The pessimistic spirit

Philosophy and Social Criticism 25 (1):71-95 (1999)
Abstract
Pessimism today is poorly understood. Indeed, such is the disdain that pessimism engenders, that it often has difficulty being taken seriously as a theoretical position. Yet pessimism, which is distinct from skepticism and nihilism, has much to offer those who have discarded the Enlightenment's expectation of progress. Through an examination of Rousseau, Schopenhauer and Unamuno, this paper traces out some of the common themes of pessimistic thought. Pessimism, it is argued, is con-cerned with the burden of time and with the problem of organizing the best kind of human life in the absence of a promise of progress, happiness, or salvation for society as a whole. But it need not urge passivity or resignation in response to these conditions. The figure of Don Quixote, first appealed to in this context by Unamuno, illustrates pessimism's capacity to craft a positive ethic of personal conduct for life in a disordered and disenchanted world. Key Words: Miguel de Cervantes • Don Quixote • history • nihilism • pessimism • progress • Jean-Jacques Rousseau • Arthur Schopenhauer • time • Miguel de Unamuno.
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