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Tobias Dahlkvist. Nietzsche and the Philosophy of Pessimism. A Study of Nietzsche’s Relation to the Pessimistic Tradition: Schopenhauer, Hartmann, Leopardi

Uppsala, Uppsala University Press, 2007, pp. 301. ISBN 978-91-554-6963-4

Reviewed by Matthew Meyer

Nietzsche and the Philosophy of Pessimism is an important contribution to the study of nineteenth-century pessimism and its significance for understanding the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. The author develops a highly nuanced analysis of pessimism as it unfolded during the period and rightly interprets much of Nietzsche’s philosophy as a response to the pessimistic claim that non-existence is preferable to existence. While I agree with the general thrust of Dahlkvist’s thesis, I remain unconvinced by certain details of his argument, especially the treatment of pessimism in The Birth of Tragedy.

Dahlkvist divides his analysis into three sections and five chapters. In the first part (two chapters), he develops an understanding of nineteenth-century pessimism through his reading of figures such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Eduard von Hartmann, and Giacomo Leopardi. Dahlkvist argues that while pessimism initially had a wide variety of meanings, it eventually became synonymous with the view that "non-existence is preferable to existence" (15). In the second part (two chapters), Dahlkvist analyzes the appearance of pessimism in Nietzsche’s early Nachlass and then highlights the important role that pessimism plays in both BT and the Untimely Meditations. Dahlkvist dedicates the final chapter of the book to showing how pessimism remains a significant issue in Nietzsche’s later writings.

In the introduction, Dahlkvist identifies four variants of pessimism present in nineteenth-century philosophy. The first form of pessimism (1) is the psychological tendency to believe in the worst possible outcome in any given situation. According to Dahlkvist, this is also how pessimism is understood today. The second (2) is a historical-philosophical claim that states that mankind tends to grow worse as society develops. The third (3) is what Dahlkvist calls the etymological conception. This version states that our world is the worst of all possible worlds. The final definition (4) is the one that Dahlkvist will emphasize as the work unfolds. It is the view that "existence cannot be justified, which means as much as that non-existence is preferable to existence" (14). Indeed, Dahlkvist spends much of the first chapter arguing that while Schopenhauer did not use the term pessimism in his published works until 1844, the point of the first edition of The World as Will and Representation is nevertheless to show that non-existence is preferable to existence (61).

In the second chapter, Dahlkvist presses for a more restricted meaning of pessimism, arguing that Hartmann and Eugen Dühring played a crucial role in associating the notion more exclusively with concerns about the value of life. He then treats lesser-known pessimists such as Philipp Mainlander and Julius Bahnsen and anti-pessimists such as James Sully and Elme Marie Caro. Dahlkvist argues that such figures continued to discuss pessimism in the terms established by Hartmann and Dühring. Interesting is Dahlkvist’s argument that the anti-pessimists tended to reduce the pessimist’s claim that non-existence is preferable to existence to pathological outbreaks of melancholy and even madness (95). The penultimate section of the chapter consists of Dahlkvist’s treatment of Leopardi. Although a little outside the parameters of his proposed area of study, Dahlkvist argues that Leopardi was an anti-optimist (contra Leibniz) who nevertheless affirmed life in spite of its meaninglessness (114f.).

Dahlkvist concludes the second chapter with an attempt to clarify his initial understanding of the four variants of pessimism (112ff.). Here, however, is where some of the difficulties latent in his previous discussion of pessimism come to the fore. While he rightly argues that opponents of pessimism tend to define it in the first sense (1) and that Hartmann should be regarded as an optimist in the sense of (2), Dahlkvist encounters problems in his attempt to deal with the distinction between (3) and (4). Specifically, he contends that (3) can be subsumed under (4) on the grounds that (3) is vague and (4) somehow provides further clarification (113). The problem is that (3) is not as vague as Dahlkvist claims and (4) does not really provide further clarification. While (3) is about whether the world is ordered for our benefit, (4) addresses the value of existence. True, (3) does use evaluative language by assessing the world as the "worst" of all possible worlds. However, (3) seems to be a type of pessimism that makes factual claims about the cruelty and irrationality of the world and the impossibility of human happiness. In contrast, (4) provides a judgment on the value of existence, i.e. that it is worthless.

I make these remarks here because I think that Dahlkvist’s attempt to subsume (3) under (4) leads to a misreading of the role pessimism plays in BT. This is because one can only understand the pessimism of Nietzsche’s first work by clearly distinguishing between what I will call factual pessimism and evaluative pessimism. Whereas factual pessimism either directly asserts or indirectly entails the ineluctable fact of human suffering, evaluative pessimism states that non-existence is preferable to existence. Dahlkvist needs this distinction when reading BT because Nietzsche’s originality lies in the fact that he accepts factual pessimism but nevertheless rejects evaluative pessimism. This stands in sharp contrast to both Dühring and Hartmann because they implicitly hold that the value of existence hinges on the question of human happiness. If Dühring can show that there are certain things in life that make us happy, he believes he will have refuted the evaluative pessimism of someone like Hartmann. Hartmann, on the other hand, believes that if he can show that pain invariably outweighs the amount of pleasure in life, it necessarily follows that non-existence is preferable to existence. In contrast, Nietzsche holds that while someone like Dühring is wrong to think that life is not essentially suffering, someone like Hartmann is wrong to conclude from this fact that non-existence is preferable to existence.

Dahlkvist develops his interpretation of BT in the third chapter of the book, prefacing it with an extensive discussion of Nietzsche’s Nachlass from 1864-1872. As the argument unfolds, one quickly senses the difficulties that his understanding of pessimism has created. On the one hand, he needs to emphasize the pessimistic aspects of Greek culture and tragedy. On the other hand, he needs to show how the tragic art of the Greeks nevertheless affirms life. Peculiarities begin to emerge with Dahlkvist’s interpretation of the tragic heroes of BT: Oedipus, Hamlet, Prometheus, and Tristan and Isolde (155ff.). Specifically, Dahlkvist argues that all teach the pessimistic truth that non-existence is better than existence. While Dahlkvist’s interpretation might stand as an independent reading of these heroes, it is nevertheless not the interpretation Nietzsche puts forth in BT. Indeed, when pressed for evidence to support his claim that both Oedipus and Prometheus teach that non-existence is preferable to existence, Dahlkvist introduces lines from Oedipus at Colonus and Prometheus Bound that Nietzsche himself does not quote in BT. Instead, in BT we are told that while the Oedipus myth does teach us that (A) knowledge is a crime against nature and a cause of suffering for the wise individual, we are also meant to learn that (B) the noble Oedipus "spreads a magical power of blessing that remains effective even beyond his disease." True, the Prometheus myth does teach us that (C) the highest possession of mankind can only be won through sacrilege and must be paid for with a flood of sufferings. However, Nietzsche also emphasizes how the myth teaches us that (D) "all that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both" (BT 9). Important here is that not one of these claims states that non-existence is preferable to existence. While one might infer evaluative pessimism from (A) and (C), these two claims are actually forms of factual pessimism, and the reason why Nietzsche couples (A) and (C) with (B) and (D) is to show, again, that the tragic Greeks affirmed life (rejecting evaluative pessimism) in spite of their terrible insights into the nature of things (accepting factual pessimism).

Even if we grant Dahlkvist his reading of the tragic heroes, another problem immediately arises for his interpretation. Specifically, he must now show how tragedy teaches evaluative pessimism and affirms life at the same time. That is, he must show that tragedy teaches us, as with Silenus, that non-existence is preferable to existence and, as with Achilles, that existence is preferable to non-existence. Here, Dahlkvist waivers in his interpretation (158ff.), and it seems that he must. On the one hand, he sometimes suggests that the Apollonian element in tragedy really does make life worth living by shrouding the Dionysian truth in mythical garb. On the other hand, he usually uses language that suggests that life is, in itself, not worth living, but the Apollonian element of tragedy "seduces" us into believing, falsely, that life is worth living by helping us to "forget" the Dionysian truth. While the former commits Nietzsche to contradictory statements about the value of life, where tragedy is supposed to convince us that life is and is not worth living, the latter seems to undermine the force of Nietzsche’s life-affirming program. In such a scenario, art does not really make life worth living, but makes us merely believe that it is. To my mind, what Dahlkvist fails to recognize is that for Nietzsche, existence does not have a value an sich. Instead, the fact of suffering raises the question of the value of existence in the form of "to be or not to be," and its value ultimately depends upon and is relative to the attitude we adopt vis-à-vis suffering. In the end, art is what helps us adopt a positive attitude toward suffering and life, not merely through Apollonian illusions, but also through the Dionysian power of musical dissonance (BT 24).

Despite such criticisms, there are three aspects of Dahlkvist’s treatment of the early Nietzsche that I found particularly enlightening. The first is his analysis of BT 18, where Nietzsche describes three types of cultures: the Socratic or Alexandrine, the artistic or Hellenic, and the tragic or Buddhist. Specifically, Dahlkvist notes the way in which Nietzsche is re-working Hartmann’s language by referring to these cultures as Illusionsstufen. Indeed, this point harkens back to Dahlkvist’s analysis of Nietzsche’s Nachlass from 1869-1872, where he insightfully reveals the influence of Hartmann on Nietzsche’s changing attitudes toward pessimism during this time (132ff.), and points forward to his analysis of UM, where he correctly notes the importance of Hartmann for understanding Nietzsche’s argument in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (180ff.). Here it should be said that Dahlkvist’s discussion of HL is one part of a larger thesis that I find highly plausible. Specifically, Dahlkvist argues that all four UMs are variations on themes already present in BT (176). Whereas Nietzsche attacks the cultural depravity and superficial optimism of Strauss in the first essay and Hartmann’s life-threatening worship of the Weltprozess in the second, Dahlkvist argues that the essays on Schopenhauer and Wagner present a positive cultural alternative designed to help us fight cultural mediocrity and the life-denying tendencies of the modern pessimists.

Dahlkvist’s final chapter is an analysis of pessimism in Nietzsche’s late works, where he discusses four new topics: pessimism’s relationship to (1) nihilism and (2) the eternal return, and Nietzsche’s views on (3) Hamlet and (4) Leopardi. While Dahlkvist does not intend the chapter to be an exhaustive treatment of the issue, I am surprised that Human, All too Human receives little attention. While Nietzsche clearly wants to suspend any questions about the value of existence (HH 28, 33), the work seems to be nothing more than an exercise in establishing factual pessimism by means of illusion-destroying science.

Nevertheless, Dahlkvist is quite successful in connecting Nietzsche’s early concern with pessimism to central elements of his later philosophy. This is especially true of his treatment of nihilism and eternal return. With respect to the former, Dahlkvist’s aim is to substantiate the claim, already put forth by others, that pessimism is a limited form of nihilism (220). At the same time, Dahlkvist tries to distinguish between pessimism and nihilism, arguing that whereas the former is the view that life lacks value, the latter is the view that life lacks meaning (230). While one might quibble about the significance of this distinction, Dahlkvist insightfully connects active nihilism, where meaninglessness is a welcomed precondition for creating new values, with Nietzsche’s pessimism of strength, which Dahlkvist correctly defines as "acknowledging that life is painful and cruel, and wanting life to be just as it is" (232). It is interesting that the attitude identified here seems to be precisely the kind of attitude necessary to affirm eternal return. While he does not explicitly establish this connection, Dahlkvist does emphasize the pessimistic context of the doctrine. Here, he not only shows how eternal return appears in numerous pessimistic writers before Nietzsche, but also identifies its presence as early as HL. Whereas the pessimistic writers insisted that no one would want to live the same life over again, Dahlkvist argues that the later Nietzsche envisages the ubermensch, an individual, like Montaigne, as being strong enough to affirm the eternal recurrence of all things (277).

In sum, Dahlkvist has presented a valuable contribution to both the study of nineteenth-century pessimism and Nietzsche scholarship. Even if my criticisms are correct (and they may not be), Dahlkvist has still succeeded in showing that any serious interpreter of Nietzsche’s philosophy must take pessimism into consideration and be sensitive to its various manifestations during the period in which Nietzsche wrote.

Boston University