It could be argued that the terms of this question areloaded with presumption that it is pessimistic by default. Early scholarshipregarding this text ascribed the name, as the text can be interpreted to bepessimistic primafacie.
However I feel the given name of this text, by which it is commonly knowntoday, contains a loaded presupposition that this work couldn’t be other than ableak outlook on life. Therefore I will challenge whether this text is trulypessimistic at all, let alone if it deserves to be presumptively placed on ascale of pessimism, which this question certainly suggests. I instead favourthe view that this is a “satirical dialogue” as Foster puts it1,although I still recognise there are moments in this text which run throughout thatseem like pessimism. I however feel this serves a satirical point, rather thana truly philosophical claim. The Dialogueof Pessimismis an Akkadian cuneiform text written approximately in the twelfth century BC.The dialogue takes place (within roughly ten stanzas) between a master and hisservant; each stanza begins with the same back and forth where the mastersummons the slave, “Servant, listen to me!” and the servant always replying,”Yes, master, yes!”2.In every stanza the master makes a different request, which the servantimmediately seems to support; however as suddenly as each request is made, themaster rejects the idea entirely leading the servant to also denounce thenotion. The requests range from wishing to “drive to the palace” (I.
2), todesiring to “make a household” with a wife and children (IV(a).31), to wishingto sacrifice (VII). In each instance the master reverses his intentions, and sothe servant then provides support for such a reversal. A moment where suchrhetorical reversal can be seen directly is in the third stanza, where themaster wishes to drive in the open plain. The servant then immediately lists inpoetic allegory instances where the open wanderer reaps benefits: the roamingman is said to have a “full stomach” (III.
19), the roving dog “cracks open thebone” (III.20), the roaming bird will “find a nesting place” (III.20-21) andthe wandering ram has “all the grass he wants” (III.21). However when themaster decides he will not drive, the servant uses the same schtick again butin reverse.
We are told that the roaming man “loses his reason” (III.25), theroving dog “breaks his teeth” (III.25), the roaming bird puts its nest in a wall(III.25-6) and this time it is the wild “ass” who in fact lives in the open(III.27).
As a piece of rhetoric the servant has taken the same framework (theman, the dog, the bird and the wild animal) and reversed it completely to suitthe new intentions of their master. The constant oscillating betweendemand-support and rejection-discouragement is where I find most of the humourof this text comes from. The consistent indecision of the master combined withthe disingenuous counsel of the servant reminds me very much of therelationship between the Prince Regent and Blackadder. For Spieser therelationship was similar to Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves3.It can be easy to read this relationship as more similar to a dictator and hissycophantic slave full of obsequious succor. I feel however the relationshipshows a master who can find no joy in life and so is indifferent, and a servantwho similarly is indifferent with their life gratifying an apathetic master. Ifind this indifference with life to be in the vein of dark comedy and satire,which I shall explore in more depth later.
However, many take the view thatthis indifference is rather pessimism and to be taken more seriously. Søren Kierkegaard, widely regarded as the founder ofexistential philosophy, wrote about the futility of life in much the same waythe author of the Dialogueof Pessimismseemingly views life as meaningless. In Either/Or Kierkegaard claims “howempty life is and without meaning”4;he even hints at advocating suicide with “why not finish it at once?”5given how long, tedious and repetitive life is, filled with routine and scoredby death. Moreover, in his paradoxically titled chapter An EcstaticLecture Kierkegaarddiscusses whatever action we do or do not do, we will regret it. For instance,”If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regretit.”6In summary we are told if we laugh and weep over the world’s follies, we willcome to regret both. Many scholars have come to see a connection between Kierkegaard’sexistentialism and the seemingly apathetic attitude towards life shown by boththe master and the servant of the Dialogue of Pessimism. As Kierkegaard holds that anydecision will cause regret, similarly the master sees no joy in the suggestionshe makes, and just as spontaneously retreats from the idea.
Some see thisoverlap as strong evidence that the Dialogue of Pessimism is pessimistic in the portrayal oflife as empty of meaning, with each stanza being a decision that breeds regretand ultimately ends in death. In the ninth stanza, when the master inevitablyrejects the notion of doing a good deed, the servant makes a suggestion back tothe master:Go up on the ancientruin heaps and walk around, look at the skulls of the lowly and the great.Which was the doer of evil, and which was the doer of good deeds?(IX.
75-8)7Here we see on thesurface a grim picture, filled with reminders of the inevitability of death,the “ruin heaps” and the parade of “skulls”. What seems particularly grim isthe ambiguity between the skulls that belong to either good or bad men. Thisambiguity means two things: the inevitability of death for all men (good andbad) and thus, retrospectively, the indifference of moral agency. One couldeven go so far as to suggest the Nietzschean familiarity of this apathy towardsgood and evil shown in this stanza. Furthermore, in the final tenth stanza theservant suggests as a closing proposal the idea of mutual suicide, “to break myneck and your neck and throw (us) in the river is good” (X.81-2).
This resortto suicide seems again like the most pessimistic ending possible, and oneKierkegaard could support as a philosopher who saw the attraction of suicide.The final line of the text in the tenth stanza has sparked much controversyamong scholarly debate. After being told that the master will kill the servantfirst, the servant replies, “then my master will certainly not outlive me eventhree days!” (X. 85-6). Some take this to be an amusing punchline showing howdependent the master is on his servant, that he could not live without them.Others interpret that the master could only last three days simply existing insuch a meaningless life before ending it all. I believe that it could be both,and that both are darkly comic; and even though the humour is morbid, thesign-off is still in comic light (or comic shade) and is not intended todepress.
Jacobsen held the view that the Dialogue of Pessimism was driven by a”scepticism toward all values” and displayed “utter negation of the possibilityof a ‘good life’.”8One striking example is when the servant describes the terrible fate at thehands of a woman, describing her repeatedly as a “pitfall” and comparing her toan “iron dagger” across a man’s throat (VI.52-3). This is an extreme view thatthe possibility of marriage and love can only ever end in tragic downfall, painor death. One can draw another connection between this interpretation of thistext and Kierkegaard again, who attacked the pillars of society in an attemptto uproot our attachments to values. Kierkegaard also spoke much on thestruggle to balance incompatible choices, such as a career and a household,much like how this text is a constant struggle between choices. Therefore,Kierkegaard and Jacobsen both provide further evidence for a pessimisticreading of the Dialogue of Pessimism by showing how itattacks the values and comments on the futility of life where no decision canever be balanced.
I ask however: isn’t that the entire nature of satire also?To criticise the values society coddles through humour that isclose-to-the-bone? The description of the appalling punishments that await adishonest man are, out of the context of the stanza, horrifying and macabre(including being “executed”, “skinned alive” or “blinded” (V.44-5)). Yet Ithink the fact these terrible fates come as a final “afterthought” following avery flimsy reason to be dishonest (such as knowing what to wear), is comic.
The juxtaposition of minor positive with unthinkable negative is a work of comicshrewdness: the content may be macabre and pessimistic, but it serves as apunchline that satirises the extremity to which ancient Mesopotamian cultureheld the value of honesty. It also serves to show the apathy of both the masterand slave towards life by even bothering to weigh up any positive with suchabominable negatives. This is why I think that the Dialogue of Pessimism is a piece of satiricalgenius, rather than a pessimistic outlook on life. The pessimistic contentserves to make a satirical point in reflecting bizarre human attachment tovalues, and also shows the futility of circular arguments and indecision, notjust the futility of life. I mentioned earlier how the servant was more like aBlackadder, more cunning and dry than a stereotype of an ingratiating familiar.I get this impression from what Spieser has observed, that the servant appearsto be recycling rhetoric in his replies. As I mentioned, stanza three shows theservant backpedaling his argument using the same oratory they proposed insupport of their master’s suggestion.
Likewise the seemingly grim portrait ofthe ruin heaps and skulls is drawn from The Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet eleven:Go up, Urshanabi, ontothe wall of Uruk and walk around. Examine its foundation.(XI.303)This intertextualallusion to Gilgamesh suggests that theservant’s replies are not pieces of original philosophical advice, but ratheras Spieser says the servant deals in “clichés and copybook maxims” and citing”familiar sayings”9.In my view, this is more than just a nod to a vastly popular text and adage:this shows that the servant provides very little original insight, and thususes popular sayings to frame his responses.
This could be because the servanthimself is unoriginal; however, given the servant’s quick-witted riposte in thetext’s final line to their master, I believe the servant is a lot more astutethan the master gives credit. I like to think that the servant is is themselvesso utterly bored with such an indecisive and petty master, often they respondwith a common saying than bothering to provide any useful or persuasivearguments, certainly in the instances of stanzas three and nine. In conclusion, I feel it is unjust for this text to becalled the Dialogueof Pessimism,as I see it more to be a bleak but hilarious piece of satire, where the outlookis not so much pessimistic, but criticises values, relationships andphilosophy. The dialogue doesn’t fully evoke despair for the futility of life,despite the grim imagery and the repetitive cycle of the conversation. Rather,in my opinion, the juxtaposition of the negative with slight optimism serves todemonstrate how constantly we struggle with decisions from the mundane to thefatal. This struggle for balance in life can be read as Kierkegaardian, andthere is plenty of ground for that.
I prefer to read the text less as anexistential dialogue, but a satirical work that demonstrates human indecisionand apathy, which is achieved through glib reference to the macabre, and theuse of the very understated servant who ultimately ends the text on a wittytwist. The piece cannot be called pessimistic, as satire seeks to awaken anddelight an audience, not depress it. One name for this text is the Dialogue ofPessimism;Spieser called it theCase of the Obliging Servant.I would rather it was theSatire of Values.1 Foster, p.130.2 Foster, p.130-2.3 Spieser, p.105.4 Kierkegaard, p.48.5 Keirkegaard, p.49.6 Kierkegaard, p.54.7 Foster, p.132.8 Jacobsen, p.231.9 Spieser, p.105.