A Spectrum of Misery

A little while ago, I wrote a short article about Thomas Ligotti’s book on nihilism and H. P. Lovecraft for the Finnish philosophy journal niin & näin. It should be published in the next issue. Usually I put the piece out of my mind as soon as I submit it, but something about this one stuck with me.

Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010) seemed to skip over skepticism, pessimism, cynicism and cross over to nihilism. At least that was my unacknowledged little hierarchy of -isms that I used to read him. What I did not make clear in the article was that I do categorize and file away authors according to whether they think like skeptics, pessimists, cynics or nihilists. What the actual qualities are that make someone fall into these categories is not quite clear. It is perhaps the forcefulness of their doubt. Skeptics and Pyrrhonists doubt relatively reasonably, pessimists doubt that there is no reason to attempt anything but doubting, cynics do nothing but doubt and the nihilists’ doubt is transcendental. Or perhaps the spectrum could be organized according to hope: little hope, very little hope, no hope, the negation of hope itself. Or it could be organized according to belief, certainty, motivation or reasonableness. Ligotti’s book is somewhere at the bottom end, whatever the scale is or how it really functions.

I usually reach for Richard Popkin’s History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (2003) when I start to think about my favourite miserable philosophers. Popkin’s book is probably the best account of the history of skepticism, and it’s also quite clever. He thinks of Descartes, for example, as the “conqueror of skepticism” instead of the man who founded western philosophy on a ridiculously overamplified doubt about everything. By doing what he did after his skepticism had been inflated to absurd proportions, Descartes saved western thought from imploding. Or that’s what Popkin thought. We may need another conqueror fairly soon for our postmodern irony-saturated culture. This time we need someone to save us from nihilism, but it is very difficult to bet on a nihilist to do anything that would serve common ends. Ligotti does what he does brilliantly and it is difficult to read the book without being entertained by his bleak philosophy, but he’s probably not our man.

Because the book is so entertaining, I came to think the supreme quality of my spectrum of misery may in fact be aesthetic. To categorize philosophers as either skeptics, pessimists, cynics or nihilists by using beauty as a tool of measurement sounds too strange to work, but it’s the best answer I’ve come up with thus far. There is beauty in the destruction of thought. It is like a dance that pulverizes the edifices erected by the reader in order to protect himself or herself from the world. After they are gone, the philosopher takes a bow, leaves the stage and he or she is left with nothing. That’s the one thing I now regret: I wish I could have found a way to say his book was beautiful.

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