Julius Bahnsen’s Radical Pessimism

Julius Bahnsen

Julius Bahnsen (1830 – 1881) was a German philosopher and disciple of Arthur Schopenhauer. The historian Frederick C. Beiser, in his book Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860–1900, describes Bahnsen’s philosophical views, along with other key German pessimistic philosophers and followers of Schopenhauer, such as Julius Frauenstädt, Eduard von Hartmann, and Philipp Mainländer. 

Weltschmerz is a German word meaning “world-weariness” or “world-pain”, coined by the German author Jean Paul in his 1827 novel Selina. In its original meaning, it stands for a profound sadness about the inadequacy and imperfection of the world, and as such, it is a feeling characteristic of pessimism, especially the German pessimists that Beiser hones in on, but other notable authors subscribed to such a worldview, including Giacomo Leopardi and Heinrich Heine. In his book, Beiser defines weltschmerz as “a mood of weariness or sadness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering,” which again comprises the thought of Schopenhauer and his gloomy disciples.

Beiser remarks that “Bahnsen’s pessimism Bahnsen’s pessimism has been described as the most extreme and radical in the age of Weltschmerz.” Although earlier on Beiser considers that “In a pessimistic age, Batz [Mainländer’s birth name] was perhaps the most radical pessimist of them all.” This is based on the fact that he “not only taught pessimism; he lived it and breathed it…He alone was willing to take pessimism to its ultimate conclusion: suicide.” A demise he succumbed to at the age of 34. Mainländer believed the universe began with God’s suicide (what we see around us, then, is God’s decaying corpse), and all matter, including humans, are ingrained with a wish for annihilation (or the will-to-die) in order to complete God’s self-destruction. In a kind of pessimism Olympics, Beiser juxtaposes Bahnsen and Mainländer as follows:

But whether Bahnsen is more radical and extreme than Mainländer is contestable. If Bahnsen denies the possibility of redemption, Mainländer maintains that there is redemption only in death. While Bahnsen disapproves of suicide, Mainländer beckons us toward this ultimate step. Who, then, is more pessimistic? Bahnsen or Mainländer? I leave it to the reader to decide.

Regardless of who wins the trophy of Ultimate Pessimist, Beiser is correct in observing the radical nature of Bahnsen’s pessimism, which will be the focus of this essay. Bahnsen’s philosophical pessimism is radical in two ways: firstly, as Beiser points out, he denies the possibility of redemption; and this, along with other features of his worldview, make his outlook more radical than that of Schopenhauer’s and Hartmann’s, and then secondly, Bahnsen is radical due to his departures from Schopenhauer, which will be elucidated.

Bahnsen’s Worldview

Beiser points out that “Bahnsen has largely been forgotten,” which is a pity, as his worldview is original, offering quite a different perspective compared to Schopenhauer, who is pretty much who most people think of when they call to mind a pessimistic philosopher. However, one crucial reason Bahnsen seems to have disappeared into obscurity is because of his challenging, thorny, and inelegant prose; the same of which cannot be said for Schopenhauer, who stands out as one of philosophy’s clear and lucid writers. 

The main reason for Bahnsen’s obscurity, Beiser contends, is that he has been mistakenly called a member of ‘the Schopenhauerian school’. While certainly a disciple of Schopenhauer for a short while and indebted to him, “he soon broke with him over so many fundamental points that it becomes impossible to consider him a Schopenhauerian in any strict or narrow sense,” says Beiser. 

Firstly, Bahnsen, like Mainlӓnder, denied Schopenhauer’s monism (which says that all of reality consists of a single, unified, eternal Will: a blind force of nature, a striving that generates all things). Instead, Bahnsen propounded the view that there is a plurality of individual wills. Hartmann also espoused Schopenhauer’s monism, which essentially says that this single cosmic will objectifies itself in every individual thing. The will has various manifestations but it remains singular and unified. Bahnsen criticised this notion since it leaves no room for character or individuality – it conflicted with his own position, known as characterology, a term he coined in 1867. He saw people as individual characters, believing each person was unique, each with his or her own will. One will per person (or ontological pluralism) contradicts the monism of Schopenhauer and Hartmann.

Secondly, Bahnsen rejected Schopenhauer’s transcendental idealism (the view that objects of experience do not appear as they are in themselves but are instead conditioned by the mind, a position which Schopenhauer derived from Kant). Bahnsen himself defended – as did Hartmann – transcendental realism, the doctrine which says that the knowledge we have of how things appear to us in our experiences gives us knowledge of ‘things-in-themselves’ (the nature of things independent from our experience of them). This conflicts with Kant and Schopenhauer’s transcendental idealism, which maintains a clear distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves, on the basis that no amount of knowledge of appearances can provide us with knowledge of things-in-themselves.

Thirdly, Bahnsen denies that the intellect can escape the will, let alone govern it, as Schopenhauer believed. We find an apparent inconsistency in Schopenhauer’s metaphysical voluntarism (which posits that the will is the force behind all of reality and the intellect is merely a secondary and visible manifestation of it – and the intellect, in its normal functioning, is in the service of the will). But also included in Schopenhauer’s voluntarism is the belief that the intellect can control the will. So here we have two diametrically opposed claims: the will dominates and the intellect can control the will (the latter claim allows Schopenhauer to propose that we can be redeemed from suffering – the frustration, strife, and pain – that follows from being driven around by the will’s blind striving). 

Bahnsen, however, resolves the inconsistency of Schopenhauer’s voluntarism by asserting that the intellect can never escape the force of the will; the will has complete power over its representations. And this, in a sense, makes Bahnsen’s pessimism much more radical than Schopenhauer’s. We have no mastery over the causes of our suffering, according to him. As Beiser notes:

Bahnsen is indeed more radical than Schopenhauer and Hartmann, because he denies the possibility of redemption. He is skeptical that art, asceticism or culture can remove us from the world of suffering, or that they provide escape from the self-torment of the will.

A World Without Redemption

It will be useful to flesh out the impossibility of redemption, as proposed by Bahnsen, as this is really a critical aspect of his radical pessimism. His rejection of Schopenhauerian monism and embrace of ontological pluralism underpin the redemptionless world that Bahnsen thinks we all live in. On this point, Beiser underscores: “The denial of monism means there can be no redeeming insight that we human beings, despite all the competition and dissension between us, are at bottom one.” 

Indeed, Schopenhauer’s monism, like the monism found in many Eastern philosophies, creates this mystical notion of oneness and intrinsic interconnectedness, out of which is derived a certain ethic; to Schopenhauer – and many Eastern philosophers – this ethical attitude was universal compassion. But if we accept Bahnsen’s belief in a plurality of individual wills, in individualism, each will is then striving for itself and against every other will. Bahnsen is confirming that egoism – where we are all individuals asserting our own self-interest at the expense of others – is the only reality. The statement ‘I am you’ becomes false, as does its connected ethic: ‘I therefore care about you’. As pessimistic as Schopenhauer is in describing the human condition, he at least takes seriously the idea that we can behave nobly towards one another. Reflecting on the regrettable nature of the world, or weltzschmerz, Schopenahuer states:

The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instil in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.

Whether these virtues are ‘necessary’ or ‘owed’ is perhaps irrelevant to Bahnsen. His metaphysics only allows for egoism. Beiser also emphasises the hopeless quality of Bahnsen’s voluntarism:

The rejection of the will–representation dualism has no less troubling consequences. It means that the will is indeed omnipotent, and that the realm of representation will never have the power to tame it. Whatever the will wants comes from itself, and it will not have to comply with the ends laid down by the intellect.

While there is no redemption in Bahnsen’s worldview, there is still some relief to be had. “That relief comes from humour, in learning how to laugh at ourselves and our predicament,” states Beiser. Humour helps us to bear the tragedy of life. Indeed, as I have argued in a previous post on Albert Camus and absurdity, humour and laughter allow us to deal with the absurd nature of existence, which for Camus, lies in the contradiction between our need for meaning and the absence of meaning in the universe. Camus argues we should take a defiant attitude in the face of the absurd and smile in response, whereas, as I contend in my post, I think laughter is the more appropriate (but still defiant and life-affirming) response. Like Bahnsen, I believe it is important to elevate the value of laughter based on its therapeutic qualities. 

I think it is no coincidence that the most radical pessimists are often the most humorous (especially with respect to dark humour), as there is a recognition – whether conscious or not – that comedy and laughter are the existential responses we need if we hold such a pessimistic outlook on things. This entails being both the jester who jests and the audience member who the jester provokes into laughter. Still, for a radical pessimist like Bahnsen, humour may be momentarily curative but it is not redemptive. As Beiser underscores, “It [humour] offers no enduring remedies, no fail safe recipes to escape from the suffering and moral dilemmas of life; its only power is to lighten the load and to prepare us for even more to come.”

The World as a Tragedy

In 1877, Bahnsen published a short book on tragedy entitled Das Tragische als Weltgesetz (The Tragic as a World Law). This describes his tragic vision of the world, which underlies his pessimism. Beiser points out:

The very heart of tragedy, for Bahnsen, consists in two fundamental facts: first, that the individual has to choose between conflicting duties or incommensurable values; and second, that he or she will be punished, or have to suffer, because he or she obeys one duty or honours one value at the expense of another.

This essence of tragedy is also the essence of our tragic existence. Just as the tragic hero or heroine must take a stand or act according to one duty or value and disregard some other duty or value, so we must do the same. No matter how virtuous our intentions, we will always end up doing something wrong. No choice can be entirely moral or correct. Bahnsen moreover believed there is no rational solution to the conflicts of values we encounter; thus, tragedy is unavoidable. 

The inevitability of tragedy is itself tragic, a kind of meta-tragedy. And this is central to Bahnsen’s radical pessimism, for if tragedy is inescapable, then there can be no redemption for us. Aesthetic contemplation, asceticism, or suicide will not allow us to exit the drama of the world. Bahnsen is against these attempts to escape into another world (or annihilate ourselves). For example, he states suicide would be acceptable if we had no obligations left to fulfil, but this rarely happens. He also emphasises that taking one’s own life is not meritable and it does not resolve one’s guilt. 

Instead, Bahnsen insists that when confronted with opposing duties, we have to take a stand and suffer the consequences. We must adopt this attitude if we are to prove our integrity and fulfil our obligations to others. In this way, Bahnsen’s radical pessimism seems similar to Friedrich Nietzsche’s pessimism of strength (or Dionysian pessimism), which recognises the tragic nature of the world but calls on us to confront it, to live in the drama. This stands in opposition to Schopenhauer’s pessimism of weakness, as Nietzsche sees it, which involves a turning away from the world, a resignation. 

In an article he wrote in 1881 entitled Zur Verständigung über den heutigen Pessimismus (On Understanding Today’s Pessimism), Bahnsen set out to distinguish his brand of pessimism from that of his teacher Schopenhauer, as well as from that of his ex-friend and rival Hartmann. Bahnsen re-iterates his aversion towards withdrawal from the world, saying that this does not feature in his vision of pessimism. He insists that pessimism is opposed to this “mollusc-like” mentality; pessimism does not encourage the individual to retreat into “a spineless and fibreless quiteism”. 

Bahnsen invokes military language to describe his kind of pessimism. He says the pessimist should adopt a “defensive posture” and “Never cease to fight”. And he calls asceticism an “impotent velleity”. Clearly, then, Bahnsen views Schopenhauer’s pessimism as a weakness, as Nietzsche does, and contends that the proper response of a pessimist to the tragedy of the world must be a full confrontation, an unafraid gaze into the abyss that never turns away. Hence, Bahnsen’s pessimism is radical not just for its rejection of redemption but also for its disavowal of despair.

Bahnsen’s tragic worldview also discards the notion, central to many religious and secular moralities, that our moral obligations and ideas of the highest good are crystal clear and consistent. Instead, for Bahnsen, it is never clear what we ought to do; no duty or value has more authority over alternative ones. Contrary to the theistic worldview, therefore, Bahnsen presents an anxiety-inducing view of morality that is characterised by relativity, indecisiveness, thorniness, regret, and dissatisfaction. 

As much as we like to think there are defined paths of right and wrong, and good and bad, Bahnsen invites us to dispel this illusion. This illusion-dissolving motive is in keeping with the pessimistic tradition, but the radical nature of Bahnsen’s pessimism lies in its implications. Schopenhauer at least comforts us with the idea that we have a definite virtue to abide by (compassion), but Bahnsen is saying we don’t even have this clarity to rely on.

Bahnsen also argues against Friedrich Schiller’s conception of tragedy. According to Schiller, we find pleasure in tragedy through our recognition of the moral qualities of the tragic hero, who we perceive as having the power to act on his or her duties, despite the suffering it causes them. This illustrates to us the power of our moral autonomy and freedom, which can overcome the pressures of circumstances and our personal inclinations which come into conflict with our moral decision-making. Bahnsen, on the other hand, thinks that the autonomy of the tragic actor consists in their willingness to choose one duty over another, despite knowing that this conflict of duties will cause him or her to suffer. 

Schiller follows Kant’s proposition that moral duties are never in conflict with one another, and so in Bahnsen’s eyes, he fails to see the true essence of the tragic hero; he falsely sees tragedy as consisting in the hero’s acting contrary to his or her self-interest, whereas Bahnsen argues the actual tragedy lies in the fact that the hero fulfils one duty while violating others in the process. Bahnsen’s doesn’t actually see anything tragic about choosing duty over inclination. He also criticises Schiller’s assumption that our convictions and conscience are perfectly clear. As Beiser puts it: 

Often we do not know what we really believe; and often we have to work this out for ourselves in pressing circumstances without ever really knowing, or having the opportunity to think about, our ultimate convictions and commitments.

In the late 1870s, Bahnsen wrote a book entitled Pessimisten-Brevier (Pessimist’s Breviary), published anonymously in 1879. This was a book intended to encapsulate the pessimistic spirit of his age. However, the book was a flop, signalling to Bahnsen that he misjudged the public mood. People were not as pessimistic as he thought they were. Nonetheless, Beiser believes we should judge the work as a success in a historical context: “No other work represents so well the pessimistic spirit of late 19th-century philosophy.”

As Bahnsen underscores in this book, what makes someone a pessimist is not the lack of pleasure or presence of pain (in contrast to Schopenhauer) but the failure to realise our most important ideals or goals, due to misfortune. He rejects the Stoic advice of retreating into “the inner citadel” when misfortune strikes us because he argues that misfortune not only attacks and degrades our body but our inner soul as well. This means there is no ‘inner citadel’ to find refuge in. Our minds are “not immune from tragic conflict,” says Beiser. While Schopenhauer lived a somewhat hermitic life, with limited obligations towards others, most of us exist in the web of life and so we are always torn between opposing duties. The impossibility of withdrawal, therefore, makes the world portrayed by Bahnsen seem quite unforgiving and imprisoning. 

Bahnsen’s focus on fate and fortune is very much congruous with his tragic view of the world. Schopenhauer and Hartmann differ from Bahnsen in their emphasis on desire making us miserable, rather than the capriciousness of fate.

Pessimisten-Brevier depicts a bleak outlook on life, but it is not completely negative. Part of Bahnsen’s motivation in writing this book was to provide a guide for pessimists on how to cope with the tragic nature of existence. The pessimist he has in mind is not a “hypochondriacal whiner”. Such a person’s goals and ideals may be frustrated by fate but he does not give up all hope. Moreover, this pessimist does not become dispirited and apathetic just because he knows it is unlikely he will fulfil his highest ideals; rather, he “learns to content himself with the little that he can achieve, and he does not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” as Beiser puts it. The pessimist is portrayed as a virtuous person who tries to maintain his autonomy, self-mastery, selflessness, and composure, no matter how trying the circumstances may be. 

On the Nature of Suffering and Joy

In Pessimisten-Brevier, Bahnsen stresses – in line with Schopenhauer’s analysis of the nature of pain and pleasure – that life contains more sorrow than joy and that the satisfaction of a need is never a plus; it is only the alleviation of a negative (the pain of need and want), which returns us to a baseline state, whereas the frustration of a need is always a minus, taking us below a baseline state. 

Yet Bahnsen also paints some original asymmetries between pain and pleasure. He asserts that only pain is real while the few joys we have in life are based on illusions. He also opines that pure joy or pleasure can never exist (they are always contaminated by sorrow and pain) while there is such a thing as pure sorrow and pain. Although both of these asymmetries can certainly be doubted. Pain is certainly real, but it is not self-evident that any feelings of joy are based on delusion, rather than clear perception (which we can call existential joy). Additionally, many people claim to have experiences of pure, unadulterated joy or perfect contentment, both when altering their consciousness and when not doing so. These spiritual states, even if rare or difficult to cultivate, may at least mitigate the extent of Bahnsen’s pessimism.

To Bahnsen, the most egregious form of pain that human beings have to endure is the death of a loved one. When this happens, according to Bahnsen, our inner world is filled with “the infinity of nothingness” and we are overcome with “the dark feeling of loneliness”. Since Bahnsen says the world lacks providence, redemption, and immortality, this kind of loss is complete, eternal, and irredeemable. There is no comfort or compensation available for such a loss. There is no otherworldly realm where we will be reunited with our loved one. 

Bahnsen concedes that you cannot have the joys of spending time with loved ones without the possibility of their loss. If we were all immortal, our relationships would be less precious. For Nietzsche, the heights of joy are matched by the depths of sorrow; there is an inherent duality here: joy and sorrow are necessarily intertwined. However, based on the asymmetries between pain and pleasure that Bahnsen has formulated, he probably would not see the pain of grief as worth the joy of cherishing someone.

Bahnsen’s Rejection of the Hedonic Calculus

In his 1881 article on pessimism, Bahnsen repudiates Hartmann’s attempt to base pessimism on a hedonic calculus, which says that we should be pessimists because pain outweighs pleasure in life. As we have seen, Bahnsen did subscribe to this Schopenhauerian asymmetry in his Brevier (Schopenhauer argued for this hedonic calculus in his essay On the Sufferings of the World); however, in this later article, Bahnsen rejects such a calculus on two grounds. 

Firstly, he denies that there can be any objectivity behind such a calculus since the amount of pleasure and pain in life will vary between individuals. This is true, of course. Some lives are infinitely more pleasure or painful than others. But even if it were the case that lives, in general, contained a similar amount of pain and pleasure, how would you go about judging the degree to which there was a preponderance of pain over pleasure, or that such a preponderance exists in the first place? Who could we trust to be an objective observer in this respect, free from judgement-clouding biases and misperceptions? 

In any case, Bahnsen’s second and more important reason for rejecting Hartmann’s hedonic calculus was that this calculus wrongly assumes pessimism stems from a deficit in personal happiness. Beiser remarks:

What makes someone a pessimist is the recognition that they cannot achieve anything in life without struggle and sacrifice; but that is entirely independent of how much pleasure or pain they acquire.

Bahnsen, like many other pessimists, held onto the notion that it would be better never to have been born. But he doesn’t hold such a pessimistic view based on a hedonic calculus, as Schopenhauer does. To Schopenhauer, his perception that pain is more intense than pleasure and that pains greatly outnumber pleasures is what drives him to grieve the existence of life. As he states in On the Sufferings of the World:

If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.

Modern-day pessimists, such as David Benatar, also use a hedonic calculus to justify antinatalism (at least, as part of their argument against procreation). If there is more pain in life than pleasure – or pains are weightier in our subjective experience than pleasures – then it is cruel to create more sentient life, so the antinatalists argue. However, Bahnsen’s negative valuation of being born originates from his tragic view of life, not Schopenhauer or Hartmann’s proposition about the amount of good or bad things in life. Fighting for a higher ideal, suffering for it, and probably failing in achieving that ideal is what constitutes Bahnsen’s pessimism. 

Bahnsen is still an underappreciated thinker in the tradition of philosophical pessimism, but this is undeserved. As Beiser observes:

On the whole, Bahnsen’s contributions to the philosophy of his age are in inverse proportion to the scanty recognition he has received. His obscurity might seem a fitting fate for someone who so deeply believed in the tragedy of life. But it is the obligation of the scholar to correct the fickleness of fate according to higher standards of intellectual merit. By those standards Bahnsen deserves much greater attention than we have given him.

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