The Conspiracy Against Pessimism


What I mean to say is that to inhabit my landscapes one must, in no figurative sense, grow into them.

—Thomas Ligotti, The Strange Design of Master Rignolo

If the world is so terrible that human extinction is desirable, so the thinking goes, then why do so many people seem fine with being alive—some of which are themselves, presumably, pessimists? Pessimists provide a variety of answers to this question. Schopenhauer posits an almost metaphysical “will-to-live,” which he thinks overcomes human judgment and bends us to the purpose of extending life. Cioran explains humanity’s generally pro-life (or at least nonextinctionist) views in a variety of ways, from general naiveté to the prominence of Hegelian ideas about progress. Some even lay the blame on evolution, arguing that as a means of facilitating propagation, natural selection has resulted in certain adaptive psychological mutations that prevent an accurate evaluation of the world’s terror. Still another recurrent explanation pessimists give for their small number is that society, culture, and even language itself work to obscure the grim reality of the world. Crawford, for instance, argues that society enacts “self-delusion” through cult-like brainwashing; Benatar describes these forces as an incorrect “paradigm,” one that biases individuals toward life, applies “peer” and “social pressure” to reproduce, and “pathologiz[es]” pessimism. Anticipating Crawford and Benatar, Zapffe similarly argues that “most people manage to save themselves by artificially paring down their consciousness.” Perry simply claims that people tend to agree with those around them and since most people are not pessimists, pessimism as a specific cultural meme has a difficult time gaining a foothold.

Whereas Ligotti describes such counterpessimistic forces as a “conspiracy,” Michelstaedter refers to them as “rhetoric,” arguing that rhetoric as a structure of thought displays any number of anti-pessimistic, or optimistic, biases.

—Joseph Packer, A Feeling of Wrongness