A friend sent me this piece by Alain de Botton celebrating pessimism, describing it as “your kind of article.” Leaving aside what this is meant to imply about me, I do think it warrants some attention. De Botton writes:


The modern bourgeois philosophy pins its hopes firmly on two great presumed ingredients of happiness: love and work (more specifically, a healthy bonus). But a vast unthinking cruelty lies discreetly coiled within this magnanimous assurance that everyone will discover satisfaction here. It isn’t that love and work are invariably incapable of delivering fulfillment—only that they almost never do for too long. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming inevitable, weigh down on us like curses. In denying the natural place reserved in the human lot for longing and disaster, this philosophy denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages, our unexploited ambitions, and our exploded portfolios, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to make more of ourselves.


We should instead remember the great pessimistic voices of history, of which I cherish two in particular. One is Seneca: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.” The other is the French moralist Chamfort: “A man should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.”


The substance of this argument is not very interesting, but the attitude it expresses is. We have heard it said (and I think David Hart has said it best) that after Christianity there can only be post-Christianity—that is, a pervasive nihilism as total as the Christian affirmaton of being or perhaps a stew of Christian-derived secular chiliasms . There is no question of reverting to “paganism” as though Christianity never happened.


What is interesting about de Botton’s short essay is that it proposes a genuinely “tragic” and therefore genuinely pagan attitude. It is at root a kind of nihilism, but it is the serene nihilism of an Epicurean. De Botton does try to enlist Christianity to the pessimist cause, but the attempt is decidedly weak and unconvincing:


Christianity only reinforced the Stoic message. It pointed out that all human beings find it easy to imagine perfection, but that it’s a problem—indeed a sin—to suppose that such perfection can ever occur on earth. Nothing human can ever be free of blemishes. There cannot be an end to boom and bust.


This is perhaps basically true, but what de Botton omits is of central importance. Of course nothing prevents a Christian from emotionally fortifying himself by expecting the worst in any given situation. But specifically Christian peace in the face of suffering and uncertainty does not rest on any kind of pessimism, but on an overwhelmingly positive belief in God’s providence. Everything is either willed or permitted by an infinitely loving Father so one need give no thought to the morrow. There is a vast difference between “The world is pretty bad—learn to deal with it,” and “The world is pretty bad—but know that it has been dealt with.”


The trouble for de Botton is that post-Christian man may simply lack the resources to deal with unsatisfied yearning for true happiness. As Hart argues, Christianity has permanently destroyed the old coping devices by making the old gods incredible. The gospel has “rendered the ancient order visibly insufficient and even slightly absurd, and instilled in us a longing for transcendent love so deep that—if once yielded to—it will never grant us rest anywhere but in Christ.” As a consequence, modern man without faith “must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy.”


But I suppose we could be wrong about that.


Articles by Stefan McDaniel

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