Is there a Pessimism of the Strong?
Nietzsche wrote, in his more youthful work The Birth of Tragedy, the following question: , “Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, malformation, of tired and debilitated instincts [. . .]? Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual preference for the hard, gruesome, malevolent and problematic aspects of existence which comes from a feeling of well-being, from overflowing health, from an abundance of existence? Is there perhaps such a thing as suffering from overabundance itself? Is there a tempting bravery in the sharpest eye which demands the terrifying as its foe, as a worthy foe against which it can test its strength and from which it intends to learn the meaning of fear?”
The short answer: Yes.
The long answer is harder, and should be put in context. My personal context is simple: I have been arguing with a few people who see themselves as pragmatists and issue-focused lately who seem to have a hard time trying to square the circle that their representation in either congress or parliament doesn’t seem to represent them. In fact, not only does it not represent them, but it doesn’t represent the public on issues in which they is large scale support if the question is asked with loaded partisan language. While I may be tempted to paint this as solely a liberal problem, it’s not. The public opinion is incoherent, but that is not so much a way to condemn the public but to say that material conditions–by that I mean the fact how the economy is run and what is happening the various economic and ecological systems– are almost too complex to comprehend now, and in light of declining public and private capital and abstract value, this may be particularly difficult to deal with.
In short, I will be honest: I do’t think the problems had in Europe or North America are fixable by technocratic intervening, nor do I think that collapse will be quick or it will reset us a hunter-gather default setting. None of these things seem likely to me, and I have spent two years talking about why. Yet, the Gramsci quote that used to brings hope sits dormant, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned … I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”
The challenge of modernity seems to loom as those of try to interact become increasing disillusioned and the window for change gets smaller and smaller: it is not that there is no answer, but it harder and harder to see an answer that would fundamentally change material conditions enough to change the trends of the past half-century. So there is a pessimism of the strong: it is a tragic optimism. The idea that there may be a way out of the situation and one must think and act one’s way through it should be maintained, but the likelihood that historical moment where things could have been altered may be passed must be held in the back of one’s mind.
I suppose, a pessimism of the strong is, as Nietzsche thought, a realizing of the tragedy in life and what is likely to happen in the near future, but not abandoning that there could be an answer to many of our current problems.