In Defense of Pessimism


I did some reading on Buddhism recently. And if there is one idea that contemporary Buddhists are obsessed with it is that Buddhism is not pessimist. Many “allege” that because Buddha talked about the reality of suffering and focused on eliminating it by eliminating desire (as opposed to promising some eternal pleasure in a higher life), Buddhism has a pessimistic outlook. It is not so, retort the Buddhists vehemently, and there are books after books dedicated to proving this.

I am not getting into Buddhism here. But what strikes me with a rare force in this discourse is how pessimism is treated as a pariah. Contemporary Buddhism is not alone in its desire to distance itself from pessimism. Defenders of all sorts of religions and philosophies do so. They wouldn’t be caught standing on even the distant periphery of the circle of pessimism.

The motivation behind this bias for optimism in religions and philosophies is understandable. As a race, as a society, as individuals, we prefer to be optimistic. It seems to be wired in us – biologically, psychologically and sociologically.Popular religion has pandered to this optimism bias since the dawn of history, whether it was simplistic Vedic hymns to curry the favor of nature gods or the ultimate judgement, reward and punishment based on right and wrong promised by the organized religions of later times. We want to hope, we want to feel in control; that is what motivates us to act. But why? Why act?

Different answers will emerge depending on at what level you pose the question. An individual acts to earn his livelihood, to not starve, and to live comfortably. Organizations and  governments may have more sinister motives. They may want individuals to act because it helps them become more powerful.  Others might point to more noble motives. It is by acting that we, as a race, survive, develop and progress. But why survive, develop and progress? We’re all going to die and the promises of a good life after that are just products of our imagination.Why care?

Uh oh! What a pessimistic question!

Pessimistic? Okay! But inadmissible? No!

Nobody will buy a self-help book that concludes that there might not be much meaning in life after all. None will flock to a religion that is not anthropocentric, that doesn’t make people feel important and great. No entrepreneur will be taken seriously if he didn’t proclaim that the world can be a better place and he is going to make it so. No policy-maker could hold her job if she didn’t announce policy decisions with a bright, cheerful outlook of the future.

But this bias towards optimism is a reflection of our culture, our survival instincts. This cannot make optimism unquestionable for those in search of truth. “The pursuit of truth, when it is wholehearted, must ignore moral considerations; we cannot know in advance that the truth will turn out to be what is thought edifying in a given society,” says Bertrand Russell. Pessimism is not edifying to our society. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

In fact, when one starts scratching beneath the shining surface of the world bubbling with our optimism, the case of a pessimist being closer to the truth only becomes stronger. Which hope-giving God has not failed us? I am not only talking about religious ones here, not only the Vedic and the Brahmanical, the Greek and the Roman, the Zoroastrian and the Jewish, the Christian and the Muslim,  but also the secular ones we have bowed to from time to time –  the different political systems, the socio-economic systems, this theory and that, one leader then the another! The most widely accepted gods for optimism these days are democracy as a political system and capitalism as an economic one. These, together, are supposed to ensure development, equality, meritocracy, justice, peace and a bunch of other ideals. But what really happens?

Rapist of his own three-year old daughter avoids jail because he won’t fare well there. Nobody seems to be driving the car that kills someone on the footpath and the testimony of the eye-witness who lost his own life over it turns out to be not reliable! Convicted politicians walk out of jail, while undertrials spend their entire lives behind bars without even getting a hearing. Rich kid walks free after a murder spree because he suffers from “affluenza”.Millionaire “accidentally” rapes a teenager and walks scot-free. If the list is not longer, it is because pessimists also don’t like getting depressed.

Even after the experiments of thousands of years, the gods of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; those of socialism, communism, capitalism, and Nehruvian middlism; those of nationalism, patriotism, internationalism, and individualism; those of heredity and meritocracy; and all kinds of systems and solutions we have built have failed us. And yet somehow optimism of setting things right in the next five years is considered valid and is embraced. But pessimism is avoided like the plague. Whereas our continued failure in creating the optimist’s just, peaceful, prosperous world should have long tilted the balance of truth-seeking in favor of the pessimist.

Is it time for writing the pessimist manifesto? Is it the time for the pessimists of the world to unite and claim their rightful, legitimate place in the world?

Bah! The world is unlikely to be better off for the effort!

One thought on “In Defense of Pessimism

  1. Jaya, I like this post and your thinking generally. All power to you!
    I personally just like to try to understand that what is the truth about any given matter with out being concerned about being pessimistic or optimistic. We humans are full of self deceptions and are very smart in fooling ourselves. As you say, humans have been running after false gods, both religious and secular since thousands of years and I am sure will continue to do so. People who speak truth are not heard.
    I value persons like you.

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