Pessimism and Pandeism: Philipp Mainländer on the Death of God
Philipp Mainländer (1841–1876) was a German poet and philosopher, born in Offenbach, Germany. He was a disciple of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy and one of the patron saints of 19th-century German pessimism (other notable figures belonging to this curious philosophical trend include Eduard von Hartmann and Julius Bahnsen). Unlike these other pessimists, though, he had quite a unique theory about why the universe came into existence. It is a theory that can be classed as a kind of pessimistic pandeism.
Pandeism refers to the idea that the creator of the universe became the universe through the act of creation, ceasing to exist as a conscious and separate entity. This theological doctrine combines elements of deism (God created the universe and its natural laws and then ‘stepped back’, letting things run their course, without interfering) and pantheism (God is everything, i.e. nature or the universe in its totality). Pandeism seeks to explain how the universe began and why God appears absent in it. Like deism, pandeism lacks a belief in a personal God that should be worshipped, and in line with pantheism, pandeism holds that God is immanent, all-encompassing, and impersonal but not transcendent, which is the theistic notion that God exists above and independent from the universe.
In this piece, I want to specifically focus on an intriguing myth of creation that Mainländer formulated in The Philosophy of Redemption (1876), which is pandeistic in nature.
Philipp Mainländer: A Patron Saint of German Pessimism
While Schopenhauer’s posthumous public recognition in the 1860s helped to popularise philosophical pessimism in Germany and gain followers, his pessimism was still passionately contested and critiqued, by philosophers like Eugen Dühring. The philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer and his followers entailed the essential belief that life is not worth living, which Mainländer certainly ascribed to, but Dühring counteracted this general belief with an optimism that we can increase the happiness of the greatest number through science and redistribution. Mainländer, like Dühring, was a socialist, but he did not think that socialism could ever do away with the problem of human suffering.
Mainländer’s central work, The Philosophy of Redemption, stands out as one of the defining texts of philosophical pessimism in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. The philosopher Theodor Lessing has said it is “perhaps the most radical system of pessimism known to philosophical literature”. Yet in spite of this, the work has still never been translated into English, although Christian Romuss, a graduate from the University of Queensland, has supposedly been working on an official translation since 2016. There does exist an incomplete and unofficial translation, which provides Anglophone readers with some of the core ideas of Mainländer’s philosophy.
We can also understand his philosophy from secondary sources, including Frederick C. Beiser’s Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860–1900, which explores the flourishing of — and opposition to — pessimism in 19th century Germany. Weltschmerz is an interesting German term that translates to “world weariness” or “world pain” — it stands for this feeling of weariness, melancholy, and despair about the world as it is or the human condition. It is a depression related to the comparison of an ideal state with the actual state of the world; in the words of Oliver Burkeman, weltschmerz springs “from seeing that things could and should be better”.
We can clearly see the sentiment of weltschmerz expressed in The Philosophy of Redemption, as well as in the defining works of the other influential German pessimists. The horror fiction writer Thomas Ligotti also expounds the ideas of Mainländer in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a work of non-fiction that conveys Ligotti’s highly pessimistic worldview and his antinatalism (the philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth and which calls on us to refrain from procreating). Philosophers such as Emil Cioran and Peter Wessel Zapffe have also inspired Ligotti’s bleak and hopeless picture of the human condition.
In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti describes Mainländer’s myth of creation as follows:
Mainländer was confident that the Will-to-die he believed would well up in humanity had been spiritually grafted into us by a God who, in the beginning, masterminded His own quietus. It seems that existence was a horror to God. Unfortunately, God was impervious to the depredations of time. This being so, His only means to get free of Himself was by a divine form of suicide.
God’s plan to suicide himself could not work, though, as long as He existed as a unified entity outside of space-time and matter. Seeking to nullify His oneness so that He could be delivered into nothingness, he shattered Himself — Big Bang-like — into the time-bound fragments of the universe, that is, all those objects and organisms that have been accumulating here and there for billions of years. In Mainländer’s philosophy, “God knew that he could change from a state of super-reality into non-being only through the development of a real world of multiformity.” Employing this strategy, He excluded Himself from being. “God is dead,” wrote Mainländer, “and His death was the life of the world.” Once the great individuation had been initiated, the momentum of its creator’s self-annihilation would continue until everything became exhausted by its own existence, which for human beings meant that the faster they learned that happiness was not as good as they thought it would be, the happier they would be to die out.
Rather than resist our end, as Mainländer concludes, we will come to see that “the knowledge that life is worthless is the flower of all human wisdom.” Elsewhere the philosopher states, “Life is hell, and the sweet still night of absolute death is the annihilation of hell.”
Here we see just how pessimistic Mainländer’s version of pandeism is. The will-to-die that Ligotti refers to is Mainländer’s idea that ingrained in humans is the wish for annihilation — we inherit desire wish from the pre-cosmic God, the infinite unity that had the primordial wish to stop existing. God apparently couldn’t bear its existence anymore, perhaps bored with omniscience or tortured by eternity. For Mainländer, God was propelled towards suicide by the knowledge that non-being is better than being. In this gloomy creation myth, God had one single deed and that was its suicide (or deicide: the killing of a god). Everything in the universe is the remnant of this deific self-sacrifice, but rather than see the universe and human existence as precious, beautiful, and sacred vestiges of God, Mainländer thought that everything we see around us is simply part of God’s decaying corpse, and driven towards a desired state of extinction.
Interestingly, this myth of divine suicide seems to correspond somewhat with the scientific concept of cosmic entropy (with entropy referring to how disordered a system is). Based on the second law of thermodynamics, cosmic entropy will always increase over time, and many physicists believe this implies the universe will eventually end in a ‘heat death’, in which everything is at the same temperature, a state that physicists refer to as maximum entropy. All matter decays in a heat death scenario, yet particles and radiation would still remain, so it is not clear if this would count as the complete self-annihilation that Mainländer had in mind.
We can see how Mainländer diverges from Schopenhauer since his idea of the will-to-die is the opposite of Schopenhauer’s will-to-life (which posits that all living beings have this intrinsic and unstoppable desire to preserve their life and further propagate life through the act of procreation). Schopenhauer’s pessimism arises from the fact that we endlessly pursue desires and goals with the will-to-life in mind but this striving never brings us lasting happiness. While Mainländer shares Schopenhauer’s pessimism about human well-being, he differs in that the intrinsic force he believes driving humans — the will-to-die — is our salvation. In The Philosophy of Redemption, Mainländer describes the will-to-die — implied by his pessimistic pandeism — as follows:
In the heart of things, the immanent Philosopher sees in the entire cosmos only the deepest longing for complete extinction; it is as if he heard clearly the call that pierces all the celestial spheres: Redemption! Redemption! Death to our Life! and the cheering reply: you all will find extinction and will be redeemed!
But for Mainländer the implications of his pessimistic pandeism did not mean we should patiently wait for extinction in the form of the slow and gradual decay of the universe; he genuinely believed that liberation could be found in the act of suicide. He therefore subscribed to pro-mortalism: the belief that it is always better to die and cease existing than to continue living. And so, staying true to his beliefs, he took his life at the age of 34, using a pile of his newly published magnum opus to hang himself. However, it would be simplistic to see this as being a purely ‘philosophical suicide’, a natural extension of his philosophical pessimism or a sober and rational decision. As a matter of fact, he had a mental breakdown soon after he had finished writing The Philosophy of Redemption, and prior to hanging himself, he complained to his sister about being “exhausted” and “ineffably tired”. Based on his philosophical outlook and life struggles, the influence of a mood disorder like depression on his suicide is a possible and obvious explanation.
Alternative Forms of Pandeism
Mainländer’s creation myth is like the Book of Genesis revamped as a cosmic horror story. But this philosopher’s pandeism is unique. Other pandeists do not see God’s transformation (and disappearance) into the universe in such a pessimistic way as Mainländer, who believed that God became the universe because this supreme being was aiming for non-existence. However, many alternative accounts do suppose that God became the universe due to boredom with its existence, or out of curiosity. One interesting version of pandeism can be found in the 2001 novella God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment, written by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, the well-known satirical comic strip.
In this novella and thought experiment, Adams lays out his theory of pandeism, stating that God annihilated himself in the Big Bang. Adams argues that an omnipotent and omniscient God would already have and know everything and:
For that reason he would be unmotivated to do anything or create anything. There would be no purpose to act in any way whatsoever. But a God who had one nagging question — what happens if I cease to exist? — might be motivated to find the answer in order to complete his knowledge…The fact that we exist is proof that God is motivated to act in some way. And since only the challenge of self-destruction could interest an omnipotent God, it stands to reason that we…are God’s debris.
A pre-cosmic and omniscient God would know everything, except its non-existence, and so God wanted to find out what that would be like, but of course, once the act was completed, there could be no knowledge of the change. When God became nature, nature inevitably forgot it was God. All that was left was God’s amnesiac debris, which Adams defines as primordial matter and the law of probability (of course, he refers to us as God’s debris because primordial matter and probability eventually led to our existence).
Alan Watts also discussed the idea of God becoming bored and — in seeking out new and interesting experiences — decided to play the game of forgetting it was God. Nonetheless, Watts was not necessarily promoting a pandeistic theory of the universe since he believed in pantheism, the idea that God was still present everywhere, and that we’re all God pretending not to be God. But we can imagine how God’s desire for novel experiences could equally take the form of divine suicide, perhaps because God would have the foreknowledge of eventually becoming human or some other kind of intelligence, which would offer a range of limited experiences that it was unable to experience in its previous state of absolute unity, infinitude, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. Perhaps God was interested in what it would be like to live as different incarnations.
While the concept of pandeism is not as widely known as deism and pantheism, it does, nonetheless, have a rich history. The notion of God becoming the universe, of the One being divided into the Many, and the world being formed from the substance of a dead deity is an ancient idea. Pandeism can be found in Babylonian, Norse, Chinese, and Polynesian mythologies. Many other thinkers throughout history have also adopted a pandeistic worldview, including the cosmological theorist Giordano Bruno. Furthermore, some theologians have defended the idea of pandeism, although Christian thinkers generally (and understandably) think of it as being incompatible with the core principles of Christianity. Yet perhaps no version of pandeism would be more incompatible with Christianity than Mainländer’s. In fact, his pessimistic pandeism is probably antithetical to most worldviews, beliefs, and values — you would be hard-pressed to find many agreeing with Mainländer’s extreme brand of pessimism.
While I don’t think of Mainländer’s pessimistic pandeism as a believable theory about the origin and nature of the universe, I can still appreciate it in an allegorical or metaphorical sense, as a way of describing the birth of the universe and its natural unfolding. This grim and morbidly fascinating creation myth illustrates how pessimism can go beyond the extreme, and take on cosmic proportions.