Of the countless questions that we can ask ourselves, there are some that have the power to make us very uncomfortable. By this I do not mean that we simply do not like the question or consider it inappropriate in some way. Rather, I mean that some questions make us uneasy and leery of the motives behind the query because of what is at stake. Take the following question: Is life valuable, and is it worthy of promotion and protection? At first, the answer appears obvious. Of course, life is valuable to us. It is a fundamental good, perhaps even the highest one, inasmuch as every other good depends on us maintaining life. Furthermore, who asks such a question? In any case, and once the question is presented, we would expect that at the end of the inquiry the answer would be a resounding yes. Yes, life is valuable.
Yet, uncritically accepting the idea that life is something valuable and that it ought to be protected and promoted is philosophically problematic. The assumption requires close philosophical scrutiny. This is not to say that life is not valuable. Perhaps, it is. The point here–the real issue raised by the question–is to have us consider our reasons for upholding the value of existence and whether or not they are good reasons. So, while it has become somewhat of a philosophical truism that an unexamined life is not worth living, the question before us is whether life itself (examined or unexamined) is worth living.
Although this may be an off-the-cuff question or a random thought that just seemingly pops into our heads out of nowhere, from a philosophical perspective, things get interesting when the question is addressed in a systematic way. And things can get really interesting if the question is taken up by several philosophers within a specific time period in such a way that a tradition emerges. Enter the pessimist tradition.
The pessimists are a group of philosophers who, starting with Arthur Schopenhauer in the 19th century, hold that life is a miserable experience. For pessimists, the value of life is negative, it is bad, which is why life is not choice-worthy. Take German pessimist philosopher Eduard von Hartmann. In his magnum opus The Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869) he states at the start of Book III that “the object of this chapter is to inquire whether the being or the non-being of this present world deserves the preference”. Not surprisingly for a pessimist, he ends up concluding that non-being is the preferable choice. And this final assessment is in line with all the German pessimists of the 19th century, including Schopenhauer, Philipp Mainländer, Julius Bahnsen, Agnes Taubert and Olga Plümacher.
While it has been over one hundred and fifty years since the publication of The Philosophy of the Unconscious, contemporary anti-natalists have recently once again taken up the question of life’s value, even if they do not directly engage with the preceding pessimist tradition. Still, the really interesting point here is that questions related to the goodness or badness of life have a long history, which can be traced as far back as the early Greeks and continues to live on today.
The myth of Silenus is an important historical reference point. The Greek philosopher Plutarch (45–120 CE) picks up on an encounter between Silenus and King Midas, narrated by Aristotle. In that encounter, Midas asked Silenus–whose reputation as a wise person was widely known–what was the best that a human could wish for. As Plutarch puts it,
Midas induced him to say something to him, Silenus, forced to speak, said: ‘Ephemeral offspring of a travailing genius and of harsh fortune, why do you force me to speak what it were better for you men not to know? For a life spent in ignorance of one’s own woes is most free from grief. But for men it is utterly impossible that they should obtain the best thing of all, or even have any share in its nature (for the best thing for all men and women is not to be born); however, the next best thing to this, and the first of those to which man can attain, but nevertheless only the second best, is, after being born, to die as quickly as possible.’ It is evident, therefore, that he made this declaration with the conviction that the existence after death is better than that in life
The idea that the best is to not have been and that the second best is an early death appears to be a common theme in Greek literature.[ii] . In addition to the passage from Plutarch quoted above, in the play Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles has the chorus exclaim something very similar: “Say what you will, the greatest boon is not to be; But, life begun, soonest to end is best, and to that bourne from which our way began, swiftly return”. [iii]
Questioning the value of life and whether or not existence is worthwhile can be, sometimes, a dangerous philosophical activity. The best example of this is demonstrated by the life of the one known as Hegesiais, The Death Persuader–an ominous sobriquet for a philosopher like perhaps no other. Hegesias lived in Alexandria in the third Century BC, and the only notes about his life available to us appear in Cicero’s book Tusculan Disputations. The description of Hegesias is a brief paragraph, but it is enough to give us an idea of what made him dangerous in the eyes of the political authorities of that time. According to Cicero,
“death takes us away from the bad, not the good. … Indeed the Cyrenaic Hegesias argued for this so eloquently that it is alleged he was forbidden by King Ptolemy to make those statements in his classes because many on hearing them committed suicide… There is a book by Hegesias entitled The Man Starving Himself to Death in which someone dying of self-starvation is called back by his friends, and in answer to them he enumerates the unpleasant aspects of human life. I could do the same, although less emphatically than he, for he thinks that living is to absolutely nobody’s advantage, whereas I say nothing about other people, only asking whether it is to my advantage.”
Ptolemy shut down Hegesias because his views were dangerous. Indeed, anyone claiming that life has no intrinsic value and that there is nothing obvious about defending and promoting existence is quickly looked upon with suspicion. For, it seems, if the pessimist is correct, then what? Are we to conclude that we should no longer respect life? Are we required to do anything about this? If life is so horrible, then why do we exist?
A common push-back against pessimists is to point out an apparent inconsistency between what they say and what they actually do. That is, they live. They live, while, at the same time, they denounce life. In this way, then, their claims about life not being choice-worthy are shown to be mistaken each day that they live, for they do in fact choose life. From a pessimist perspective, several answers are possible, none of which, however, will be considered in detail here. It is enough to point out that a good understanding of pessimism shows that compassion is an important consideration. As Plümacher said,
To the pessimist, who has learnt to look upon life from a philosophical point of view, his own death is indeed no evil (we say nothing here of the manner of death); the summons to quit the ranks of the great army of sufferers is welcome, if only it does not bring too great sorrow to others. The death of those we love is, however, at all times an evil. [v]
There is no room for encouraging death within pessimism. A better conclusion to draw from the pessimist tradition is that the value of life is not something obvious or so apparent that it does not require an elaborate philosophical defense. If anything, the challenge posed by pessimists is a challenge that should be addressed by those who are, a priori, inclined to defend the positive value of life. But not just my life or the life of those close to me; nor even only the life of all human beings, whether they are born into wealth or into poverty. For the pessimist, when the value of life is considered, we must also include all sentient life, including countless animals who have a miserable (and often brief) existence in nature, succumbing to predators and diseases, and the billions of others who are subjected to horrible conditions in the food industry. This is what needs to be evaluated. All of life. All of existence. And only then can we, perhaps, arrive at an answer to our question: Is life valuable?
Ultimately, showing that life is not necessarily something that should be promoted is a difficult task not least because it seems to go against deeply ingrained beliefs. Why do most people intuitively side with the argument that life is a good and that protecting humanity is the morally right thing to do? Why is this the default position? Is it because the arguments that pessimists have presented in favor of nonexistence are weak or unconvincing? Why do most people find it difficult or unpalatable to adopt the pessimist perspective on life? In the end, the strength or validity of the arguments themselves have likely only a limited influence on the answer. Indeed, complete and fully satisfactory answers to these questions are probably not only philosophical in nature. They, no doubt, include appeals to anthropology, sociology, psychology and, perhaps, even biology.
The philosophical pessimists, then, do not have an easy task ahead of them. In the end, many will resist the conclusion that nonexistence is preferable to existence. But, so long as the question regarding the value of life is posed and seriously considered, pessimism accomplishes what all great philosophy aspires toward. It helps us examine life itself.
[i] Eduard von Hartmann, Philosophy of the Unconscious, Routledge, 2010, p. 1
[ii] In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche also recalls this encounter between Silenus and King Midas. Faced with a barrage of questions from Midas, Silenus answers, “Miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second-best thing for you is to meet an early death.” (p. 27)
[iii] Sophocles, The Theban Plays, Penguin Classics, 1984, p. 109
[iv] Wallace I. Matson, “Hegesias the Death-Persuader; Or, the Gloominess of Hedonism.” Philosophy, vol. 73, no. 286, 1998, pp. 553–57, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3751954. Accessed 6 Apr. 2022, p. 553
[v] Olga Plümacher, “Pessimism.” Mind, vol. 4, no.13, 1879, p. 84