Tsanoff: Palante, pessimism and individualism

RADOSLAV TSANOFF — The object of this little book – Pessimisme et individualisme. Par Georges Palante (Paris, Félix Alcan, 1914) – is to trace a parallel between pessimism and individualism, to show that both arise from a sense of the insupportable pressure, disharmony, tyranny, hypocrisy, and futility of the social medium. With this aim in view, the writer subjects to a brief, but penetrating, analysis the several varieties of pessimism which he recognizes. Romantic pessimism (Obermann, René, Byron, Leopardi, Heine, Vigny, Schopenhauer) involves an anti-social despondence, radically individualistic. Historic pessimism, nostalgically retrospective, as in de Gobineau and Nietzsche, remains anti-social so long as it remains pessimistic, so long as it compares the disgusting present with the glorious past, Persian or Hellenic. It grows less individualistic as it grows more optimistic, in anticipating the future epoch of the superman. Misanthropic or realistic pessimism, born of a cynical acquaintance with human fraud and imbecility (Schopenhauer, Stirner, Swift, Voltaire, Stendhal, Mérimée, Taine, etc.) presupposes or engenders contemplative isolation: scorn for men involves separation from men. Irrationalism (Goethe, Schopenhauer, Maeterlinck, Bergson, Stirner, von Hartmann, Guyau, Rabelais, le Dantec, etc.) does not necessarily lead to individualism, nor even to pessimism. It is not always suffciently emotional to incite an anti-social revolt. But, if it does not conduce to positive individualism, it does result in a negative attitude towards social ends: irrationalistic nihilism is likely to express itself in a spectacular, ‘dilettanti’ individualism, sneering at the stupid, illogical world. Scientific pessimism, as the author labels the dissatisfaction resulting from the realization of the inevitable limits of scientific procedure (Jean Finot, Paul Bourget) cannot with certainty be said to have individualistic implications. Finally theological pessimism (Anatole France’s Les opinions de M. Jérome Coignard, Brunetière) is a recognition of the contrarieties of human nature, and depends to a certain degree on irrationalistic pessimism, leading in some cases to a similar social dilettantism.

Of all the varieties of pessimism analyzed by the author, the romantic seems most certainly to imply individualism. The more intellectualistic varieties are less certainly individualistic, but, M. Palante reminds us, they are also less genuinely pessimistic. The only true pessimism is the pessimism of sentiment, and that is why it is naturally accompanied by individualism(1).

  1. The Philosophical review, Vol. 23, 1914[]

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