Pessimism and optimism in metaphysics: Schopenhauer versus Leibniz
There are a number of the terms playing the descriptive role in philosophical discourse. They aim to present the philosophies and serve as the labels sometimes tightly fixed with the particular philosopher or teaching he left. Such descriptive terms have crossed the borders of their place of origin and entered the domains of other disciplines. Therefore, the discussion of the genesis of the terms “optimism” and “pessimism” is the purpose of this short article.
First off, in the discussion about optimism and pessimism in metaphysics it is pertinent to come to terms with the concept of metaphysics. What to understand by metaphysics? It is in a way easy and troublemaking question. Metaphysical reflections tend to embrace the whole world, the whole reality. They raise questions of God, nature, world. They if to follow Aristotle’s understanding concern the first and the highest principles and causes. The metaphysical reflections – if a philosopher happens to articulate them -thus determine the guiding principle of the entirely philosophical system. This is not in last degree because of its overriding feature.
The introduction of the terms “optimism” and “pessimism” into philosophical discourse is linked with the metaphysical constructions of Leibniz and Schopenhauer. Leibniz the first used the term “optimum” together with the terms “maximum” and “minimum” in Theodicee in 1710. The popularity and also usage of the term in English is connected with the international recognition of the Voltaire’s work Candide ou l”Optimisme (Candide or Optimist) in 1759 where the term appeared again in the title. According to the dates it is possible to point out the adaptation of the term from Leibniz. As for the term “pessimism” its appearance and the beginning of the frequent usage dates a little bit later. Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, the German scientist, aphorist and satirist, firstly used the term “pessimismus” in his satirical works in 1766. The first published appearance of the term is linked with the French satirical play entitled Le pessimiste ou l’homme meconte de tout (The pessimist or man of any dissatisfaction). The academic legitimacy occurred when French Academy admitted the term “optimisme” in 1762, and “pessimisme” in 1878.
In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche regretfully states the decline of German culture and philosophy in particular. The golden time of great philosophers disappeared without return. Predominantly it was a time of the export the ideas from Germany across Europe: Frenchmen were inspired by the idea of pessimism, “Schopenhauerism” as Nietzsche had labeled it entered the others countries. “Even today much new seriousness, much new passion of the spirit, have migrated to Paris; the question of pessimism”. Here is an evidence of abovementioned appearance of the terms pessimism in Germany – if to count so to speak the place of birth – and its later reaffirmation in the plays and finally the official acknowledgment by the French Academy. If the place of the birth – Germany- is clear, so about authority some doubts come into view. Lichtenberg is worthy to take palm of primacy, since in his plays the term has firstly appeared.
In my interpretation, the criterion of the relevant usage of the labels “optimist” or “pessimist” concerns the way philosopher perceives the aim and order of the things. If for the world, the striving to a proper aim is attributed and the aim is viewed as the striving to the something better in the future. In this situation the philosopher is endowed with the label optimist. The opposite case is about the label of pessimism.
Leibniz opens the Discourse on Metaphysics with statement that ‘’God is an absolutely perfect being’. God is perfect being and therefore all things created by Him are the best of all possible things. The perfection of God implies the variety attributes in their highest and unlimited forms. That what is created by God is inevitably perfect. In terms of possibility the created things might have been different in accordance to their attributes. The created things are the best of all possible variants potentially open to God as a Creator of them. God is perfect, omnipotent and the greatest being whose power and knowledge are unlimited and directed to the goodness. God created the best of all possible worlds as an evidence of His power and wisdom. In Leibniz’s vision of creation the metaphysical and the moral aspects are interconnected and reflect the perfection of God. This is because what was created by God is perfect and strives for the good.
‘’ God’s work was like, it would always have been good in comparison with some possibilities, because there is no limit to how bad things could be. ‘’. Leibniz is regarded as an optimistic thinker in the issue of metaphysics. Leibniz advocates the theses of the perfection and intrinsic good of the world. The crucial ground for argumentation lies on the theses that contemporary to him science (and in some extend one may point out the present day science as well) did not obtain the appropriate tools in order to prove the perfection and uniqueness of God’s laws. Men in Leibniz’s view are poorly equipped in scientific terms in order to provide the stable ground for proving the theses of perfection of the world. ‘’ We are not well enough well acquainted with the general harmony of the universe and of the hidden reason from God’s conduct‘’. The explanation stemming from the imperfection of human’s epistemological (cognitive) faculty is elaborated in the issue of theodicy.
The reaction on Leibniz optimistic metaphysical views appeared more than one hundred years later in 1818. Arthur Schopenhauer in World as Will and Representation adopts Leibniz’s line of argumentation. His answer is complete in reverse:
“But against the palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds, we may even oppose seriously and honesty the proof that it is the worst of all possible worlds. For possible means not what we may picture in our imagination, but what can actually exist and last. Now this world is arranged as it had to be if it were capable of continuing to exist. Consequently, since a worse world could not continue to exist, it is absolutely impossible; and so this world itself is the worst of all possible worlds”.
The most pessimistic verdict to the world – since the world is the worst of all possible worlds – is derived from the following argumentation: where the fist prerequisite is the fact that world is arranged in such a way to be capable to last, any changes in form of worsening it would make its existence impossible. By fact of existence the world proves that it is the worst of all possible worlds.
The character of the metaphysical systems by Leibniz and Schopenhauer is determined by the fact what thinkers understand qua the ruling force of the world. Leibniz views the will of God in the order of the Universe whereas for Schopenhauer the volitions of the irrational Will constitute the way world is organized and ruled. Therefore two contrast premises – religious and non-religious – have resulted in the contrast conclusions about the world.
If Leibniz is metaphysical optimist, Schopenhauer is a metaphysical pessimist seeking for the ground of pessimism in the out of the world reality. Interestingly Crosby in the article on nihilism ranges Schopenhauer as cosmic nihilist basically adopting the similar argumentation. The world lacks meaning and this is an effect not a cause of the total absence of the meaning in the Universe. Such non-typical label nevertheless can be translated as metaphysical pessimist mentioned above.
In one of the letters, Schopenhauer declared “… I as pessimist, am the necessary antithesis to Leibniz, the optimist. This is derived from the circumstance that Leibniz lived in an age that was full of hope, but I, in an age desperate and wretched: ergo, had I lived in 1700, I would have been a spotless, optimistic Leibniz, and he would be I, were he alive today”.
Schopenhauer counterpoises himself as an opponent of Leibniz. Nevertheless, his argumentation is not personally motivated as might be seemed at the first glance. The circumstances philosopher happened to be born in determine his consciousness and as a result the particularity of the philosophizing. So going in line with the argumentation it is hard not to ascribe the adherence of the Marxian thesis on determination of social circumstances on man’s being: “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”. However, Schopenhauer might have pursued another goal by saying in such a way. What he inclined to emphasize might be the idea of the coincidence of personal (mental, psychological) predisposition and the social reality that together have resulted in the negative perception of the world.
In another passage, the similar vision of the world as the worst one is now tested not on the biological grounds. The necessity of the endless struggle undermines and characterizes all living beings. The very struggle is cruel and destructive in its means alien to pity and justice. Laws of nature make man to subordinate to them:
“Thus throughout, for the continuance of the whole as well as for that of every individual being, the conditions are sparingly and scantily given, and nothing beyond these. Therefore the individual life is a ceaseless struggle for existence itself, while at every step it is threatened with destruction. Just because this threat is so often carried out, provision had to be made, by the incredibly great surplus of seed, that the destruction of individuals should not bring about that of the races, since about these alone is nature seriously concerned. Consequently, the world is as bad as it can possibly be, if it is to exist at all”.
Likewise Leibniz Schopenhauer includes the ethical aspect in the valuation of the world. The world is the worst of all possible predominantly because it endorses man with endless suffering, gloomy dissatisfaction and rejects man’s life in the bearing of meaning; in a word it is bad.
Depending on the guiding metaphysical premises the concepts of the world are split in different directions in Leibniz and Schopenhauer. Leibniz advocates the actions of God and the creation of the best of the all possible worlds as the evidences of the perfection and omnipotence of God. For Leibniz the core of the whole philosophical system rests on the acceptance of God as Creator of the world. In a manner of apologist Leibniz provides the argumentations in order to sustain the perfection of God. God as perfect being created the best of all possible worlds that firstly means that God has a power to create different worlds but He choose and created the best one. Schopenhauer adopting and paraphrasing the Leibnizian statement on the one hand expresses his main pessimistically-based position (in some degree a definition of the world), on the other hand tries to point out the teleological component in the creation of the world, i.e. in his line of argumentations – world has been planned to be the worst from the all worst worlds. It is the worst one and worse cannot be otherwise it would collapse.
Crosby, D. A. (2009). Nihilism In Proudfoot, M., lacey A. R. (Eds.).The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy. Taylor & Francis LTD: United Kingdom.
Dienstag, J. F. (2006). Pessimism. Princeton University Press: Princeton.
Leibniz, G. (1991). Discourse on Metaphysics. Hackett Publishing Company: Indianopolis
Lowith, K. (1991). From Hegel to Nietzsche. The revolution in nineteenth-century thought. Columbia University Press: New York
Marx, K., Engels, F. (1986). Collected Works. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Nietzsche, F. (1998). Twilight of the Idols. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Schopenhauer, A. (1967). The World as Will and Representation. Dover Publications.