Buddhism as Pessimism

Journal of World Philosophies 6 (2):1-16 (2021)
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This paper defends the description of Buddhism—by Schopenhauer and many other nineteenth-century figures—as pessimistic. Pessimism, in the relevant sense, is a dark, negative judgment on the psychological, social, and moral condition of humankind and the prospects for its amelioration. After discussing texts in the Pali canon that provide prima facie support for the charge of pessimism, two familiar responses are considered. One emphasizes the positive aspects of the human condition recognized by the Buddha; the other emphasizes the prospect held out by him for the cessation of dukkha. It is argued that neither response is persuasive—not least because of a failure to appreciate the gulf between ordinary “worldling” existence and that of the arahant or enlightened person. A final section discusses the description of the arahant as “transcending the world” and the human condition. If correct, this supports the charge of pessimism. This is because pessimism is a claim about the human condition, about our being-in-the-world, and cannot therefore be refuted by the prospect of a mode of being that transcends this condition.



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