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The Relation of Pessimism to Ultimate Philosophy

WHEN IN A pessimistic, melancholy state, we are going through a mild version of a major mental disorder: depression. Depression is pessimism writ large, and to understand pessimism, a subtle phenomenon, it helps to look at the expanded, exaggerated font. This is the technique used by author and illustrator David Macaulay to show us how small everyday devices work.

In one of his best-selling books, for example, he shows us how a wristwatch functions by drawing the mechanisms of an immense, vastly expanded watch, all of whose parts are big and easily distinguishable, and walking us through the insides. A study of depression similarly illuminates pessimism. Depression is worth studying in its own right, but it also has a great deal to reveal to people who are concerned merely with the mindset we call pessimism.

Test Your Depression

I want you now to take a widely used test for depression, developed by Lenore Raddle off at the Center for Epidemiological Studies of the National Institute of Mental Health. This test, called the CES-D (Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression), covers all the symptoms of depression. Circle the answer which best describes how you have felt over the past week

During the past week

I did not feel like eating; my appetite was poor.

o Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day).

I some or a little of the time (1-2 days). THE QUEST

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days).

3 Most or all of the time (5-7 days).

This test is easy to score. Add up the numbers you circled for the questions. If you couldn’t decide and circled two numbers for the same question, count only the higher of the two. Your score will be between 0 and 60. Before interpreting your score, you should know that getting a high score is not equivalent to a diagnosis of depression.

To be diagnosed as suffering a “major depressive episode” you must have five of the following nine symptoms:

  1. Depressed mood
  2. Loss of interest in usual activities
  3. Loss of appetite
  4. Insomnia
  5. Psychomotor retardation (slow thought or movement)
  6. Loss of energy
  7. Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  8. Diminished ability to think and poor concentration
  9. Suicidal thought or action

Sophie was a good example of someone suffering a major depressive episode. She had six of the nine symptoms, lacking only suicidal thoughts, psychomotor retardation, and insomnia

Last word

I think this belief is at the heart of our national epidemic of depression. The modern self must be more susceptible to learned helplessness, to an ever-growing conviction that nothing one does matters.

This all sounds pretty bleak. Yet there is also a hopeful side, and this is where explanatory style becomes important.

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