappoint you!) Key aspects of the Buddha’s teachings differentiate it from today’s resurgent cosmic nausea.
Pessimism is a philosophy of suffering; Buddhism is a philosophy of the relief of suffering. Pessimism is the first noble truth—“there is suffering”—without the last three, which diagnose the cause of suffering and the path to freedom from it. The Pali texts detail the sufferings of life so straightforwardly because they also have a solution, and they want to motivate us to take it up with a sense of realistic urgency.
Despite his stark assessment of the anguish that humans often face, the Buddha also had a much more balanced view than the bleak void of Thacker or Ligotti. The Buddha asserted that life and nature also contain real pleasures and beauty, and championed the moral purity and joy available to those who practice the way of self-restraint, lovingkindness, and meditative training. The center of the Buddha’s teachings lies not in a grim confrontation with absurdity and futility but in the sublime pleasures of the contemplative path and the liberated mind. To put it simply: heedless life is painful, violent, unfulfilling, and full of danger, yes, but for those who take up the path of consciousness and self-cultivation, there are possibilities of morally blameless delight and a peace that brings wellbeing, fearlessness, and generosity.
As Thacker himself admits in Infinite Resignation, “The patron saints of pessimism watch over our suffering. Laconic and sullen, they never seem to do a good job at protecting, interceding, or advocating for those who suffer.” Herein lies a possible indictment of philosophical pessimism. Pessimists are willing to see the stressful, uncontrollable, and unfulfilling nature of impermanent phenomena—and some are willing to find a certain degree of peace in resignation to that fact. Yet their sober gaze on the shortcomings of the world leads neither to the transcendental freedom offered by many classical spiritual paths (both Buddhist and non-Buddhist) nor, it seems, to a commitment to the service of others. Presumably, this is either because they believe no such service is possible, or that the only service they could offer lies in writing and reading pithy books about our abominable situation.
It is true the Buddha discoursed vividly on the suffering of the cosmos in a way that can soothe those of us looking for someone who speaks honestly about it. This is the perennial appeal of pessimism: finding someone willing to admit hard truths. Yet the Buddha’s purpose in doing so was neither to indulge in a defiant gloom nor commit to the absurdist position that it is more rational to fully embrace the futility of things than to embrace the conditions for happiness that are available to us. The Buddha’s aim, rather, was to motivate his listeners to cultivate actions that, at the very least, would reduce our own suffering and that of others, and, for those who took up his full path, would lead to a happiness beyond the vacillations of pleasure and pain—to the joy of freedom from remorse and the peace of a liberated heart.
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