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Cultural Pessimism and Therapy


B.Contestabile      admin@socrethics.com        First version 2008   Last version 2016





Table of Contents




1.  Introduction

2.  Cultural Pessimism

     2.1  Definition

     2.2  Social Cycle Theories

     2.3  Nihilism

     2.4  Postmodernism

3.  Risks

     3.1  Overview

     3.2  Obsession

     3.3  Aggression

     3.4  Fatalism

     3.5  Alienation  

4.  Philosophy as Therapy

     4.1  Overview

     4.2  The Therapy of Obsession – Buddha

     4.3  The Therapy of Aggression – Stoicism

     4.4  The Therapy of Fatalism – Nietzsche

     4.5  The Therapy of Alienation – Freud

5.  Conclusion











Starting point

Starting point are some quotes which have reached publicity in the discussion about realistic worldviews:

- “An optimist is a contemporary who is insufficiently informed” (author unknown).

- “Optimism is cowardice” (Oswald Spengler).

- “Optimism has to be condemned as not only absurd, but also as infamous thinking, indeed, as bitter mockery of the nameless sufferings of mankind” (Arthur Schopenhauer)



Type of Problem

- What are the causes of cultural pessimism?

- What are the risks of cultural pessimism?

- What are the historical and actual remedies to overcome cultural pessimism?




The causes of cultural pessimism are

- the belief that history proceeds in cycles and decay is unavoidable.

- the loss of religious and secular scenarios of salvation.




Cultural pessimism increases the risk of alienation, fatalism, obsession and aggression.




There are four conflicting types of philosophical therapies. Following a well-known exponent of each type:


Normative Therapies

Normative therapies are directed against the kind of suffering, which is caused by uncontrolled desires (e.g. obsession and aggression). The interests of the individual (the struggle for love and power) are morally degraded. The pessimistic worldview is overcome by changing the perception of the world:

- Therapy of obsession: Buddha. Pessimism is overcome by liberating from desires.

- Therapy of aggression: Stoics. Pessimism is overcome by adopting an “objective” view.


Individualistic Therapies

Individualistic therapies are directed against the suffering, which is caused by the repression of desires (e.g. alienation and fatalism). The interests of the individual are morally defended.

- Therapy of alienation: Freud. The pessimistic world view is simply ignored by falling back on biological resources:

- Therapy of fatalism: Nietzsche. The pessimistic world view is overcome by cultural perfectionism.






1.   Introduction



Starting point

In the year 1755 - the ground rocked in Portugal; an event as innumerable others before. But with one peculiarity: it happened on All Saint's Day at the hour of holy mass. Alone in Lisbon 30 churches collapsed and the rubble buried the gathered faithful. The earthquake, the following great fires, and the Tsunami-waves claimed tens of thousands of casualties. Was it God's punishment for the "idolatry" of Catholic veneration of saints? In fact, there have been voices that said so or correspondingly. But not even three weeks later the earth quaked also in Boston, a centre of American Puritanism, and demolished 15.000 houses. Also the interpretation as "Allah's revenge" was pointless, since the big Al-Mansur-Mosque in Rabat had collapsed too. Now one had recourse to the "original sin". Voltaire, infuriated at the utmost, answered with his famous poem "About Lisbon's Catastrophe, or: An Examination of the Axiom 'Everything is Good' ", and triggered by it worldwide discussions, that have not stopped up to this day. Yes, at present (2005) in the commemoration year of Auschwitz, Armenia, Dresden and Hiroshima and with the last natural disasters they make for new zeniths (Structure and Dynamic of the Cosmos, Ludwig Ebersberger)


The following quotes have reached publicity in the discussion about realistic worldviews:

         “An optimist is a contemporary who is insufficiently informed” (author unknown).

         “Optimism is cowardice” (Oswald Spengler)

         “Optimism has to be condemned as not only absurd, but also as infamous thinking, indeed, as bitter mockery of the nameless sufferings of mankind” (Arthur Schopenhauer).



Type of Problem

1)      What are the causes of cultural pessimism?

2)      What are the risks of cultural pessimism?

3)      What are the historical and actual remedies to overcome cultural pessimism?





2. Cultural Pessimism



2.1 Definition


The definition of optimism and pessimism didn’t change since Leibniz:

         Those who find a purpose in our life, and an order in the universe, which conforms to this purpose, are optimists

         Those who don’t see a purpose are pessimists

[Svevo, 155]


If life and the universe don’t have a higher purpose, we might still be able to create such a purpose ourselves (e.g. the eradication of the worst cases of suffering). In this paper the term cultural pessimism is associated with the belief that this is impossible because cultural evolution cannot be controlled.





An optimist thinks it is the best possible world in which we are living

–  a pessimist thinks this is true


Author unknown





Causes for cultural pessimism are:

1)      The belief that history proceeds in cycles (chapter 2.2)

2)      The loss of religious scenarios of salvation (chapter 2.3)

3)      The loss of secular scenarios of salvation (chapter 2.4)




2.2 Social Cycle Theories


The following theories contribute to pessimism insofar, as they suggest that cultural decay is only a matter of time.



Precursor theories

         Interpretation of history as repeating cycles of Dark and Golden Ages was a common belief among ancient cultures.

         The more limited cyclical view of history defined as repeating cycles of events was put forward in the academic world in the 19th century in historiosophy (a branch of historiography) and is a concept that falls under the category of sociology. However, Polybius, Ibn Khaldun, and Giambattista Vico can be seen as precursors of this analysis. The Saeculum was identified in Roman times. In recent times, Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar has used the ideal of social cycles

(Social Cycle Theory, Wikipedia)



Classical theories

         The first sociological cycle theory was created by Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) in his Trattato di Sociologia Generale (1916). He centered his theory on the concept of elite social class, which he divided into cunning 'foxes' and violent 'lions'. In his view of society, the power constantly passes from 'foxes' to 'lions' and vice versa.

         Sociological cycle theory was developed by Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968) in his Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937, 1943). He classified societies according to their 'cultural mentality', which can be ideational (reality as spiritual), sensate (reality is material), or idealistic (a synthesis of the two). He has interpreted the contemporary West as a sensate civilisation dedicated to technological progress and prophesied its fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era.

         Among prominent historiosophers important is Russian philosopher Nikolai Danilewski (1822-1885), who in Rossiia i Europa (1869) differentiated between various smaller civilizations (Egyptian, Chinese, Persian, Greece, Roman, German, and Slav, among others). He wrote that each civilization has a life cycle, and by the end of 19th century the Roman-German civilization was in decline, while Slav civilization was approaching its Golden Age

(Social Cycle Theory, Wikipedia)


         William James Durant (1885-1981) was an American philosopher, historian, and writer, best known for his 11-volume work The Story of Civilization.. In his extensive studies on civilization he realized that humans don’t change behavior in the course of time. In “Lessons of History” (1968) he mentions in particular the ineradicable drive to lead wars. “War is a historical constant and neither civilization nor democracy was capable eliminating it from the world. In the 3400 years of known history there were only 268 years without war.” (Fesselnde Philosophie, Deutschlandradio)





I don’t know with what weapons World War III will be fought,

but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.


Albert Einstein





         Similar theory was put forward by Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) who in the Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) (1918) also expected that the Western civilisation was about to collapse. The Decline of the West includes the idea of the Muslims being Magian, Mediterranean civilizations of the antiquity such as Ancient Greece and Rome being Apollonian, and the modern Westerners being Faustian, and according to its theories we are now living in the winter time of the Faustian civilization. His description of the Faustian civilization is where the populace constantly strives for the unattainable—making the western man a proud but tragic figure, for while he strives and creates he secretly knows the actual goal will never be reached (The Decline of the West, Wikipedia)


         Spengler's obscure thoughts, intuitionalism and mysticism were easy targets for his critics. All attempts to find the meaning of history had been denounced by the positivists and neo-Kantians of the late nineteenth century as irresponsible metaphysical speculation. This attitude did not change but was perhaps even hardened after the rise of neo-positivism and analytic tradition. One of the exceptions was the Austrian/British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who shared Spengler's cultural pessimism, and confessed once that he felt "intensely the terrible degeneration that had come over the human spirit in the course of only a hundred years." (Oswald Spengler)


         Towards the end of the 20th century, cultural pessimism surfaced in a prominent way. The very title of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000) challenges the reader to be hopeful.

     (Cultural pessimism, Wikipedia)



Modern theories

1)      One of the most important recent findings in the study of the long-term dynamic social processes was the discovery of the political-demographic cycles as a basic feature of complex agrarian systems' dynamics. The presence of political-demographic cycles in the pre-modern history of Europe and China, and in chiefdom level societies worldwide has been known for quite a long time and already in the 1980s more or less developed mathematical models of demographic cycles started to be produced. At the moment we have a very considerable number of such models


2)      Recently the most important contributions to the development of the mathematical models of long-term ("secular") sociodemographic cycles have been made by Sergey Nefedov, Peter Turchin and Sergey Malkov. What is important is that on the basis of their models the authors have managed to demonstrate that sociodemographic cycles were a basic feature of complex agrarian systems (and not a specifically Chinese or European phenomenon). The basic logic of these models is as follows:

a)      After the population reaches the ceiling of the carrying capacity of land, its growth rate declines toward near-zero values.

b)      The system experiences significant stress with decline in the living standards of the common population, increasing the severity of famines, growing rebellions etc.

c)      As has been shown by Nefedov, most complex agrarian systems had considerable reserves for stability, however, within 50–150 years these reserves were usually exhausted and the system experienced a demographic collapse (a Malthusian catastrophe), when increasingly severe famines, epidemics, increasing internal warfare and other disasters led to a considerable decline of population.

d)     As a result of this collapse, free resources became available, per capita production and consumption considerably increased, the population growth resumed and a new sociodemographic cycle started.


3)      It has become possible to model these dynamics mathematically in a rather effective way. Note that the modern theories of political-demographic cycles do not deny the presence of trend dynamics and attempt at the study of the interaction between cyclical and trend components of historical dynamics. Modern social scientists from different fields have introduced cycle theories to predict civilizational collapses in approaches that apply contemporary methods that update the approach of Spengler, such as the work of Joseph Tainter suggesting a civilizational life-cycle. In more micro-studies that follow the work of Malthus, scholars such as David Lempert have presented "alpha-helix" models of population, economics, and political response, including violence, in cyclical forms that add aspects of culture change into the model. Lempert has also modeled political violence in Russian society, suggesting that theories attributing violence in Russia to ideologies are less useful than cyclical models of population and economic productivity

(Social Cycle Theory, Wikipedia)




2.3 Nihilism



Relation to rationalism

Most religions believe that the truth (existence of God, purpose of evolution etc.) can be found by faith and revelation. Nihilism denies this possibility.





A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows

that faith does not prove anything


Friedrich Nietzsche





Though the term nihilism was popularized by the novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), it was first introduced into philosophical discourse by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743 – 1819), who used it to characterize rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation (Nihilism, Wikipedia)


The loss of faith is tied to a loss of hope, in particular the loss of a possible paradise. There are several types of paradises:

         The paradise in the Book of Genesis is a repetition of daily life without its painful conditions. It is the ideal of an agricultural society, i.e. a life undisturbed by crop failure, famine, illness and death [Hahn, 110]. Different concepts of paradises mirror different societies.

         Some paradises represent better states in the here and now, i.e. they represent memories of better times or expectations of a better future. In societies with a complex structure, the concepts can even differ within the same society. The general rule is the following: Social classes in decline glorify the past and vice-versa. The belief in progress, which is typical for the age of enlightenment, mirrors the collective advancement of the bourgeoisie; the romantic glorification of the past is the swan song of the disempowered aristocracy [Hahn, 115]. Happiness is located in a place where society hasn’t arrived yet or in a place where society was long time ago.

         The New Testament says: “No one has seen the paradise that is afforded to those who love the Lord”. This kind of paradise is abstract to an extent which makes it impossible to even attempt a falsification. On the other hand it is hardly attractive for non-philosophers and non-theologians which are deeply in sorrow about their daily life. Abstract paradises are made for religious virtuosos (Max Weber) [Hahn, 119].

All paradises have one thing in common: once they are unmasked as wishful thinking, they are lost forever.



Russian nihilism

The Nihilist movement was a 1860s Russian cultural movement which rejected existing authorities and values. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the Nihilists were known throughout Europe as proponents of the use of violence as a tool for political change (Nihilism, Wikipedia)

Nihilism was followed by the Russian Revolution (1905) and Marxism-Leninism (1920s).



Nietzsche’s nihilism

         A nihilist is a man who thinks of “the world as it is” that it ought not to be, and of “the world as it ought to be” that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of in vain is the nihilists' pathos (Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900, The Will to Power, section 585) (Nihilism, Wikipedia)

         Stanley Rosen identifies Nietzsche's equation of nihilism with "the situation which obtains when everything is permitted." (…). Nietzsche asserts that this nihilism is a result of valuing "higher", "divine" or "meta-physical" things (such as God), that do not in turn value "base", "human" or "earthly" things. But a person who rejects God and the divine may still retain the belief that all "base", "earthly", or "human" ideas are still valueless because they were considered so in the previous belief system (such as a Christian who becomes a communist and believes fully in the party structure and leader). In this interpretation, any form of idealism, after being rejected by the idealist, leads to nihilism (Define nihilistic)


Ich bin voller Argwohn und Bosheit gegen das, was man „Ideal“ nennt: hier liegt mein Pessimismus, erkannt zu haben, wie die „höheren Gefühle“ eine Quelle des Unheils, d.h. der Verkleinerung und Werterniedrigung des Menschen sind [Nietzsche, 61]



Existential nihilism

Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value (Nihilism, Wikipedia)

Existential nihilism corresponds to Svevo’s definition of pessimism.

For an unconventional approach to existentialist philosophers see Existential Comics.





The meek shall inherit the earth – who else would want it?


Author unknown, inspired by Matthew 5.5





Moral nihilism

Whereas Russian nihilism rejected traditional values (in anticipation of new ones) and Nietzsche promoted new values (a kind of Darwinian fundamentalism), moral nihilism denies the existence of any moral value.

Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism or amoralism) is the meta-ethical view that nothing is moral or immoral. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is neither inherently right nor inherently wrong. Moral nihilists consider morality to be make-believe, a complex set of rules and recommendations that may give a psychological, social, or economic advantage to its adherents, but is otherwise not in accord with fact or reality (Moral Nihilism, Wikipedia)



Relation to empiricism

Nietzsche’s God is dead was inspired by empirical sciences in the 19th century (although Nietzsche did not explicitly refer to science). Nietzsche replaced the metaphysical speculation about otherworlds by the scientific speculation about eternal recurrence, a controversial issue among the physicists at the time (see chapter 4.4). In a revised form, the speculation is still going on. Following some recent theories, which suggest that the universe does not require a Creator:


1.      In a letter to Max Born (4 December 1926) Albert Einstein wrote:

Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the "old one." I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice [Einstein].

In the meantime quantum theory has become the most successful, peerlessly predictive theory of basic reality ever devised. Wave functions define the quantum world in terms of probabilities and the transformation of possible states into concrete states may be a question of probabilities as well. A recent theory promoted by Daniel Sudarsky suggests that wave functions are real entities – rather than just knowledge about the quantum world – and that they collapse randomly, by themselves. Under these premises, in the early universe it was only a question of time before the wave functions of matter collapsed into an uneven distribution from which stars and galaxies could form [Cartwright].


2.      The zero-energy universe hypothesis proposes that the total amount of energy in the universe is exactly zero. George Gamow recounted putting this idea to Albert Einstein: “Einstein stopped in his tracks and, since we were crossing a street, several cars had to stop to avoid running us down”. The theory originated in 1973, when Edward Tryon proposed in the Nature journal that the universe emerged from a large-scale quantum fluctuation of vacuum energy, resulting in its positive mass-energy being exactly balanced by its negative gravitational potential energy (Zero-energy universe, Wikipedia)


3.      Pantheists like Spinoza and Einstein believed that physical laws are identical with divinity, but they imagined physical laws as something beautiful, universal and eternal. The competing vision of an absolutely contingent world emerged with the discovery that the gas laws are of a statistical nature, a discovery which inspired Alfred North Whitehead’s work in metaphysics:

Laws are observed orders of succession. This doctrine defines laws as little more than the observation of the persistence of patterns. Laws are merely ‘statistical facts. Each observed fact is a contingently new moment. There is no underlying principle of reason or a principle of causation [Dunham, 4].

         The thesis that all physical laws are merely statistical facts could not be confirmed so far. The law of conservation of energy e.g. is not a statistical law [Vollmer 2000, 29].

         Also the principle of causation is not refuted so far. The probabilities of quantum events are caused by preceding quantum events [Esfeld, 183].

On the other hand the history of physics has shown that more and more laws that seemed to be universal and eternal are in fact contingent [Scheibe]. All known natural laws could be

o   the result of a contingent process in the early stage of our universe

o   the contingent characteristics of our universe within a multiverse.

According to Quentin Meillassoux there is truly no reason for anything:

Meillassoux claims that mathematics is what reaches the primary qualities of things as opposed to their secondary qualities as manifested in perception. He tries to show that the agnostic scepticism of those who doubt the reality of cause and effect must be transformed into a radical certainty that there is no such thing as causal necessity at all. This leads Meillassoux to proclaim that it is absolutely necessary that the laws of nature be contingent (Quentin Meillassoux, Wikipedia).





It takes a long time

to understand nothing


Author unknown






2.4 Postmodernism




The term "postmodernism" comes from its critique of the "modernist" scientific mentality of objectivity and the progress associated with the Enlightenment (Postmodernism, Wikipedia)


Postmodernism does not only deny a universal purpose of life – it questions any common value on the cultural level. It therefore conforms to our definition of cultural pessimism:

Postmodern and poststructuralist thought deny the very grounds on which Western cultures have based their 'truths': absolute knowledge and meaning, a 'decentralization' of authorship, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and the ideals of humanism and the Enlightenment (…)

(Nihilism, Wikipedia)



The ambivalence of knowledge

Svevo’s remark above implies that the definition of pessimism was coined at the time of Leibniz. Pessimism is certainly much older than the scientific revolution but the demystification of the world in the 16th and 17th century suggested for the first time (with scientific authority) that the suffering in this world might be without a sense:

In the age of Enlightenment this insight was overruled by the vision of progress, but finally the evolution of knowledge proved to be ambivalent. Mythical gods turned (and still turn) into scientific gods who continue to humiliate people:





Reality is that which,

when you stop believing in it,

doesn’t go away.


Philip K.Dick





1)      Freud said that there had been three great humiliations in human history (The Interpretation of Dreams, Paul Brians)

a)      Galileo's discovery that we are not the center of the universe

b)      Darwin's discovery that we are not the crown of creation

c)      Freud’s discovery that we are not in control of our own minds.

2)      Gerhard Vollmer describes up to nine humiliations, resulting from nine different disciplines of science [Vollmer 1994].


The philosophers of Enlightenment thought that the elimination of religious forms of guilt (sin) would be an immense relief and liberation. But knowledge soon proved to produce new forms of guilt. In a contemporary philosophical debate suffering cannot be charged to a divine creator any more, but (indirectly) to all individuals who procreate. If humans put themselves in the position of god, then the theodicy falls back on them.



The ambivalence of technology

In his 1973 book, Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Konrad Lorenz addresses the following paradox:

“All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering... tends instead to favor humanity's destruction.” (Konrad Lorenz, Wikipedia)


In his influential book, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), Herbert Butterfield made a strong case against the “Wiggish” view that history involves progressive evolution toward where we are now. This picture is often another form of ethnocentric projection, and in fact changes of many sorts occur for many reasons (Relativism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


For information about the ambivalence of technological progress see

         The Cultural Evolution of Suffering

         On the Perception of Risk and Benefit


Doubts concerning the controllability of progress are not only caused by the complexity of culture, but also by the complexity and lacking controllability of each individual’s life. For information on this issue see

         Eine interdisziplinäre Untersuchung zur Willensfreiheit

         The Controllability of Life Satisfaction



The ambivalence of utopias

A utopia is a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities. The word was coined by Sir Thomas More in Greek for his 1516 book Utopia (in Latin), describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt to create an ideal society, and imagined societies portrayed in fiction (Utopia, Wikipedia)

An utopia is usually described as a goal that is hard (if not impossible) to reach: Example: Franz Hohler Die Insel Utopia (1985).

Utopias have a certain potential to replace the paradises described in chapter 2.3, but they encounter a paradox: The more a utopian society improves our living conditions, the more painful death becomes. Death is bearable

1.      if it sets an end to suffering

2.      if we identify ourselves with a group and the group survives

3.      if we feel that we have seen whatever there is to see

All these conditions are satisfied in simple societies, but not in the current visions of individualistic high-tech societies [Hahn, 121-124].


A hypothetical victory over death leads to paradoxical consequences as well:

Things do not gain meaning by going on for a very long time, or even forever. Indeed, they lose it. A piece of music, a conversation, even a glance of adoration or a moment of unity have their allotted time. Too much and they become boring. An infinity and they would be intolerable." (Simon Blackburn, Wikipedia, Immortality)





3. Risks



3.1 Overview



Kinds of risk

According to our definition (chapter 2.1) cultural pessimism is associated with the belief that there is no higher purpose in life and that we cannot create a purpose ourselves. Cultural pessimism increases 

         the risk of alienation, because it denies the traditional beliefs and ideals which bind the individuals of a community together

         the risk of fatalism, because it goes with a distrust in the controllability of cultural evolution

         the risk of aggression, because the frustrating senselessness allows denying and destroying everything, including life as a whole

         the risk of obsession, because addiction tends to replace the lacking purpose of life



Link to character traits

In the following diagram

         the character traits (detachment, dominance, compliance, affiliation) are taken from experimental psychology, see Konkurrierende Lebensziele.

         the above mentioned risks are linked to these traits.























We do not associate above types of risk with mental diseases, but with comprehensible reactions to the loss of meaning in life. Each of these reactions causes a specific kind of individual and social suffering.




3.2 Obsession



Sade (1740-1814)

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade, was a French aristocrat, revolutionary and writer of philosophy-laden and often violent pornography. He was a philosopher of extreme freedom (or at least licentiousness), unrestrained by morality, religion or law, with the pursuit of personal pleasure being the highest principle. Sade was incarcerated in various prisons and in an insane asylum for about 32 years of his life (…). Much of his writing was done during his imprisonment (Sade, Wikipedia)


Numerous writers and artists, especially those concerned with sexuality, have been both repelled and fascinated by de Sade.

         Simone de Beauvoir (in her essay Must we burn Sade?, published in Les Temps modernes, December 1951 and January 1952) and other writers have attempted to locate traces of a radical philosophy of freedom in Sade's writings, preceding modern existentialism by some 150 years. He has also been seen as a precursor of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis in his focus on sexuality as a motive force. The surrealists admired him as one of their forerunners, and Guillaume Apollinaire famously called him "the freest spirit that has yet existed".

         Pierre Klossowski, in his 1947 book Sade Mon Prochain ("Sade My Neighbor"), analyzes Sade's philosophy as a precursor of nihilism, negating both Christian values and the materialism of the Enlightenment.

         One of the essays in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) is titled "Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" and interprets the ruthless and calculating behavior of Juliette as the embodiment of the philosophy of enlightenment. Similarly, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited in his 1966 essay "Kant avec Sade" that de Sade's ethic was the complementary completion of the categorical imperative originally formulated by Immanuel Kant.

         In his 1988 Political Theory and Modernity, William E. Connolly analyzes Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom as an argument against trend of earlier political philosophers, notably Rousseau and Hobbes, and their attempts to reconcile nature, reason and virtue as basis of ordered society.

         In The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography (1979), Angela Carter provides a feminist reading of Sade, seeing him as a "moral pornographer" who creates spaces for women. Similarly, Susan Sontag defended both Sade and Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil (Story of the Eye) in her essay, "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967) on the basis their works were transgressive texts, and argued that neither should be censored.

         By contrast, Andrea Dworkin saw Sade as the exemplary woman-hating pornographer, supporting her theory that pornography inevitably leads to violence against women. One chapter of her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) is devoted to an analysis of Sade. Susie Bright claims that Dworkin's first novel Ice and Fire, which is rife with violence and abuse, can be seen as a modern re-telling of Sade's Juliette.

(Sade, Wikipedia)



Houellebecq (1958-  )

Michel Houellebecq, born (…) on the French island of Réunion, is a controversial and award-winning French author, filmmaker and poet. To admirers he is a writer in the tradition of literary provocation that reaches back to the Marquis de Sade and Baudelaire; to detractors he is a peddler of sleaze and shock. Having written poetry and a biography of the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft he brought out his first novel Extension du domaine de la lutte in 1994. Les particules élémentaires followed in 1998 and Plateforme in 2001. After a publicity tour for this book, which led to his being taken to court for inciting racial hatred, he went to Ireland to write. He lived in Ireland for many years, and now lives in Spain (Michel Houllebecq, Wikipedia)


         Grand Prix National des Lettres Jeunes Talents, 1998, for work to date; Prix Novembre, 1999, for Les Particules Elémentaires; Impac international literary prize, 2002, for Les Particules Elémentaires.

         Houellebecq, unlike Camus, is obsessed by sexuality, and the loss of it, as the key to the estrangement of modern man (…). Michel, the hero of Plateform, believes that men and women in Western society are no longer capable of getting on or getting it off. He says the only logical solution is sexual tourism, in which Western men – and increasingly women – seek the emotional and physical fulfillment that they are denied at home by travelling to less emotionally repressed countries in the Third World. This is the "ideal exchange", he says (Michael Houellebecq, The Independent)

         Literary critics have labeled Michel Houellebecq's novels 'vulgar,' 'pamphlet literature' and 'pornography;' he has been accused of obscenity, racism, misogyny and islamophobia

(Michel Houllebecq, Wikipedia)




3.3 Aggression



Hartmann (1842-1906)

         Eduard von Hartmann was born in Berlin, and educated with the intention of a military career. He entered the artillery of the Guards as an officer in 1860, but was forced to leave in 1865 because of a knee problem (Eduard von Hartmann, Wikipedia)

         Because of his knee problem, Hartmann was doing most of his work in bed while suffering great pain (Eduard von Hartmann, Internet Encyclopedia)


According to Hartmann human life labors under three illusions:

1)      that happiness is possible in this life, which came to an end with the Roman Empire

2)      that life will be crowned with happiness in another world, which science is rapidly dissipating

3)      that happy social well-being, although postponed, can at last be realized on earth, a dream which will also ultimately be dissolved.

Man's only hope lies in "final redemption from the misery of volition and existence into the painlessness of non-being and non-willing." No mortal may quit the task of life, but each must do his part to hasten the time when in the major portion of the human race the activity of the unconscious shall be ruled by intelligence, and this stage reached, in the simultaneous action of many persons volition will resolve upon its own non-continuance, and thus idea and will be once more reunited in the Absolute. (Eduard von Hartmann, Internet Encyclopedia)


In The Self-Destruction of Christianity and the Religion of the Future (1874), Hartman predicts that humanity will come to a collective realization of the futility of their atheistic fates, and choose to bring about their collective annihilation (Investigating Atheism, University of Cambridge).

Hartman’s vision is resumed by the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who suggests that super-intelligent beings might tend to annihilate themselves. That could explain why it is impossible (so far) to make contact with alien intelligence [Ananthaswamy].



Horstmann (*1949)

         Ulrich Horstmann is a German literary scholar and writer.

         In 1983 Ulrich Horstmann became known for his treatise The Beast, in which he promoted a philosophical position which was diametrically opposed to the peace movement Zeitgeist of those years: He advocated a philosophy of "escape of mankind" which aims for an early self-destruction of the human race by means of the accumulated nuclear weapons found in arsenals around the world. He pushed the pessimism and misanthropy of his mentor Schopenhauer to the extreme. Horst's work was not, as some had suspected, a particularly bitter satire, as was shown by the author's subsequent publications which were written with an attitude of nihilism and extreme distaste for the world.

         Horstmann puts forth the theory that mankind has been pre-programmed to eliminate itself in the course of history—and also all its memory of itself—through war (thermonuclear, genetic, biological), genocide, destruction of it's sustaining environment, etc.

(Ulrich Horstmann, Wikipedia)

For some facts, inspiring Horstmann’s work see Human Extinction.


The project of annihilation violates the rights of those, who want to survive and procreate and is therefore an aggressive response to cultural pessimism.




3.4      Fatalism




Fatalism refers to a worldview which assumes that the events in nature and society are predestined by fate (Latin fatum). Fatalists believe

         that the will of man does not have the power to change the fate or

         that free will is only an illusion.

Characteristic of fatalism is the assumption that there is a universally acting instance which predetermines the individual’s fate. This instance can be a deity whose providence directs the world or an impersonal power in the context of a cosmic order. If the fate is attributed solely to natural laws then we speak of determinism (Fatalismus, Wikipedia).



Ockham (1285-1349)

Ockham may serve as an example that fatalism is much older than the determinism of Newtonian physics:

Theology co-operated heartily at pessimism already from the late Middle Ages. So for example the "philosopher with the razor", the Franciscan friar Wilhelm of Ockham (1285-1349) - regardless of his (as such modern) conceptions in the so-called 'universalia argument' - cut any relation of the natural human drives and primeval longings to the Ten Commandments, which had been dictated, as it were, arbitrarily by God and could have run also quite differently.

Well, the Catholic theology has never wholly accepted that opinion, but it caused nevertheless a lot of confusion, the more so, as one - especially in circles of reformed theologians - downright tried to outdo each other. From the concern one might diminish God's greatness and majesty one left to man not a single tiny thread of good in its own right. One even denied man the control of its own free will, because every event had already been predestined in God's omnipotence and prescience - a determinism which was in no way inferior to Newtons (1643-1727) mechanistic world view (Structure and Dynamic of the Cosmos, Ludwig Ebersberger)



Shakespeare (1564-1616)

The historical background of Shakespeare’s work is the Elizabethan era.

Elizabethan England had two very different views about the nature of the universe and man's place in it.

1.      The first view was the traditional medieval view of Ptolemy and the Great chain of being, i.e. the belief in a righteous and hierarchical government of the world.

2.      During the period of the Renaissance (14.-17.Jh), man underwent a change from a largely religious to a scientific world view, combined with a rediscovery of the classical Greek world view.

(Elisabethan World View)

Fate is largely responsible for the tragedy in the Shakespearean universe, as it used to be in the Greek tragedy, e.g. Oedipus Tyrannus (Indian Response to Shakespeare). The Delphic Oracle told Lyidan inquirers that "no one, not even gods, can escape their appointed fate." (Greek religious beliefs)

Shakespeares great tragedies are dominated by fatalism. None of them shows any belief in the “righteous government of the world”. Sometimes his tragic heroes speak of life as ruled by inhuman, unpredictable, and meaningless fate; and sometimes, more bitterly, cry out against vicious mankind which is unfit to live and cruel gods, who “kill us for their sport”. Except from possible own experience, Shakespeare found this hopeless gloom expressed decisively and eloquently in the pessimism of Seneca (The Classical Tradition, Gilbert Highet, 2009, p.207).

Seneca reminded his readers that natural and man-made disasters will always be a feature of our lives, however sophisticated and safe we think we have become (De Botton on pessimism)




3.5 Alienation



Kirkegaard (1813-1855)

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was as a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology and philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables. He is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher (Kirkegaard, Wikipedia).

In The Sickness Unto Death the destination of man is characterized as desperation – a desperation which does not have to be conscious in order to be real. Desperation comes out of the knowledge that we all have to die and that there is no salvation. The consciousness of death creates a permanent alienation from “ordinary” life; life can only be successful by suppressing this consciousness. Conversely – if we consider the consciousness of death as the true (realistic) state of mind – the permanent need of repression creates an alienation from reality [Wenzel].



Mainländer (1841-1875)

         Philipp Mainländer was a German poet and philosopher (…). In his central work Die Philosophie der Erlösung (The Philosophy of Redemption) —according to Theodor Lessing “perhaps the most radical system of pessimism known to philosophical literature” —Mainländer proclaims that there is no higher meaning in life, and that “the will, ignited by the perception that non-being is better than being, is the topmost principle of all morale.” (…)

         Mainländer described the discovery of Arthur Schopenhauer’s central work The World as Will and Representation as a penetrating revelation.

         In 1875 after a period of obsession with philosophical work, Mainländer declared himself exhausted, worked-out and ineffably tired and his mental collapse — which has been compared to the collapse Nietzsche would suffer only years later — became apparent. Eventually, descending into megalomania and believing himself to be a messiah of social democracy in the night on April 1st, 1875, Mainländer hanged himself in his residence in Offenbach. A pile of voucher copies of The Philosophy of Redemption, which had arrived the previous day, had served as a pedestal. He was thirty-four years old.

(Philipp Mainländer, Wikipedia)



Cioran (1911-1955)

         Emil Cioran was a Romanian philosopher and essayist (…). Exhausting his interest for conservative philosophy early in his youth, Cioran denounced systematic thought and abstract speculation in favor of indulgence in personal reflection and passionate lyricism (…). Pessimism characterizes all of his works, which many critics trace back to events of his childhood (…).

         His works often depict an atmosphere of torment and torture, states that Cioran experienced, and came to be dominated by lyricism often prone to expressing violent feelings (…). Preoccupied with the problem of death and suffering, he was attracted to the idea of suicide, believing it to be an idea that could help one go on living, an idea which he fully explored in On the Heights of Despair. The theme of human alienation, the most prominent existentialist theme, presented by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, is thus formulated, in 1932, by young Cioran: "Is it possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home?" (…).

         He was a thinker passionate about history; widely reading the writers that were associated with the period of "decadent". One of these writers was Oswald Spengler who influenced Cioran's political philosophy in that he offered Gnostic reflections on the destiny of man and civilization. According to Cioran, as long as man has kept in touch with his origins and hasn't cut himself off from himself, he has resisted decadence. Today, he is on his way to his own destruction through self-objectification, impeccable production and reproduction, excess of self-analysis and transparency, and artificial triumph.

         William H. Gass called Cioran's work "a philosophical romance on the modern themes of alienation, absurdity, boredom, futility, decay, the tyranny of history, the vulgarities of change, awareness as agony, reason as disease".

(Emil Cioran, Wikipedia)


Similar authors:

         Albert Caraco

         Peter Wessel Zapffe





4. Philosophy as Therapy



4.1 Overview


Philosophical therapy is – among others – a means to overcome the existential despair, which is caused by the loss of religious and secular scenarios of salvation and the corresponding loss of sense [Van Hooft, 22]. In this context the term “therapy” relates to the cure (or reduction) of suffering and not to the cure of a disease, see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.



The benefit of reason

In contrast to the philosophy of Enlightenment, which was characterized by Condorcet’s vision of progress, postmodern philosophy questions the benefit of reason. But what is the alternative?

1.      Drop science and technology because they are ambivalent and their abuse cannot be prevented?

2.      Resume the animistic lifestyle of hunter-gatherers because they were (are) happier [Everett]?

3.      Resume mythical world views because they are a prerequisite for happiness [Hahn 109-124])?

Even if people were happier and the world was safer in former times; it is impossible to turn back the clock and resume irrational world views. For the time being, “uncivilized” cultures require a protecting power. It is also premature to turn down reason, because reason does not (and will possibly never) govern the world. It may be wiser to look for philosophies that are based on reason and able to cope with cultural pessimism. There are abundant resources in the history of philosophy for such a project, if nothing else the philosophies (therapies) presented in this paper:



         Freud was a pessimist with regard to the future of society, but developed a therapy for depression.

         Nietzsche denied religious scenarios of salvation, but nevertheless promoted creativity and self-confidence.

         During the Roman civil wars the Stoics turned from cultural optimism to agnosticism, but many of them retained their motivation for virtue and duty. Even if the world will never be “good”, it may be possible to make it “less evil” (a kind of minimal optimism).

         Buddha was a pessimist with regard to global suffering, but discovered a path to the individual liberation from suffering.



Was Nietzsche reasonable? Would he have signed a reasonable social contract?

Nietzsche responded to reasons, reflected interests and valuated them. It is questionable; however, that he would have supported moral universalism (human rights in particular). On the other hand we know that Nietzsche always considered several perspectives, when he was deliberate over a question. Nietzsche may have been reasonable amongst others.

Parenthesis concluded



The reality principle

Religions and utopias – in contrast to philosophical therapy – produce a therapeutic effect by violating the reality principle. There is, however, a difficulty in the interpretation of the term realistic:

1.      Our attitude influences the result, as has been shown in cases of self fulfilling prophecy. If we accept cultural pessimism, then we have a negative influence on basically optimistic people.

2.      Conversely, if we promote cultural optimism, then we may produce another welcome illusion (similar to a religious belief) which increases the life satisfaction of the actual generation, but decreases the life-satisfaction of future generations (e.g. by overpopulation).

It is unreasonable to claim that the global situation cannot change for the better; but it is a matter of intellectual honesty to admit, that it can also turn for the worse. The future is simply unpredictable:





History doesn’t repeat itself……

historians merely repeat each other.


Author unknown





Among the philosophers mentioned above Buddha would be the best advisor in a pessimistic scenario. In a situation of uncertainty, however, the doctrines of the Stoics, Nietzsche and Freud are defensible as well.



Types of therapies

Following a table which shows the relation between the risks, caused by cultural pessimism (chapter 3) and philosophical therapies:

1)      Alienation can be seen as an undesirable form of social disengagement, obsession as an undesirable form of social engagement.

a)      The therapy of alienation requires (social) engagement

b)      The therapy of obsession requires disengagement

2)      Fatalism can be seen as an expression of powerlessness, aggression as an expression of power.

a)      The therapy of fatalism requires a gain in power

b)      The therapy of aggression requires a renouncement to power


The following table combines the risks, caused by cultural pessimism (chapter 3.1) with the different forms of therapies:



Normative therapies


Individualistic therapies







Therapy of Obsession


Insight meditation







Therapy of Fatalism


Existential therapy






Therapy of Aggression


Rational emotive therapy







Therapy of Alienation







Each of the character traits alienation, aggression, fatalism and obsession causes a specific kind of individual and social suffering. In this context the term “therapy” does not relate to the cure of a disease, but to the cure (or reduction) of suffering, which is reached by changing the way of living, see Philosophy as Therapy – Introduction.




4.2 The Therapy of Obsession – Buddha



Historical background

         Buddhism was developed on the basis of traditional Hindu concepts, in particular Yoga. The oldest records of Yoga can be found in the Upanishads. The Bhagavad-Gita contains direct instructions for Yoga:

Reining the senses, the heart and the spirit, entirely directed towards salvation – liberated from desires, fears and hatred, he is redeemed forever

(chapter 5, verse 28)

         The most important meditation technique, Vipassana, is an interpretation of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. The Vipassana technique was rediscovered by the historical Buddha (ca. 5th century B.C.). The Buddhist therapy was traditionally – as well as Yoga – a guided therapy under the conduct of a guru. There is an etymological interpretation of the guru as expeller of darkness, where darkness is seen as a lack of knowledge (avidya).

         For the proliferation of the Buddhist doctrine see Timeline of Buddhist History



World view

         In many Indian myths the world is subjected to cycles of creation and dissolution. Such a cycle represents a single day in the life of the god Brahma. A Brahma day can count up to 1.7 Million years on the human scale. A cyclical world view supports the consciousness that not only the individual life, but also all cultural achievements will be destroyed. Buddhism adopted the cyclical world view from Hinduism, but not its polytheism.

         There seems to be a fundamental difference in the Vedic world view before and after Buddha and Mahavira. The ancient view did not stress the idea of a recurrent cycle of existences (rebirth) as characterizing the human situation. This emphasis might have come about through the ascetic tradition, which seems to have been quite established during that time [Soni, 220].

         Buddhism can replace religion and create sense in life, because it takes up religious concepts of Hinduism. In some forms of Buddhism the dissolution of the self in meditation is interpreted as unification with Brahman. The renouncement to material and intellectual goods can be seen as a pre-stage of this union.

         Comparison with nihilism:

From the Buddhist point of view we cannot create the world “as it should be” by means of power. The will to power (as defined by Nietzsche) is rather a biological concept which legitimizes and perpetuates suffering. The principles of early Buddhism, in contrast, demonstrably reduce suffering. Buddhism is far from moral nihilism for the following reasons:

1.      The teachings of the Buddha are seen as a secure foundation of knowledge

2.      Buddhism maintains a highly developed system of values similar to virtue ethics.

3.      Buddhism emerged out of the Hindu tradition where the meaning of Brahman is quite different from the Western understanding of an empty world. A Buddhist’s life is embedded in a religious context which is hardly accessible to Western atheists. In popular forms of Buddhism the Nirvana is rather associated with an abstract interpretation of heaven, than with a cold and empty world.



Therapeutic goal

         The therapeutic goal of Buddhism is the liberation from suffering. Following a brief description of the teachings:

-   First Noble Truth: “Life is inseparably tied to suffering.”

-   Second Noble Truth: “The cause of suffering are attachments (desires) in a world where everything changes, nothing is permanent.”

-   Third Noble Truth: “Suffering can be terminated by ending human desire.”

-   Forth Noble Truth: “Human desire can be ended by following the Eightfold Path.”

In other words: The Buddhist goal is not characterized by the satisfaction of desires (like Moses’ land of milk and honey) but by the absence of desires. In the state of Nirvana there is no suffering from missed chances.





If thou wilt make a man happy, do not add to his riches

but take away from his desires.


Epicurus, but clearly Buddhist origin





         At its origin (which is Theravada) the Buddhist concept concentrated on individual salvation. But the Eightfold Path is tied to the doctrine of reincarnation and therefore implies a concept of justice: a deviation from the Eightfold Path produces reincarnation and corresponding continuous suffering. By the liberation from attachments the Buddhist attempts to reach a favorable reincarnation and finally the escape from the wheel of samsara.

         The dependency of salvation on ethical knowledge induced a controversial debate in early Buddhism. Is there a moral obligation to actively promote ethical knowledge? The idea of a global missionary activity rose up with the Mahajana movement in the 2nd century.



Therapeutic method

         Buddhism argues that our suffering is a result of deep attachment to uncontrollable and unreliable things. Buddhist philosophical therapy is, in this respect, about cultivating an attitude of “letting go”. The things that we think matter so much are not worth being anxious, unhappy, and angry about (…). Emotions and desires are expressions of our interpretation of the world. If our interpretation is out of accord with the way the world really is, then unhappiness will result [Burton, 192].

         Among the uncontrollable and unreliable things are sexual relations and material property. Buddhist schools developed a strategy to reduce risk by reducing social commitments. Buddha for example, lived as celibate, wandering ascetic [Beckwith, 46, 93].  

         The Eightfold Path – in particular meditation – can be understood as a therapeutic method for the liberation from suffering. The core idea is a (preferably painless) elimination of desires and corresponding risks. The elimination is less painless, if it is reached by insight, rather than moral ban or confrontation with the outside world. The release of irrational attachments causes a feeling of liberation. The desire for enlightenment and the desire to help other sentient beings are not irrational, and therefore excluded from the elimination [Burton, 194]. Consequently a Buddhist therapy also does not aim at the extinguishment of all emotions [Burton, 195]. Progress on the path to liberation is only possible on the basis of ethical conduct in daily life. Ethical conduct causes a state of remorselessness and corresponding inner calm.

         The most important method of meditation in Buddhism is Vipassana:

Vipassanā (Pāli) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality, namely the three marks of existence:

o   impermanence

o   suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and

o   the realization of non-self

For a short description and references see Vipassana.

         Buddhist meditation is far from the Western way to do philosophy. Excessive reflection can initiate a morbid addiction mechanism. Complex theories and/or a complex language have an anti-therapeutic effect. Philosophical reflection – introduced as a means to make progress – gradually starts to compromise the therapeutic goal. Buddhists saw through this mechanism at an early stage. Because intellectuality is tied to language, the Zen-Buddhist uncoupled the attachments to terms and destroyed the logic of language. Zen-Buddhism stands in the tradition of the Advaita Vedanta. When we name something, then we give it a tag, and by giving it a tag, we put it in a box, limit its meaning and destroy its organic nature. Advaita, in contrast, attempts to reconstruct the holistic nature of things.

According to the scriptures, in his lifetime, the Buddha refused to answer several metaphysical questions. On issues such as whether the world is eternal or non-eternal, finite or infinite, unity or separation of the body and the self, complete inexistence of a person after nirvana and then death etc., the Buddha had remained silent. One explanation for this is that such questions distract from practical activity for realizing enlightenment. Another is that such questions assume the reality of world/self/person (…). In the Pali Canon and numerous Mahayana sutras and tantras, the Buddha stresses that Dharma (Truth) cannot truly be understood with the ordinary rational mind or logic: Reality transcends all worldly concepts (Buddhism, Wikipedia).

         Sometimes the Buddha used simplifications for didactic reasons. The teaching, for instance, that there is a self or a soul that, in future lives, reaps the consequences of its action, is intended for hedonists and nihilists, who do not believe in karma and rebirth, in order to motivate them to live moral lives. It is only at a higher level of the spiritual path that they will be able to comprehend that there is no such self, but that this does not negate the need to lead an ethical life [Burton, 206].

         Buddhism obviously found a way how to cope with pessimistic models of history. The physical world of Buddhism develops in a cyclic manner but individual liberation doesn’t depend on these cycles. The individual overcomes cultural pessimism by changing the perception of the world and moving to a different (mystic) state of consciousness.



Contemporary Buddhism

Contemporary Buddhism has two meanings:

1.      The actually practiced traditions.

2.      Adaptations of the doctrine to contemporary (scientific/ethical) knowledge.

In the following we concentrate on the latter meaning:

         Secular Buddhism is ethics for people who cannot accept the suffering in this world and who believe that we are trapped in a hedonistic treadmill instead of progressing towards (technological) salvation. The everyday life of a secular Buddhist could be called compassionate and risk-averse but does not ask for self-destructive asceticism [Burton, 211].

         Secular spirituality may (partly) replace religious spirituality. From a secular perspective the spiritual world does not exist in the hereafter, but in the brains of all people who strive to liberate the mind from the body. Individuals come and go, but the vision of a world without suffering remains. The (imagined) liberation from suffering is a possible source of well-being, just as well as the kind of happiness that goes with life’s biological destination.

         If one transposes Buddha’s way of thinking [Steinkellner] to nowadays then it is plausible to assume that he would have reconciled his doctrine with a scientific world view. If reincarnation is seen from the perspective of genetics, then the elimination of the desire to procreate terminates the reincarnation of individual genes. Insofar there is an affinity between secular Buddhism and Antinatalism.

         Given the retreat-oriented character of the Buddhist philosophy it is debatable if there is something like Buddhist politics. Political engagement [Burton, 214] may take the form of non-violent resistance but – because of the inscrutable mechanisms of cultural evolutionthe most consequent activity is probably teaching the Buddhist doctrine at the price of one’s own liberation [Conze, 120].




4.3 The Therapy of Aggression – Stoicism


Late Stoicism is characterized by the influence of the Romans on Stoicism, starting with the rise of the Roman empire about 27 B.C. The duty to the partner (marriage), the family (children) and to the state became of prime importance. Early Stoicism, in contrast, was a retreat-oriented ethics similar to Buddhism; see The Moral Ideal of the Complete Life.



Historical background

It is plausible to assume that certain philosophical concept passed on trade routes from the East through the Persian Gulf to Greece. About 600 B.C. Indian traders had fixed branches in Babylon. In the 4th century B.C. – in the following of the conquests of Alexander the Great – the Greek culture exerted a powerful effect on the Orient, but was penetrated and reshaped in return by oriental elements. Greek culture lost its national character and became cosmopolitan. After the political and military conquest of Greece by Rome, the Greek culture started the cultural conquest of the Roman Empire. But here again there were backlashes. The Romans were a practical people. The focus of philosophy shifted from speculation about the nature to ethics. Philosophy became philosophy of life. Zenon from Kition (340-260 B.C.), originally a Cynics, founded in Athens in the Stoa Poikile a school of philosophy, where the Cynic doctrines were connected with the views of other philosophers (especially Heraclitus and Aristotle). The Stoics divided their system into three parts: logic, physics and ethics. Ethics was the most important part, logic and physics only preliminary stages (Stoiker und Epikureer, Peter Möllers PhiloLex).

For more information on the history of Stoicism see The Moral Ideal of the Complete Life.



World View

         The most memorable summary for the Stoic worldview was left by the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last of the major Stoics (Meditations VII, 9):

"Everything is intertwined by a sacred bond. Almost nothing is alien to each other. Everything which is created is attached to each other and focuses on the harmony of the same world. Composed of all a world exists, one God, all-pervading, a body substance, a law, a reason, common to all rational beings, and one truth, as well as a perfection of all these related beings, participating in the same reason."

From a primal fire, the ether, emerge all beings. All material (hyle) is inspired by the divine reason (logos). The Stoic doctrine is therefore equally materialistic and pantheistic. The Stoics are convinced of the strict causality of all events (Stoa, Wikipedia)

         The Stoic vision to free impressions from human value judgments [Sellars, 159] accords well with modern conceptions of “objective” knowledge.

According to the account of Stoic epistemology made by Sextus Empiricus, giving assent to an adequate impression is the first step away from human opinion and towards scientific knowledge that is no longer open to debate [Sellars, 161].

         Humans as rational beings can recognize the universal law. The only virtue is – being conscious of this universal law – leading a rational life. Herein consists the only happiness. By contrast, there is only one single evil: an unreasonable life. Everything else which is highly appreciated by the people in general, e.g. life, health, honor, property, or what they strive to avoid, such as illness, death, poverty, slavery, is neither good nor bad, but indifferent (adiaphora). The task of man is a continuous struggle against the passions. Affects lead us to believe that indifferent and bad are valuable. The goal should be the complete overcoming of passion. Stoicism suggests encountering all events, negative and positive with dispassion (apatheia). Those who achieve this are the truly wise. So far it is Cynic ethics. Under the Roman influence two important features were added:

1.   The doctrine that everything external is indifferent was limited, so that e.g. marriage, family and state, as well as science, received a certain justification.

2.   While the Cynics were ultimately selfish, the Stoics called for a general justice and human love. The Stoics were the first in the antiquity, who represented broad humanistic thoughts and cosmopolitanism.

(Stoics and Epicureans, Peter Möllers PhiloLex)

         Pantheism is not a religion but a worldview, because it does not know a religious founder, religious communities, sacred scriptures, institutions, rituals or dogmas. Also religious prohibitions and rules are incompatible with the laws of nature. Pantheism seeks to ascribe the natural laws to a supreme law, called "God" e.g. Plato in his concept of "dynamis" and Aristotle in the "demiurge (unmoved mover)". Various representatives of pantheism have developed quite different hypotheses and theories. Some people see in Hinduism (Brahman) or Sufism forms of pantheism (from Pantheismus, Wikipedia)



Therapeutic goal

         According to Stoicism eudaimonia can only be achieved if the peace of mind is not disturbed by passions. The goal of a Stoic therapy is apatheia, a state without suffering (literally without passion), see Stoicism. Decisive for apathy is the insight that all external goods have no value for spiritual wellbeing (Affekt, Wikipedia) [Sellars, 154].

         Stoicism tries to eliminate irrational desires. Similar to Buddhism, the elimination of desires should be achieved through knowledge and insight instead of moral commandments and prohibitions.

         Desires are only irrational, if the risks are underestimated. The insight into transience leads to a weaker attachment to the world, but not to a complete abandonment. Passions are generally classified as high risks and therefore avoided. In Stoicism (especially in the Roman period) the commitment to marriage, family and politics is high, but driven by pietas, not passion.



Therapeutic method

Stoicism can be interpreted as a twofold strategy to deal with a superior combatant (nature):

1.      Identify with the combatant, perceive nature as divine

2.      Reorient aggression against the self, control the self

The reoriented aggression helps to gain power over the fate:

         Independence from the inner world

The Stoics looked upon the passions as essentially irrational, and demanded their complete extirpation (Stoicism, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Note that the ancient meaning of passion was anguish or suffering, i.e. passively reacting to external events – somewhat different from the modern use of the word (Stoicism, Wikipedia).

Self-control has an active and preventive character.

         Independence from the outside world

Asceticism can be interpreted as a fictitious adaptation to a scarce environment, a kind of exercise for times of privation or war. The Stoic self-control is not self-destructive – on the contrary – it serves survival.

The manual of Epictetus is representative for late Stoicism.

The controlled aggression and the accordance with the world as it is help to tolerate conditions that cannot be changed. The stability of the (Roman) Stoic state was guaranteed by a perception of the social status which has much in common with the Hindu caste system:





Remember that you are an actor in a drama,

of such a kind as the author pleases to make it…

It is your business, to act well the character assigned you;

to choose it is another's.







Contemporary Stoicism

         Contemporary therapies using Stoic concepts adopt the paramount position of reason, but not the pantheistic background. As a consequence natural laws are considered to be indifferent rather than “good”. The vision of a global government of reason may have to be replaced by the vision of a sub-culture (network) of reasonable people, an island within a sea of irrationality. The motivation to engage for reason is based on (local) step by step improvements [Popper, 158], rather than (global) final victory. Even if the world will never be “good” it may still possible to make it “less evil”. If individual as well as societal projects fail, then self-control helps to maintain equanimity. Peace of mind comes out of the conviction to act in accordance with reason.

         The Stoics were seeking for an objective judgment and created the rule "Follow where reason leads" (see Stoicism, Wikipedia). An objective judgment can be reached by perceiving the world from the perspective of an impartial observer (e.g. Rawls’ Original Position). As a consequence the ancient Stoic vision of society has to be revised. A contemporary adherent of reason may overcome cultural pessimism by engaging for a Rawls-type concept of justice.

         Among modern psychological systems the closest parallels to the ancient therapy of intervention into the impulse-system are not found in psychoanalysis but in certain roughly behavioral therapies [McEvilley, 641].

For a description of contemporary therapies which are based on Stoicism see [Robertson]. Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) maintains that a person is rarely affected emotionally by outside things but rather by his/her perceptions, attitudes, or internalized sentences about outside things and events [McEvilley, 641].

The truths of Stoicism were perhaps best set forth by Epictetus, who in the first century A.D. wrote in the Enchiridion: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” (REBT, Wikipedia) [Sellars, 155]

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) does not use uncheckable concepts from psychodynamics (like energy balance, driving forces etc.) or from personality psychology (like narcissism, complexes etc.)

REBT as a cognitive-behavioral form of therapy has throughout many years of general research and outcome studies received a large degree of scientific testing, and substantial research has directly and indirectly confirmed its hypotheses (Rational emotive behavior therapy, Wikipedia)




4.4 The Therapy of Fatalism – Nietzsche



Historical background

Nietzsche’s position is best understood against the background of encounters between neo-Kantianism and the life sciences in the 19th century (…). His genealogy of values and his account of a will to power are as much influenced by Kantian thought as they are by 19th century debates on teleology, biological functions, and theories of evolution [Emden]

Furthermore Nietzsche’s philosophy is linked to the progress of thermodynamics in the middle of the 19th century. The discovery of the statistical nature of the gas laws gave rise to cosmological speculations [Silk]:

         The French mathematician Henry Poincaré argued that regardless of the complexity of a mechanical system, if that system consists of a finite number of parts and is allowed to function long enough without any outside disturbance, sooner or later all the configurations that have been attained by the system in the part are going to be repeated

         Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence says that in a world in which time is eternal, space is infinite and the number of atoms that fill this space is finite and determined, it is unavoidable that the number of configurations that these atoms achieve throughout infinite time span must not only be finite, but also inevitably repetitious

[Polanowski, 165].



World View

A major cause of Nietzsche's continued association with nihilism is his famous proclamation that "God is dead." Nietzsche believed that, without God humanity is left with no epistemological or moral base from which we can derive absolute beliefs.

But, according to Nietzsche, the denial of absolute values doesn’t imply the devaluation of human life and the denial of the world as it is. The value of life is more profound than the values assigned by reason and idealism:

Any philosophy that devalues the world around us by privileging some ideal or utopian world necessarily devalues human life and is a threat for humanity's future. This warning can also be taken as a polemic against 19th and 20th century scientism (Nihilism, Wikipedia)

Nietzsche is not a moral nihilist. Similar to the Russian nihilists, Nietzsche advocates destruction only as a means to establish a new order. The new order promotes a Darwinian kind of cultural evolution, driven by (unconscious) biological forces and therefore closer to nature than Buddhism or Christianity.



Therapeutic goal

         The Overman:

Nietzsche advocated a remedy for nihilism's destructive effects and a hope for humanity's future in the form of the Übermensch (English: overman), a position especially apparent in his works Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Antichrist. The Übermensch is an exercise of action and life: one must give value to existence by behaving as if one's very existence were a work of art. Nietzsche believed that the Übermensch "exercise" would be a necessity for human survival in the post-religious era (…)

         Master morality:

Another part of Nietzsche's remedy for nihilism is a revaluation of morals — he hoped that we are able to discard the old morality of equality and servitude and adopt a new code, turning Judeo-Christian morality on its head (…). The only true sin to Nietzsche is that which is aimed at the expression of one's power over oneself. Virtue, likewise, is not to act according to what has been commanded, but to contribute to all that betters a human soul. Nietzsche attempts to reintroduce what he calls a master morality, which values personal excellence over forced compassion and creative acts of will over the herd instinct, a moral outlook he attributes to the ancient Greeks. The Christian moral ideals developed in opposition to this master morality, he says, as the reversal of the value system of the (Roman) elite social class (Nihilism, Wikipedia)

         The truth:

Nietzsche's philosophy shares with nihilism a rejection of any perfect source of absolute, universal and transcendent values (…). However, recognizing the chaos of nihilism, he advocated a philosophy that willfully transcends it. Furthermore, his positive attitude towards truth as a vehicle of faith and belief distinguishes him from the extreme pessimism that nihilism is often associated with (Nihilism, Wikipedia)



Therapeutic method

         Competition plays an important role in Nietzsche’s concept of psychic health. He refers to the agonal nature of the Hellenistic culture, where events like the Ancient Olympic Games had a religious dimension. Although Nietzsche counts on the unconscious as a driving force, he strives to transform the biological competition into a cultural one. Master morality is the principle that allows succeeding in the cultural competition.

         A contemporary interpretation of master morality is simply the secular worldview. According to Nietzsche the fight for truth (and for the dominance of truth) has a therapeutic effect in all areas of life, because it makes the individual stronger. The denial of religions and utopias relates Nietzsche to Existential therapy.

         According to Nietzsche, the discovery (the truth) that the individual is able to create his/her own values is an immense gain in power. The individual becomes independent and, as far as self-created values are accepted by others, attains a dominant position.

         The will to survive constructs meaning in seemingly hopeless situations and develops an almost unlimited creativity in finding positive interpretations of the world. Nietzsche’s remedy for cultural pessimism is cultural perfectionism. Transhumanism – which is reminiscent of overman – may eventually lead to the liberation from suffering.




4.5 The Therapy of Alienation – Freud


Psychoanalysis can be practised on the basis of free association and hermeneutics, without using an expert language and without being fixed on Freudian concepts like the Oedipus complex. Many people undergo psychoanalysis for improving self-knowledge and not for being cured from a mental disease. Freud is seen as a philosopher in this paper because of his radical quest for knowledge and because hermeneutics has its origin in philosophy [Cavell, 289-291].



Historical background

The origin of psychoanalysis is dream interpretation, i.e. the realization that there are mental processes which cannot be controlled, but possibly have a meaning for practical life.

         The oldest written record of an intellectual confrontation with dreams is about 4,000 years old. The deliberately targeted interpretation of dreams is known since ancient times; it was particularly highly estimated by the Babylonians and Assyrians. The first book of Genesis tells of the most talented interpreter of dreams Josef. Even older are the interpretations of Gilgamesh’s dreams by his friend Enkidu. The Hellenists developed a real desire to discover forecasts in dreams (e.g. Socrates’ never erring Daimonion). The Christian church demonized dreams as diabolical temptations. The scientists of Enlightenment payed little attention to dreams and did not include them in scientific discussions. Only the Romantic discovered the relationship of dreams to fairy tales and to the unconscious (Traumdeutung, Wikipedia)

         The term unconscious was used the first time in 1751 and then interpreted in German Romanticism as "unfathomable source of creativity and passions". But to its present meaning it was brought by the famous Viennese psychoanalyst Professor Dr. Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalysis. Here the unconscious was seen as a realm unknown to the conscious, a kind of "other stage" (…). For Freud, the unconscious is a system that is capable to express itself through the dream, through mistakes, through wordplays and not least by free association (...). This was not in itself new, since already in ancient times one assumed that there are mental activities foreign to the conscious. Later the philosopher René Descartes used this idea for the principle of duality (body and mind as opposing instances: the conscious as the area of the rational as opposed to the world of unreason). Similar comments were also made by the philosophers Blaise Pascal and Baruch Spinoza, who saw the autonomy of consciousness limited by unknowable and unfortunately often destructive forces. On this basis emerged treatments such as magnetism. At the end of the 19th century Anton Mesmer recommended to understand the unconscious as a spin-off of the conscious, to which one could gain access through hypnosis or suggestion. It is striking that psychological aspects were formerly the domain of philosophers with scientific interests. Psychologists (as such) did not exist. And the medics were necessarily more organically oriented, even if they incorporated mental issues in their considerations. And so it remained until the 19th century the task of philosophers to illuminate the "dark side of the psyche". Examples: Wilhelm von Schelling, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Only thereafter physicians – particularly from the physiological discipline like J.F. Herbart, H.v. Helmholtz, G. Fechner, W. Wundt and C.G. Carus – became familiar with the issue [Faust].






René Magritte  Le Chateau des Pyrénées



World View

         At the societal level the emphasis is on the rejection of religious and secular scenarios of salvation. Salvation is considered as a collective delusion, which functions as an external reinforcement of individual delusions:
"We analysts," writes Freud, "strive for the most complete and profound analysis of our patients, we do not want to give them relief by including them in the Catholic, Protestant or socialist community. We try to enrich him from his own inside, by liberating the energies that are locked in his unconscious by repression, and those other energies, which are used by the ego in a sterile manner to maintain the repression (...) Is it not more economical to support defects from the outside (by integration into a community or drugs, M.H.), than to reform the inside? I do not know it, but I know something else. In psychoanalysis there existed from the beginning a connection between cure and research, knowledge led to success, one could not treat without experiencing something new, there was no enlightenment without experiencing it’s beneficial effect " [Hampe 2007].

         Sigmund Freud could be described as a cultural pessimist who shared many of Schopenhauer's ideas. He saw human existence as being under constant attack from both within the self, from the forces of nature and from relations with others. The following quote, from Civilization and its Discontents, is perhaps the best example of his cultural pessimism:

“We can cite many such benefits that we owe to the much despised era of scientific and technical advances. At this point, however, the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard, reminding us that most of these pleasures follow the pattern of the "cheap pleasure" recommended in a certain joke, a pleasure that one can enjoy by sticking a bare leg out from under the covers on a cold winter's night, then pulling it back in..... What good is a long life to us if it is hard, joyless and so full of suffering that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?” (Pessimism, Wikipedia)



Therapeutic goal

         The goal of therapy, which works with free association, is the acquisition of spontaneity, respectively the liberation of repressed drives. This objective is rational, as far as the spontaneity does not lead to the blind tolerance of risks. Depression may have a protective function and the German word for passion Leidenschaft (Leiden = suffering) is well founded. The devastating effect of passion led i.a. to the Stoic emphasis on self-control. The psychoanalytic discovery of unconscious biological needs almost inevitably leads to a confrontation with cultural norms and to an inner disunity. Often in the course of the analysis one form of suffering replaced by another.

         Certain patients (especially philosophically interested ones) explain the cognitive process – which was thought as a means to an end – as an end in itself and undergo longstanding psychoanalytic treatments without measurable success (measured in terms of reduced suffering). This therapeutic goal is rational as long as the insight, which is gained by the therapy, compensates the psychological strain.

         Freud’s well known slogan “We can change neurotic misery into real misery” makes clear that he had no intention to solve psychic problems by means of unrealistic optimism. Cultural pessimism should be overcome by reverting to biological resources and not by utopias. The unconscious simply ignores the future. Freud’s biography illustrates that it is possible to be an optimist in personal matters and a pessimist with regard to the future of society.



Therapeutic method

         The method of philosophical psychoanalysis differs from pure psychoanalysis by its rejection of jargon. The concepts of the unconscious, association and interpretation date back to ancient concepts of knowledge acquisition and can therefore be attributed to philosophy.
The anamnesis of the Freudian kind (not all of them) resembles a novel, because it expresses the absolutely individual in a common language, which is not a technical jargon or only in a very limited sense [Hampe 2007].
The more such a novel is infiltrated by the technical jargon of psychoanalysis (e.g. introjection, Oedipus complex, etc.) the more it goes on distance to philosophical therapy and the more it becomes psychotherapy.

         Free association is focused on the acquisition of spontaneity, i.e. the therapist does not direct the cognitive process in a specific direction. The extension of knowledge is not predetermined or limited, so that the behavior cannot be predicted. The therapy extends knowledge like a journey of discovery. The next destination emerges from the new knowledge which is acquired.

         Psychoanalysis overcomes cultural pessimism by means of individual optimism. Even in a culture that is destined to decay, it is possible to find (individual) sense in life.




5. Conclusion




The causes of cultural pessimism are

          the belief that history proceeds in cycles

          the loss of religious and secular scenarios of salvation.




Cultural pessimism increases the risk of alienation, fatalism, obsession and aggression.




There are four conflicting types of philosophical therapies. Following a well-known exponent of each type:


1)      Normative Therapies

Normative therapies are directed against the kind of suffering, which is caused by uncontrolled desires (e.g. obsession and aggression). The interests of the individual (the struggle for love and power) are morally degraded. The pessimistic worldview is overcome by changing the perception of the world:

a)      Therapy of obsession: Buddha. Pessimism is overcome by liberating from desires.

b)      Therapy of aggression: Stoics. Pessimism is overcome by adopting an “objective” view.


2)      Individualistic Therapies

Individualistic therapies are directed against the suffering, which is caused by the repression of desires (e.g. alienation and fatalism). The interests of the individual are morally defended.

a)      Therapy of alienation: Freud. The pessimistic world view is simply ignored by falling back on biological resources.

b)      Therapy of fatalism: Nietzsche. Pessimism is overcome by cultural perfectionism.








I would like to thank Michael Hampe for the inspiring conversations in the context of this paper.








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