Existential Pessimism

To the extent that a typology of sorts may be constructed as regards to pessimism – in which distinctive categories of varying manifestations of pessimism may be delineated and defined, existential pessimism represents the Twentieth Century’s unique contribution to this young and largely unnoticed body of thought.

The horrors and disappointments of the Twentieth Century gave rise to a more thorough, complete, and chaotic brand of pessimism unlike its cultural, metaphysical, and romantic predecessors. It is not so much a “system of thought” in the line of Schopenhauer’s metaphysical pessimism of the Will; but rather, a fragmentary and destructive response to modern man and his alienating condition.

Generally speaking, existential pessimism is a thorough-going byproduct of Nietzsche’s destruction of metaphysical systems. In fact, Nietzsche’s own brand of Dionysian pessimism is indeed a precursor to existential pessimism, and it’s in Nietzsche’s progeny that existential pessimism finds its greatest voices. At bottom, existential pessimism reflects Nietzsche’s conclusion that all transcendental sources of meaning are themselves meaningless – staking out its claim that there is absolutely no meaning to existence period.

Moreover, existential pessimism is, and likewise understands itself as,  a concrete expression of man’s anxiety and despair with respect to the pointlessness of his being in the world – a pointlessness that has become all the more impossible to ignore in the absence of all meaningful metanarratives. Accordingly, existential pessimism exemplifies the crisis of being generally: how the individual is to cope with the loss of meaning in his own being.

Existential pessimism can be further distinguished on account of its focus on the existential-problematic of the subjective individual. Unlike the grandeur of metaphysical pessimism, which attempts to account for an overarching account of the negativity of the universe, existential pessimism explores the negativity of the universe from the perspective of existences — beginning with the given, concrete individual self. It follows that existential pessimistic inquiry is fundamentally concerned with confronting and describing the structural unsettledness of being generally, and the various responses available to the individual in light of the latter.

It would be impossible to reduce existential pessimism to a mere platform of axioms or principles. Not only would such an approach fail to do justice to the myriad ideas that could potentially be attributed to existential pessimist thought; but such crude reductionism almost seems antithetical to the spirit of existential pessimism and its strong distaste for such overgeneralizations.

That being said, in what follows I will attempt to articulate a few key areas and questions central to existential pessimism.

  • All hope is an illusion — a faulty meta-narrative that human history has constructed for itself. But the meta-narrative has suffered an irreversible breakdown – and modern man, to the extent he reflects on his condition at all, is utterly hopeless. The epic failure of the great ideologies of hope (liberalism and Marxism) has left post-modern man thoroughly jaded; and, as a result, he has become petty, cynical, and altogether decayed in his nature.   
  • Consciousness is a disease. Self-consciousness enables reflection and introversion; but at the same time, it provides us access to temporality. Time itself, understood as consciousness of existential (rather than objective or clock) time, is the source of man’s desires, but also his frustration, disappointment, and ultimate annihilation.
  • There never were transcendental “truths” – and even if there had been, they’re no longer accessible to us now. What we have left is the unenviable task of looking straight into the oblivion without anyone, thing, or entity to guide us. Man is completely lost in a vast, infinite universe in which he must resign himself to his cosmic uselessness.
  • The onset of digital technologies, especially the widespread adoption of the internet, has replaced traditional modes of inter-relations with and among entities, and consequently, has had a tremendous limiting effect on the development of self. Technology has uprooted man to the point that he is utterly homeless in the world. The massive overflow of information and constant stimulation have left man with nothing but superficial means to fight off average everyday boredom, but nothing that can sooth his existential ennui.
  • Technology, too, has provided modern man with a radical new means to perpetuate his absurd desire for immortality – both literally in the form of modern Western medicine and its emphasis on extending human life, as well as metaphorically through reproductive technologies that allow people unable to conceive naturally to continue on through their progeny. At the same time, man cannot escape his journey, no matter what, ends in death and decay.  
  • Genuine cultural expression has been replaced by consumer satisfaction.  The reflective and introspective self has been replaced by the “immediate” or “last man” – who cares nothing for his responsibility to become his own self, but instead spends the entirety of his existence seeking out new ways to feel good in order to distract him from his boredom and despair.  
  • Mass society and the domination of the Crowd over the individual self has rendered individuation all but impossible. Individuality, insofar as that term refers to the genuine task of becoming a self, has been replaced by crass egotism and selfishness.

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. And naturally, as heir to an impressive tradition that boasts such thinkers as Heraclitus, Hegesias, Pascal, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Leopardi, Zappfe, Camus, Foucault, Unamuno and many others, existential pessimism  touches on many of the issues central to pessimism generally.


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