Going nowhere: nihilism, pessimism and antinatalism

I 've been talking a lot about politics lately, even more than usual, which for someone who says there is no meaning in existence sounds a little strange. I admit it is. There is an apparent contradiction between cosmic pessimism, existential nihilism and involvement in the things of the world. The correct thing would be to act as a monk, detached from material issues, as recommended by pessimistic philosophers, with Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) being the most illustrious of them, although we can go back in history and reach Sidarta Gautama (563 BC-483 BC). In addition to this criticism, there are still those who argue that negative thinking, when it comes to politics, fits conservatism better. I have defended more left-wing positions within the contemporary political spectrum in recent years, so from that perspective, my views would be an even greater heresy.

Painting by Zdzislaw Beksinski
Philipp Mainländer (1841-1876), a German philosopher influenced by Schopenhauer, postulated a metaphysical system that many consider even bleaker and more pessimistic than Schopenhauer's. Mainländer's metaphysics differed from Schopenhauer's in the following sense: while Schopenhauer (2015) postulated a unique Will to live that permeates all living beings (a kind of metaphysical monism or non-dualism), a Will that does not care about the suffering of living beings capable of feeling pain (pain being a mechanism that compels organisms to fight for their survival and procreation), Mainländer (RAMOS, 2007; BEISER, 2016) described a universe in which, in the beginning of time, the initial Unit of being broke itself apart and spreaded throughout existence. Parts of this primordial One inhabits living beings, with the express aim of self-destruction.

There is no Will to live in Mainländer, but Will to death, and that Will is not a single metaphysical essence, it is fragmented in all beings. Mainländer made the following analogy: it is as if God had at some point decided to commit suicide and, in order to carry out the task, he chose to fragment himself throughout the universe and submit to entropy. Everything in the universe, including living and sentient beings, would be mere fragments that participate in this process. Rational animals, like humans, would have to identify the Will to death and assume the role of denying our own individual lives. Mainländer, true to his philosophy, committed suicide at the age of 34. However, despite all his existential pessimism, he was a staunch Lasallian socialist, which contrasted with Schopenhauer's apolitical and apathetic position.

Hungarian Marxist thinker György Lukácz (1885-1971) considered the pessimistic philosophy of people like Schopenhauer to be an indirect apology for the bourgeoisie (RAMOS, 2007), as these philosophies (supposedly) fostered resignation in opposition to the desire for change — what's interesting is that thinkers like Lukácz implicitly or explicitly believed that change is good in itself, because, for them, change is synonymous with progress, something that pessimistic thinkers deny, but I'll come back to this subject shortly.

Mainländer, then, is a historical example of a cosmic pessimist who was politically militant — in his case, a left-wing militant. Emil Cioran (1911-1995), while still in his youth, sympathized with the Iron Guard, a Romanian fascist movement (DIENSTAG, 2009; ACQUISTO, 2015). However, already in the early 1940's, he detached himself from the movement and from politics in general (OLIVEIRA, 2016). When World War II broke out, he was in Paris studying for his doctorate, which he never finished, and after the war he continued living in France, effectively becoming an exile (PECORARO, 2004), since the post-World War II Romanian communist government forbade his works from circulating in the country (BOSCH, 2020).

In the following decades, Cioran (1994) wrote that he was satisfied with living in the West, dominated by liberal democracies, not because he considered them the supreme peak of human development, but precisely because he was able to write and speak whatever he wanted, being fully aware that humanity at the time had a terrible choice: adopting an authoritarian truculent system, which suffocates the individual, but which seeks to provide equality, or maintaining a system in which everyone is free to think and speak whatever they want, but in which most people live and work only to enrich a few, a system where we die of hunger “in our own way” (CIORAN, 1994). Like other pessimists, he did not believe in the idea of progress. For them, there are advancements, yes, but not progress (DIENSTAG, 2009). We are not going anywhere at the end of the day, and whenever we believe we are reaching utopia, several misfortunes and oppressions show us that history is just being ironic with us.

Perhaps we can say that Mainländer was different, since he was politically active and never stopped being a socialist while he was alive. But the idea of progress in Mainländer, if he really believed it, would not be the same as that of common sense or even of philosophers who saw history as an increasingly perfected achievement of mankind. The establishment of a more egalitarian and fraternal society would not serve as the end of history or the peak of human development for Mainländer. He did not believe that, after socialism, we would live happily ever after. No, for Mainländer, any political improvement would serve only as a step before the consolidation of the Will to death, which is the collective suicide of the species. This may put him and others who identify with philosophical pessimism in a different place, politically speaking, than those seeking a better world. Maybe. Personally, though, I don't think it matters.

I can only describe my own reasons for having shifted further to the left of the political spectrum in recent years. My reasons are not based on the belief that history moves in a certain way and that we can observe what needs to be done. There are no mechanics when it comes to history. I agree with those who claim that thinkers like Hegel (1770-1831) and his followers, although brilliant, identified false patterns when studying human history. Pareidolia is when we look at an object, usually inanimate, and see a human face, an animal, the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ or any other recognizable figure. Some examples of pareidolia are really incredible. It is even possible to identify proportions that would make a piece of toast seem to have the face of Jesus like in a work of art painted by a Renaissance master. I tend to think that those who have identified in human history some rationality or purpose have been victims of the human need to seek patterns even where they do not exist.

So, if I don't believe in progress, if I don't think that tomorrow can be substantially better than yesterday, why have I been defending more left-wing political positions in recent years? The answer is quite simple: I identify myself with other sentient beings and I think that we could, to a certain extent, alleviate each other's suffering. As Schopenhauer wrote:

In fact, the conviction that the world and therefore also mankind is something that actually should not be, is designed to fill us with forbearance towards one another, for what can be expected of beings in such a predicament? Indeed, from this point of view one could arrive at the notion that the really proper mode of address between human beings, instead of Monsieur, Sir, etc, would be Leidensgefährte, Socî malorum, compagnon de misères, my fellow-sufferer. As odd as this may sound, still it is consistent with the matter, sheds the proper light on others and reminds us of the most essential things, of tolerance, patience, forbearance and love of one's neighbor, which everyone needs and therefore everyone owes as well. (SCHOPENHAUER, 2015)

We are, at the same time, a bunch of victims and criminals. We can only speak of an unblemished reputation because we cannot know every detail of everyone's lives and thoughts, otherwise, humanity would end in a few hours, destroying itself. I do not advocate for a better world, but a less worse one, because I see no need for the world to be as horrible as it is today — but the best thing would be for us to abandon this boat as soon as possible. There is a lot of talk about antinatalism and the refusal of procreation in order not to perpetuate suffering, but I think that the most courageous go beyond that. The most courageous follow the path of Mainländer.

Despite that, I don't think Mainländer's path is an obligation. I agree with Cioran when he writes:

We should repeat to ourselves, every day: I am one of the billions dragging himself across the earth's surface. One, and no more. This banality justifies any conclusion, any behavior or action: debauchery, chastity, suicide, work, crime, sloth, or rebellion. . . . Whence it follows that each man is right to do what he does. (CIORAN, 1998)

This quote is in stark contrast to the words of Cioran himself, including those written in the same work, which is titled The Trouble with Being Born, since he condemns procreation as a mistake and a moral crime. In fact, this is problematic for many laypeople who embrace pessimism and antinatalism. After all, how can an existential nihilist (and, at least in the aphorism quoted, a moral nihilist) be able to condemn existence and decree that it is better not to be born? A nihilist, according to some, should neither condemn nor assert existence. Invariably, many of these refuse nihilism in favor of an absolutization of moral values, transforming morality into a natural or almost mathematical truth, while others reject pessimism and put figures like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1990) on a pedestal.

Many of the contemporary laypeople who put Nietzsche on a pedestal tend to think that nihilism should not condemn existence, nor celebrate it. The problem with this internet-age interpretation is that Nietzsche, despite all of his discourse about a life-affirming pessimism, was a vitalist who claimed that we cannot judge life from within it, while all other pessimistic thinkers spoke just the opposite: we can and we should judge life, just as we judge any other type of process, whether or not we are inserted in them. The Nietzschean “beyond good and evil” stance is extremely optimistic and celebratory of life, contrary to the belief that it is a simple value-free acceptance of the meaninglessness of life.

On the other hand, those who turn morality into an absolute to justify their refusal of existence have my sympathy, but not because I agree with the existence of a morality to be discovered in nature, at least not without a healthy dose of skepticism. I think morality does exist, but it exists just as a Boeing 747 does. A 747 is perfectly real and beneficial to go from one continent to another, but it only exists because there were humans who thought of the 747 and made it real, besides, there are still humans who think and work in the maintenance of those planes. Likewise, I think it is a mistake to believe that morality exists outside of human minds, somewhere in nature where they can be discovered in a pure and simple way, but I defend the meta-ethical position that this does not mean that morality isn't real. It exists only in the minds of humans, yes, but nonetheless it is real, since it conforms with certain features of the world and has real world effects.

That morality exists only in our minds and not in nature does not invalidate it's reality, nor does it mean that we cannot use morality and refine it to judge certain aspects of the world, including the pains and sufferings that millions of years of natural evolution of the species have submitted countless animals. This is how I interpret a judgment like that of Cioran, quoted earlier, and other pessimists who are clearly existential nihilists: they claim that there is no rule of values in nature to be discovered but, nonetheless, they condemn existence.

In an interview with Sam Harris, the pessimistic and antinatalist South African philosopher David Benatar states that he is a nihilist in a certain sense: the existential sense. In his work The Human Predicament (BENATAR, 2016), he also makes it clear that his position on cosmic eternity is that it is completely void of meaning and that nothing really matters in the grand scheme of things. This doesn't stop him from defending the thesis that creating a new sentient being to suffer in the world is a mistake and that it shouldn't be done. Where would morality come from then, according to Benatar? He never makes it clear which meta-ethical thesis he subscribes to, but in another interview available online, Benatar goes so far as to say that there is a gap between the description of reality and normative sentences — the old problem of the naturalistic fallacy, recognized by David Hume (1711-1776) and refined by G.E. Moore (1873-1958).

His answer is simple: yes, there is a gap between statements that describe reality and normative sentences. From sentences like “human beings breathe oxygen” and “human beings do not breathe underwater” we cannot logically conclude that “we should not put a human's head underwater until he stops breathing.” However, according to Benatar, it is up to the philosopher to reduce the gap between description and normativity as much as possible, making it as small as possible. Another pessimist and antinatalist philosopher, Julio Cabrera (1944), also states that we cannot logically deduce a normative conclusion from descriptive premises. For him, morality is always in the field of action, of choices, and ethical reasoning does not happen (only) through logic (although logic is also used). As Cabrera writes in his work Discomfort and Moral Impediment: “It is not only a logical passage, but also a pathic and experiential one.” In another moment, he writes:

Recalling what has been said about the “naturalistic fallacy”, it is clear that the ban on killing as, later on, the moral advice against procreation, are not logically “deduced” from the equality of the structural situation. These rules must be decided from the data provided by the description of this situation, but they cannot be deduced from it directly. As has been pointed out, this will occur regardless of the ethical theory being considered. However, that they are not logically deduced does not mean that these norms do not have moral force, as the transition (even if not deductive) from the structural situation to the norms can be very well founded. This is the maximum that an ethical theory can aim for (...) (CABRERA, 2018)

Based on data from satellites such as NASA's WMAP and the European Space Agency's Planck, contemporary cosmologists and astrophysicists have pointed to the end of the universe, specifically the so-called heat death, which will occur when the universe reaches maximum entropy. This will happen depending on the values of dark energy, which is the force responsible for the expansion of the observable universe in the era in which we live. Heat death will only occur in almost unimaginable amount of time, well beyond hundreds of trillions of years in the future. However, way before that, on a cosmic scale closer to us, the phenomenon of life will become impossible, at least as we have defined “life” in the contemporary world.

But even if the values of dark energy are different, contemporary physics understands that there will be no continuity: our universe will end regardless of the value that dark energy has in the equations. The only thing that will change with these values will be the form of this death: instead of heat death, there are several other scenarios. In none of them does the universe magically becomes a static place that is eternally inviting to life. The time when life is possible in the universe is now, in its relative beginning, and for the next hundred billion years, which are just a blink of an eye on the scale of deep time. It is as if we retroactively no longer exist (BRASSIER, 2007).

In The Fall into Time, Cioran wrote:
I accumulate the past, constantly making out of it and casting into it the present, without giving it a chance to exhaust its own duration. To live is to suffer the sorcery of the possible; but when I see in the possible itself the past that is to come, then everything turns into potential bygones, and there is no longer any present, any future. What I discern in  each moment is its exhaustion, its death-rattle, and not the transition to the next moment. I generate dead time, wallowing in the asphyxia of becoming. (CIORAN, 1970)
It's true. We're already dead.



ACQUISTO, Joseph. The Fall Out of Redemption: writing and thinking beyond salvation with baudelaire, cioran, fondane, agamben, and nancy. Londres: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

BENATAR, David. The Human Predicament: a candid guide to life's biggest questions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

BEISER, Frederick. Weltschmerz: pessimism in german philosophy, 1860-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

BOSCH, Alfons C. Salellas. Vinte e cinco anos sem Cioran. 2020. Available at: http://www.anpof.org/portal/index.php/pt-BR/comunidade/coluna-anpof/2713-vinte-e-cinco-anos-sem-cioran?fbclid=IwAR0jw-nVIqh11aVY0GLeBioLnJz1cVaX_2zU6cThmtevUAFnv_ehQdwB5Aw.

BRASSIER, Ray. Nihil Unbound: enlightenment and extinction. London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007.

CABRERA, Julio. Mal-estar e moralidade: situação humana, ética e procriação responsável. Brasília: Editora Unb, 2018.

CIORAN, Emil. História e utopia. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1994. Translated by José Thomaz Brum.

CIORAN, Emil. The Trouble with Being Born. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998. Translated by Richard Howard.

CIORAN, Emil. The Fall into Time. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970. Translated by Richard Howard.

DIENSTAG, Joshua Foa. Pessimism: philosophy, ethic, spirit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

OLIVEIRA, Fernando Santarosa de. O pessimismo de Cioran e Céline: o desafio de pensar sem utopia. 2016. 120 f. Dissertação (Mestrado) - Curso de Letras, Universidade Federal de São João del Rei, São João del Rei, 2016.

PECORARO, Rossano. Cioran, a filosofia em chamas. 1. ed. Porto Alegre: EDIPUCRS, 2004.

RAMOS, Flamarion. O pessimismo e a questão social em Philipp Mainländer. Cadernos de Filosofia Alemã: Crítica e Modernidade, [S. l.], n. 10, p. 35-50, 2007.

SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur. O mundo como vontade e como representação. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2015. Tradução de: Jair Barboza.

SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur. Parerga and Paralipomena, vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Translated by Adrian Del Caro and Christopher Janaway.