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“The Problem of Pessimism” (Frederick C. Beiser)

1. Pessimism as Zeitgeist

Beginning in the 1860s, and lasting until the end of the 19th century, the dark cloud of pessimism hung thick over Germany. This bleak and black mood spread far and wide. It was not confined to decadent aristocratic circles; it could also be found in the middle classes, among students at universities, workers in factories, and even pupils in Gymnasia.1 Pessimism soon became fashionable, the talk of the town, the theme of literary salons.2 There were several anthologies of aphorisms and verse to indulge one’s melancholy on any occasion.3

The Germans had a word for this mood: Weltschmerz. It means literally “worldpain”, and it signifies a mood of weariness or sadness about life arising from the acute aware- ness of evil and suffering. Its origins have been traced back to the 1830s, to the late romantic era, to the works of Jean Paul, Heinrich Heine, N. Lenau, G. Büchner, C. D. Grabbe and K. L. Immermann.4 By the 1860s the word had an ironic, even derogatory, meaning, implying extreme or affected sensitivity to the evil and suffering in the world. But later in that decade the word also began to acquire a broader more serious mean- ing: it was no longer just a poet’s personal mood; it was a public state of mind, the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist.5

The origins of this Weltschmerz are puzzling. There seems to be no straightforward social or historical cause for it. Indeed, from a broad historical perspective, the second half of the 19th century in Germany seems a happy age. The horrors of the 20th century lay unknown before it, and the debacles of the early 19th century—the failure of the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848—lay behind it. In September 1870 the Prussians triumphed over the French at Sedan; and in January 1871 the second Reich was pro- claimed at Versailles. The dream of national unity, so ardently sought for generations, was finally achieved, as if by a miracle. Despite a crash (1873) and a long depression (1874–95), there was great economic and social progress in the second half of the century. Industry and trade expanded exponentially; living standards among the middle and working classes rose; welfare legislation was enacted; universal education had become a reality; great scientific discoveries were made; and transportation (railroads) and communication (telegraph) were greatly improved, far beyond what anyone  believed possible. History, it seemed, was on the march, creating national unity and greater prosperity for all.

Whence, then, pessimism? What made Weltschmerz, despite the social, political and economic progress of the age, so popular? Contemporaries themselves were perplexed by this phenomenon. Kuno Fischer and Jürgen Bona Meyer, two neo-Kantian philosophers, attributed the rise of pessimism to the widespread disillusionment after the failure of the Revolution of 1848.6 But other contemporaries were not convinced by their explanation. They pointed out some incontestable facts to refute it: that disillu- sionment was at its height in the 1850s, but that pessimism became popular only in the decade thereafter. Pessimism had become firmly entrenched in the 1870s, though this decade began with all those impressive achievements, viz., victory over France, the founding of the Second Reich, growing democracy and liberal legislation, which all seem reason to celebrate rather than mope.

There was one important economic development of the 1870s that would seem to be a potent source of Weltschmerz: the crash of 1873 and the ensuing “great depression”, which lasted more than twenty years (1874–95).7 Surely, one might think, these events must have had a dampening effect on the public mood. For some, they were indeed the major source of “cultural despair” during this epoch.8 Nevertheless, however impor- tant for the Zeitgeist, these events do not account for the origins of pessimism. They explain at best the spread of pessimism, but not its rise, because we can trace the begin- nings of that mood back to the 1860s and early 1870s, before the crash and depression.

Even if we cannot find any clear connection between pessimism and these political and economic events, one might still think that there is a connection between it and the great political question of the age: the so-called “social question” (Sozialfrage). This was the problem about how to deal with the aspirations and needs of the great mass of the population, about how to improve the conditions and alleviate the suffering of the peasantry and working classes.9 Beginning in the 1830s, this problem had been at the centre of political debate in Germany. It was indeed the cause of the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, though it had never been resolved by them. After these Revolutions, politicians would constantly debate the issue and divide into parties in their attempt to solve it. Here, it might seem, is one potent source of pessimism. According to this explanation, the pessimist would be someone who thinks that there can be no political solution to the social question, and that human suffering and evil are inherent in human nature and the human condition. By contrast, the optimist would be someone who thinks that there can be such a solution, and that human suffering and evil are surmountable by the proper form of social and political organization.

But this hypothesis too does not work. The division between optimists and pessi- mists in the late 19th century does not neatly divide into opposing attitudes toward the social question.

Some optimists, viz., Peter Weygoldt, Paul Christ and Theodor Trautz, who very much affirmed the value of life, were political conservatives who questioned whether the state would ever satisfy the aspirations of the working classes. On the other hand, some pessimists believed that there could be a solution to the social question. Eduard von Hartmann, Philipp Mainländer and Julius Bahnsen, for example, believed that social and political reforms, and greater technical progress, could go some way toward alleviating the sources of human suffering; but, in their view, the resolution of the social question was still not sufficient reason for optimism. Even if we relieved all the suffering of the working classes, that could not bring redemption, complete happiness or a meaningful life. After all, how is the meaning and value of life ever determined by material factors alone?

2. Intellectual Background

We cannot explain pessimism, then, simply in terms of a skeptical or cynical attitude toward the social question, still less as a reaction to a specific economic or political crisis, whether that be the failure of the 1848 Revolution or the crash and depression of the 1870s.10 But even if we could find a satisfactory social, political or economic explanation for the rise of pessimism, it would still be far from providing a full account of its meaning and significance. Such an explanation would inform us about its politi- cal causes and context, perhaps, but it would do scant justice to its philosophical con- tent and significance.

That we must take into account the philosophical dimension of pessimism was rec- ognized and stressed by contemporaries themselves. They held that the distinctive feature of the pessimism of their age was precisely its philosophical aspect. It is striking how contemporaries made a distinction between earlier forms of pessimism and that of their own epoch, which they called “modern pessimism”.11 The distinguishing fea- ture of modern pessimism, they claimed, is that it is philosophical or systematic. They noted that pessimism had been a common mood in many countries and epochs; but they still insisted that, in Germany in the late 19th century, it was more than a mood. Pessimism had now become a philosophy, a whole worldview. What else could one expect of a people who fancied their country “der Land der Dichter und Denker”?

There were, of course, earlier philosophical expressions of pessimism in the history of philosophy. It is only necessary to mention such thinkers as Michel de Montaigne and Giacomo Leopardi, who were profound pessimists and who justified their views philosophically. Nevertheless, there are still good reasons for thinking that Germany in the late 19th century was the age of pessimism, the epoch of Weltschmerz. Never before had so many thinkers thought for so long and so intensely about the problem of pessimism. For nearly a half century, the problem of pessimism would dominate philosophical thinking in Germany.

What was the philosophical meaning of pessimism? If pessimism is more than a mood, more than a passing phase of the Zeitgeist, what is the philosophical thesis behind it? The philosophical discussion of pessimism in late 19th-century Germany shows a remarkable unanimity about its central thesis. According to all participants in this discussion, pessimism is the thesis that life is not worth living, that nothingness is better than being, or that it is worse to be than not be. Philosophers often cited the lines from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Kolonos as the perfect expression of pessimism:

Never to be born, is by far the best;
but if you are alive,
the best is to return quickly from where you came.12

For this dark and dire thesis, pessimists gave one of two rationales. Life was held to be not worth living either for eudemonic reasons, i.e. because it is filled with more suffer- ing than happiness, or for idealistic reasons, i.e. because we cannot achieve, or even progress toward, those moral, political or aesthetic ideals that give our lives meaning.

Clearly, these rationales are distinct: someone might think that, even though life is filled with suffering, it is still worth living because we make progress toward our ideals. Some pessimists (viz., Schopenhauer, Bahnsen) would combine both rationales; oth- ers, however, would carefully distinguish between them, holding one rather than the other (viz., Hartmann, Taubert and Plümacher).

Of course, the fundamental problem of pessimism—the question whether life is worth living or not—is as old as the ancient Greeks. But German philosophers in the 19th century believed that they had rediscovered this problem after it had lain dormant for millennia. Whence this rediscovery? And why had the problem been hidden for so long?

German pessimism in the late 19th century essentially grew out of a rediscovery of the problem of evil.13 It is not that philosophers had forgotten this problem; they had always known of it; but it was as if they had now finally understood its meaning, the fundamental question behind it. Of course, the problem of evil had been central for philosophers and theologians throughout the Middle Ages and the Christian era. But the problem always took on a religious or theological form: why does evil exist if there is an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God? Prima facie, then, it might seem as if there should be no problem of evil if one simply denies the existence of God. There seems to be sufficient causes for the production of evil among human beings and nature for the existence of evil to be no mystery at all.

It is important to see, however, that the problem of evil does not go away even if we deny the existence of God. There was always a deeper question that lay behind that problem. Namely, why should we exist at all? Assume that the world is filled with evil and suffering, as the problem of evil presupposes. Suppose, furthermore, that there is much more evil than good, much more suffering than happiness. We are then con- fronted with the question whether life is really worth living after all. If I know that life will bring more suffering than happiness, more evil than good, why should I exist at all? We simply cannot assume that being is better than nothingness, that life is better than death. That was just the question that troubled the ancient Greeks, who did not believe in the theist’s God, and who still worried and wondered about the worth of life in the face of evil and suffering. Philosophers in the 19th century recovered the ancient Greeks’ wonder and perplexity about the value of existence.

Philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages were always aware of the deeper question behind the problem of evil, of course, but they were convinced they had a compelling answer to it. Although there is much evil and suffering on earth, life is still worth living, they believed, because of the promise of redemption in heaven. Life on earth is a testing ground for the soul before eternal life in heaven; and only he or she who withstands the test will prove worthy of that life. The trials and tribulations of this world are therefore necessary preparation for the salvation of the soul in the world hereafter. No matter how miserable someone might be, no one has the right to opt out of life on this earth, to leave it through voluntary death. We have all been created by God, who has made each and every one of us for a reason, even if that reason remains obscure to us. We are all players in his divine drama; and we cannot quit our part with- out ruining the play; we therefore have to perform our role with courage and convic- tion, knowing that in the end all pains and labours will be redeemed in heaven. So, however incompatible it seemed with their omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God, medieval philosophers and theologians never really denied the existence of evil and suffering; they indeed adamantly affirmed their existence because it gave all the more point and power to the doctrine of divine grace and redemption. According to that doctrine, life is worth living, not because of its intrinsic value, but because it is a means to another end, eternal salvation.

This answer to the question of the value of life had lasted for millennia. As long as theism remained a viable form of belief, it would satisfy the heart and capture the imagination of the faithful. But, by the middle of the 19th century in Germany, theism began to falter; it was indeed on the verge of collapse. There were several familiar causes of this crisis, all of which made the demise of theism seem imminent and inevi- table. There was Kant’s critique of the traditional proofs of the existence of God, which had exposed the weakness of reasonin knowing the unconditioned; there was Strauss’s, Bauer’s and Baer’s biblical criticism, which had undermined faith in the sacred status of the Bible; there was Vogt’s, Moleschott’s and Büchner’s materialism, which had attacked the orthodox beliefs regarding the age of the earth, the origin of human beings and the immaterial status of the soul; and there was Feuerbach’s anthropology, which explained religion as the hypostasis of human powers. All these developments had taken place by the 1850s. The 1860s brought even more bad tidings for theism. This was the decade when Darwinism was introduced into Germany, where it spread rap- idly, far more quickly than in its native England, and where it soon became official sci- ence.14 Darwinism seemed to undermine the last refuge of theism—the mystery of life itself—because it could explain the origin of species on a naturalistic basis. For all these reasons, by the late 19th century, theism seemed doomed. When Nietzsche declared the death of God in the 1880s, he was only drawing attention to an event that had been long in the making.

For the late 19th century, the death of God had the profoundest philosophical con- sequences. No longer could the problem of evil return in its old theological dress. The existence of evil and suffering impugned no longer the existence of God but the value of existence itself. Now the fundamental question behind it—whether life is worth living—appeared in its full force and it had to be confronted anew. The old theistic answer could satisfy no more: if there is no God, there is no redemption from the evil and suffering of this world. But if there is no deliverance from evil and suffering, why should we live at all? And so Hamlet’s old question returned with more power than ever: “To be or not to be?”

Summa summarum, pessimism was the rediscovery of the problem of evil after the collapse of theism. It came from the realization that there is going to be no redemption from all the evil and suffering of life, and from the conviction that, for this reason, life cannot be worth living. The pessimist accepted the traditional Christian emphasis on the evil and suffering of this world; but he rejected the traditional theistic answer to it. He insisted upon two propositions: that (1) there is more evil than good, more suffer- ing than happiness, in this world, and that (2) this evil and suffering will not be redeemed in another world. It followed from these premises, the pessimist argued, that life is not worth living, that non-existence is preferable to existence. The pessimist therefore accepted the negative side of Christian teaching (the evil and suffering of this world) but rejected its positive side (redemption in another world). Pessimism was thus essentially Christianity without theism.

The rediscovery of the ancient Greek question behind the problem of evil was the achievement of a single man: Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer had stressed how that problem is central to philosophy. We begin to reflect philosophically, he wrote in his masterpiece Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung,15 when we contemplate the exist- ence of evil. We wonder why the world exists if there is so much suffering, and so we ask ourselves whether nothingness is better than being. No one affirmed more avidly than Schopenhauer the negative side of Christian doctrine (the reality of sin and suf- fering) but no one denied more decisively its positive side (supernatural deliverance). He was, as Nietzsche once said, “the first confessed and implacable atheist” in German philosophy.16 Given his denial of theism, and given his affirmation of the evil and suf- fering of life, Schopenhauer had no choice but to draw his infamous pessimistic conclusions.

So much, very crudely, for the intellectual origins of pessimism. Someone might still ask, though, why the problem of the value of life is really a philosophical problem at all. We need to address these doubts.

3. Philosophy and the Meaning of Life

In the 1960s aspiring young philosophy students were told that philosophy has noth- ing to do with the meaning of life, and that it is essentially a technical discipline about the logic of language. It was held to be a vulgar and naïve error to assume that philoso- phy has anything to say about the purpose or value of existence. Philosophy had to be a science with its own distinctive method and subject matter, which consists in the ana- lysis of the logic of language. Since questions about the meaning of life did not permit scientific treatment, they were banished from philosophy and relegated to the softer provinces of literature or religion. Although this positivist conception of philosophy has been gradually fading, it is still very much with us. It was crucial in the formation of analytic philosophy, which still dominates the academic establishment in the Anglophone world, and which is now rising to pre-eminence in Germany.

For all those who still cling to the old positivist conception, it is a sobering thought that philosophy has not always been viewed in such a limited way, and that in one epoch in particular such a conception was abandoned—even by its erstwhile staunchest advocates—precisely because it did not allow for reflection on the meaning and value of life. That epoch was the second half of the 19th century in Germany. From the 1860s until the First World War, as a result of the Schopenhauer legacy, philosophers in Germany were deeply concerned with the most basic questions about the value and meaning of life. Their concern is especially evident in the so-called “pessimism contro- versy”, which was the major philosophical dispute in Germany in the last four decades of the 19th century. During that controversy, philosophers from every school intensely discussed and hotly debated the most fundamental question of all: to be or not to be? They asked, in other words, whether life is worth living. It is noteworthy that positivists and neo-Kantians, who had originally defined philosophy in proto-analytic terms as the “logic of science”, were compelled to revise their original narrow definition of phi- losophy, so that philosophy could encompass reflection on the question of the mean- ing and value of life.

To an unrepentant and hardbitten positivist, the pessimism controversy might still seem like a profound mistake, a prime case in point for how even an entire epoch can get lost in “pseudo-problems”. The meaning of life, such a positivist will maintain, is really a “pseudo-problem” because it is about values, and as such it cannot be settled by intellectual or rational means. All questions of value, not least those about the value of life, the positivist holds, depend on an individual’s feelings, likes or choices, which no amount of information about the world can determine. While philosophers might have much to say about the nature of the world—so the argument goes—that never logically implies anything about the attitude we should have toward it. For one person, the mere scratching of his finger is a reason not to exist; but for another, the horrors of war are all the more reason to exist. Logically speaking, there is no right or wrong about extreme or even opposing responses to the facts; and if there is no right or wrong, then there are no criteria for meaningful discourse about it. So, whether life is worth living or not depends on an individual’s own experience and attitude. Who, after all, is to decide whether we are happy in life other than ourselves?

It is impossible here to discuss the philosophical merits of the positivist’s strict dis- tinction of value and fact. Suffice it to point out that the pessimism controversy in late 19th-century Germany stands as a challenge to the claim that such a distinction entails the impossibility or fruitlessness of a philosophical discussion. The fact of the matter is that philosophers of all stripes—positivists as well as non-positivists—argued about the problem of the value of life, and that in doing so they raised all kinds of interesting philosophical issues relevant to its solution. The philosophers who participated in this controversy never doubted that, ultimately, each individual has to decide this question for him or herself, and they readily acknowledged that the answer to it would depend on personal experience and character. Nevertheless, they also recognized that the question raised all kinds of philosophical issues that each individual has to ponder before he or she made a wise or rational decision about the value of life. How do we measure that value? In moral or eudemonic terms? If in moral terms, what should these be? And if in eudemonic terms, what is happiness? If happiness is pleasure, what is the nature of pleasure? And what is the nature of human desire? Given the nature of human happiness and desire, is there more suffering than happiness in life? These were only the most general questions. All kinds of more specific questions arose concerning those particular aspects of life that are crucial in giving it meaning or happiness. What is the nature of love, of work, of art, of death? How do each of these make life more or less worth living? Although each individual has to make his or her decision about the value of life, he or she still has to make an informed decision, one that considers the basic facts, the fundamental values, and the relationship between them.

It is worth noting that many of the philosophers who discussed the value of existence in 19th-century Germany questioned the very distinction between value and fact, ‘ought’ and ‘is’, which has been the mainstay of positivism. For Schopenhauer, Hartmann and Dühring, who were the chief antagonists during much of the contro- versy, there is no hard and fast distinction between value and existence. The value of life very much depends on the nature of life; and the worth of existence very much depends on the structure of existence. Perhaps it was wrong of them to deny the dis- tinction between value and fact; but that distinction cannot be simply taken forgranted without begging questions against them.

Recalcitrant positivists who dismiss the philosophical question of the value of life do well to ponder the lesson learned by their 19th-century forebears. Beginning in the late 1870s, positivists and neo-Kantians realized that they could not afford to ignore that question which had aroused so much public interest. To their chagrin, they discovered that their conception of philosophy as “the logic of the sciences” was not very popular, and that, if their own philosophy were not to be an irrelevance, they had to address the question of the meaning of life. As we shall soon see,17 during the late 1870s and early 1880s, positivism and neo-Kantianism changed course dramatically in response to the interests of the public and its involvement in the grand questions of the value of life.

4. Pessimism in the History of Philosophy

Despite its great importance in late 19th-century Germany, the pessimism controversy has gone largely unstudied. There have been many studies of Schopenhauer and limit- less ones of Nietzsche; but very little has been said about the broader controversy itself as it played out in the last decades of the century.18 The many thinkers who took part in the dispute, the many issues they were concerned with, and the many contributions they made, have been mainly forgotten, not only in the Anglophone but also in the German-speaking world.

The understanding of pessimism itself, in most recent history of philosophy, has been very limited. If we follow the now prevailing canon, the chief pessimist is Schopenhauer, and his chief critic is Nietzsche. The whole question of the value of life is treated almost exclusively through these two figures, as if they exhaust all that needs to be said, and as if they alone have something interesting to say about it. But any seri- ous historian of philosophy, who should take a broad view of the second half of the 19th century, knows that Schopenhauer was only one pessimist in his age, and that Nietzsche was only one of his critics. There were other important pessimists besides Schopenhauer: Eduard von Hartmann, Philipp Mainlӓnder, Julius Bahnsen, Agnes Taubert and Olga Plümacher. Although they were indeed inspired by Schopenhauer, it would be a mistake to think that they were mere epigones; they depart from Schopenhauer on fundamental issues; and they not only deepen his pessimism but take it to more radical conclusions. Similarly, there were other important optimists and critics of Schopenhauer besides Nietzsche. There were the materialists (Büchner, Duboc), the positivists (Dühring) and a whole host of neo-Kantians (Windelband, Paulsen, Meyer, Vaihinger, Fischer, Rickert, Cohen, Riehl). Although they do not have today the fame of a Nietzsche, they were often cogent critics of Schopenhauer’s pessimism, and indeed in some cases more compelling critics than Nietzsche himself. If our interests are philosophical rather than historical—if we are concerned with philosophical insight rather than historical influence—we are indeed better off studying these lesser known critics of pessimism.

The restriction of vision in recent history of philosophy is largely the legacy of one important book: Karl Lӧwith’s Von Hegel zu Nietzsche.19 Lӧwith’s book is a brilliant one, and every student of 19th-century German philosophy should read it. The problem with the book lies less in its content than in its reception. It  has been taken to be  the narrative about 19th-century German philosophy, while it should be regarded as really only one narrative. Because it has been given so much authority, its cast of thinkers has been made into the canon of 19th-century philosophy. Lӧwith focused only upon those thinkers who fit his story about 19th-century philosophy as a revolution- ary age when humanity freed itself from religious authority and recovered its autonomy. Hence he focused upon Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who have now become the canonical figures in 19th-century German philosophy. Because he was not an advocate of the new autonomy, Schopenhauer failed to fit into Lӧwith’s narrative, and so he played a mere ancillary role as Nietzsche’s catalyst and counterpart.

Lӧwith’s narrative, like all narratives, has its limits, and if we make it canonical we fail to take into account some fundamental developments and problems in 19th- century German philosophy.20 One shortcoming of Lӧwith’s history has been especially fatal: it neglects the great importance of Schopenhauer’s reorientation of philosophy in the second half of the 19th century. It was Schopenhauer who made the question of the value of life so central to German philosophy in the 19th century, and who shifted its interests away from the logic of the sciences and back towards the traditional problems of the meaning and value of life. Once we take into account Schopenhauer’s reorienta- tion, the history of philosophy in the 19th century begins to look very different. Schopenhauer becomes central; Marx and the neo-Hegelians fade into the background; and though Nietzsche remains important, he proves to be still one player in a much larger drama, which includes many other pessimists and optimists.

The aim of the present study is to overcome Lӧwith’s shortcoming and to fill a gap in the history of German philosophy in the second half of the 19th century. The narrative begins with a discussion of Schopenhauer’s influence on his age, his rehabilitation of metaphysics and his pessimism. It then attempts to reconstruct the pessimism contro- versy, and to rehabilitate some of the most important optimists and pessimists of the age. This means studying in some detail figures who are almost entirely unknown in the Anglophone world—viz., Hartmann, Mainlӓnder and Bahnsen—but also some almost completely forgotten even in the Germanic world—viz., Frauenstӓdt and Dühring. What I have attempted to provide here is an introduction to these thinkers, an account of their leading ideas and their intellectual development. I have focused especially on the philosophical foundations of their pessimism, an interest not sufficiently present, I believe, in most recent German literature on these figures.21

Some readers will miss in my narrative a figure who looms large in all contemporary discussions of the value of life: Nietzsche. Since, however, he has been so thoroughly studied by so many, I see no reason to add to the already mountainous literature about him. This is not because I regard Nietzsche as a thinker of lesser importance than those I discuss here. Nietzsche’s philosophical and historical significance is a fait accompli, and it remains an important task of the history of philosophy to understand his legacy. However, on both historical and philosophical grounds, it is questionable whether the disproportionate emphasis on Nietzsche in recent scholarship is defensible. Nietzsche studies have become a virtual industry, an obsession that has taken attention away from thinkers who were just as interesting philosophically and just as important his- torically. The enormous emphasis on Nietzsche, compared to the virtual complete neglect of these other thinkers, reveals an astonishing lack of historical sense and philosophical sophistication. It is the task of future scholars to rectify such injustice.

It is indeed arguable that the single-minded focus on Nietzsche has been beneficial for Nietzsche studies themselves. Because many Nietzsche scholars are ignorant of his context, they tend to ascribe an exaggerated originality to him. The ideas of nihilism, the death of God, ressentiment, for example, were not coined by Nietzsche. It remains an outstanding desideratum of Nietzsche scholarship that it should individuate Nietzsche, that it determine what is unique and new about him in contrast to his con- temporaries, that it be able to identify his precise contribution to controversies and discussions that have been long forgotten. Nietzsche needs to be approached from a new perspective, one that places him in his historical context and one that reconstructs his views in dialogue with his contemporaries and predecessors. Until that it is done it is fair to say that Nietzsche, despite the vast literature about him, will remain largely unknown.

Though most figures studied in this history have been much neglected, the first four chapters focus on a thinker much better known: namely, Schopenhauer. The reason for discussing him here is that he sets the context and background for so much of the pessimism controversy, and I could not take knowledge of him entirely for granted. What I have provided here, therefore, is essentially only an introduction to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and pessimism.22 Students and scholars who already know their Schopenhauer will find themselves able to skip Chapters 2, 3 and 4. Chapter 1, however, is crucial for the whole narrative, which begins with Schopenhauer’s legacy. This aspect of Schopenhauer has been comparatively less studied, and I believe it can be read with profit even by the best informed scholars.23

BEISER, Frederick C., “The Problem of Pessimism” (Introduction), Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022, pp. 12-23.

1 On the spread of pessimism among all social classes, see Theodor Trautz, Der Pessimismus (Karlsruhe: G. Braun’schen Hofbuchhandlung, 1876), pp. 6–7.

2 On the reception of pessimism in the salons, see Carl Heymons, Eduard von Hartmann, Erinnerungen aus den Jahren 18681881 (Berlin: Carl Duncker, 1882), p. 21. In the social satire by M. Reymond, Das Buch vom bewußten und unbewußten Herrn Meyer (Bern: Frobeen & Cie., 1879), Herr Meyer and his wife hold a salon in which the pessimists are invited and hold court.

3 See Otto Kemmer, ed., Pessimisten Gesangbuch (Minden: J. C. C. Brun’s Verlag, 1884); Max Seiling, ed., Perlen der pessimistischen Weltanschauung (Munich: T. Ackermann, 1886); and Zdenko Fereus, ed., Stimmen des Weltleids (Leipzig: Wigand, 1887).

4 On the etymology of the word, see W. Rasch, ‘Weltschmerz’, in, Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, ed. Joachim Ritter, Karlfried Gründer and Gottfried Gabriel (Basel: Schwabe, 2004), XII. 514–15.

5 On pessimism as the mood of the age, see Julius Duboc, Hundert Jahre Zeitgeist in Deutschland (Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1889), I. 79–101; and Georg Peter Weygoldt, Kritik des philosophischen Pessimismus der neuesten Zeit (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1875), p. 15.

6 Kuno Fischer, Schopenhauers Leben, Werke und Lehre, Zweite neu bearbeitete und vermehrte Auflage (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1898), pp. 100–1; and Jürgen Bona Meyer, Weltelend und Weltschmerz: Eine Rede gegen Schopenhauer’s und Hartmann’s Pessimismus (Bonn: Marcus, 1872), pp. 24–6. The same explanation is given by Julius Duboc, Hundert Jahre Zeitgeist, I. 79, 82–4. This explanation still persists. It has been reaffirmed by Georg Lukács, Die Zerstӧrung der Vern  unft (Neuwied am Rhein: Luchterhand, 1962), pp. 172–3, 176–7, 183–4, 352–3.

7 On the “great depression”, see Hans Rosenberg, Groβe Depression und Bismarckzeit (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967).

8 For the effects of the crash and depression on the culture of the epoch, see Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1961), pp. xix, 66. See too his ‘Money, Morals, and the Pillars of Society’, in The Failure of Illiberalism: Essays on the Political Culture of Modern Germany (New York: Knopf, 1972), pp. 26–57.

9 On the origins of this problem in the early 19th century, see Theodore Hamerow, Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 18151871 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), pp. 3–93.

10 For another critique of the attempt to explain pessimism as a response to specific social and political events, see Michael Pauen, Pessimismus: Geschichtsphilosophie, Metaphysik und Moderne von Nietzsche bis Spengler (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997), pp. 8–12, 112–17.

11 On the term “modern pessimism”, see Edmund Pfleiderer, Der moderne Pessimismus (Berlin: Carl Habel, 1875), p. 6; Ludwig von Golther, Der moderne Pessimismus (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1878), p. 3; and O. Plümacher, Der Pessimismus in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, zweite Ausgabbe (Heidelberg: Georg Weiss Verlag, 1888), pp. 1–7.

12 Sophocles, verses 1225ff. Among many others, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche would cite these lines.

13 On the general importance of the problem of evil in modern thought, see Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

14 On Darwin’s reception and influence in Germany, see Alfred Kelly, The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany 18601914 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981). See Mario Di Gregario, ‘Under Darwin’s Banner: Ernst Haeckel, Carl Gegenbaur and Evolutionary Morphology’, and Dirk Backenköhler. ‘Only Dreams from an Afternoon Nap? Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the Foundation of Biological Anthropology in Germany 1860–75’, in The Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe, ed. Eve-Marie Engels and Thomas F. Glick (London: Continuum, 2008), I. 79–97, 98–115; Eve- Marie Engels, Die Rezeption von Evolutionstheorien im 19. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1995); Lynn Nyhart, Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities 18001900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 105–42; William Montgomery, ‘Germany’, in Comparative Reception of Darwinism, ed. Thomas F. Glick (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1972), pp. 81–115; P. J. Weindling, ‘Darwinism in Germany’, ed. David Kohn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 685–98; and Andreas Daum, Wissenschaftspopularisierung im 19. Jahrhundert (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2002), pp. 65–84, 300–24, 359–69.

15 Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘Uber das metaphysische Bedürfnis’, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, in Sӓmtliche Werke, ed. Wolfgang Freiherr von Lӧhneysen (Stuttgart: Insel, 1968), II. 207–8.

16 Nietzsche, Die frӧhliche Wissenschaft §357, in Sӓmtliche Werke, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980), III. 599.

17 See Ch. 1, section 3.

18 The chief study of the controversy is still that of Olga Plümacher, Der Pessimius in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, Zweite Ausgabe (Heidelberg: Georg Weiss, 1888). We will examine Plümacher’s work below Ch. 8, section 6.

19 Karl Lӧwith, Von Hegel zu Nietzsche: Der revolutionӓre Bruch im Denken des 19. Jahrhunderts, Zweite Auflage (Vienna: Europa Verlag, 1949).

20 I have explained some of these problems in the Introduction to my After Hegel: German Philosophy 18401900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 7–13.

21 I refer especially here to the work of Pauen, Pessimismus, cited above, and Ludger Lütkehaus, Nichts (Frankfurt: Zweitausendeins, 2003).

22 There are many good introductions to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. See Patrick Gardiner, Schopenhauer (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963); Christopher Janaway, Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2002); Julian Young, Schopenhauer (London: Routledge, 2005); Dale Jacquette, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005); Robert Wicks, Schopenhauer (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008); Peter Lewis, Arthur Schopenhauer (London: Reaktion Books, 2012); Walter Abendroth, Schopenhauer (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1967); and Wolfgang Weimer, Schopenhauer (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1982). There are also three important anthologies: Bart Vandenabeele, ed., A Companion to Schopenhauer (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Christopher Janaway, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer (Cambridge: CUP, 1999); and by the same editor with Alex Neill, Better Consciousness: Schopenhauer’s Philosophy of Value (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

23 An earlier version of this chapter, ‘Re-examining the Schopenhauer Legacy’, was read to the North American Schopenhauer Society at the Central Division Meetings of the American Philosophical Association, March 1, 2014.