Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher known for his atheism and pessimism—in fact he is the most prominent pessimist in the entire western philosophical tradition. Schopenhauer’s most influential work, The World as Will and Representation, examines the role of humanity’s most basic motivation, which Schopenhauer called will. His analysis led him to the conclusion that emotional, physical, and sexual desires cause suffering and can never be fulfilled; consequently he favored a lifestyle of negating desires, similar to the teachings of Buddhism and Vedanta. Schopenhauer influenced many thinkers including Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Einstein, and Freud.
In “On the Sufferings of the World” (1851), Schopenhauer boldly claims: “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.”[i] In other words suffering and misfortune are the general rule in life, not the exception. Contradicting what many philosophers had stated previously, Schopenhauer argued that evil is a real thing, with goodness being the lack of evil. We can see this by considering that happiness or satisfaction always imply some state of pain or unhappiness being brought to an end; and by the fact that pleasure is not generally as pleasant as we expect, while pain much worse than imagined. To those who claim that pleasure outweighs pain or that the two balance out, he asks us “to compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.”[ii] And he quickly follows with another powerful image: “We are like lambs in the field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who choose out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil Fate may have in store for us—sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason.”[iii]
Schopenhauer continues by offering multiple ideas and images meant to bring the reality of human suffering to the fore: a) that time marches on and we cannot stop it—it stops only when we are bored; b) that we spend most of life working, worrying, suffering, and yet even if all our wishes were fulfilled, we would then either be bored or desire suicide; c) in youth we have high hopes but that is because we do not consider what is really in store for us—life, aging, and death. Of our old age Schopenhauer says: “It is bad today, and it will be worse tomorrow; and so on till the worst of all.”[iv] d) it would be much better if the earth were lifeless like the moon; life interrupts the “blessed calm” of non-existence; f) if two persons who were friends in youth met in old age, they would feel disappointed in life merely by the sight of each other; they will remember when life promised so much, in youth, and yet delivered so little; g) “If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist?”[v] Schopenhauer argues that we should not impose the burden of existence on children. He describes his pessimism thus:
I shall be told … that my philosophy is comfortless—because I speak the truth; and people preferred to be assured that everything the Lord has made is good. Go to the priests, then, and leave the philosophers in peace … do not ask us to accommodate our doctrines to the lessons you have been taught. That is what those rascals of sham philosophers will do for you. Ask them for any doctrine you please, and you will get it.[vi]
Schopenhauer also argues that non-human animals are happier than human beings, since happiness is basically freedom from pain. The essence of this argument is that the bottom line for both human and non-human animals is pleasure and pain which has as it basis the desire for food, shelter, sex, and the like. Humans are more sensitive to both pleasure and pain, but have much greater passion and emotion regarding their desires. This passion results from human beings ability to reflect upon the past and future, leaving them susceptible to both ecstasy and despair. Humans try to increase their happiness with various forms of luxury as well as desiring honor, other persons praise, and intellectual pleasures. But all of these pleasures are accompanied by the constant increased desire and the threat of boredom, a pain unknown to the brutes. Thought in particular creates a vast amount of passion, but in the end all of the struggling is for the same things that non-human animals attain—pleasure and pain. But humans, unlike the animals, are haunted by the constant specter of death, a realization which ultimately tips the scale in favor of being a brute. Furthermore, non-human animals are more content with mere existence, with the present moment, than are humans who constantly anticipate future joys and sorrows.
And yet animals suffer. What is the point of all their suffering? You cannot claim that it builds their souls or results from their free will. The only conclusion we should come to is “that the will to live, which underlies the whole world of phenomena, must, in their case satisfy its cravings by feeding upon itself.”[vii] Schopenhauer argues that this state of affairs—pointless evil—is consistent with the Hindu notion that Brahma created the world by a mistake, or with the Buddhist idea that the world resulted from a disturbance of the calm of nirvana, or even with the Greek notion of the world and gods resulting from fate. But the Christian idea that a god was happy with the creation of all this misery is unacceptable. Two things make it impossible for any rational person to believe the world was created by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being: 1) the pervasiveness of evil; and 2) imperfection of human beings. Evil is an indictment of such a creator but since there is no such creator it is ultimately an indictment of reality and of ourselves.
Schopenhauer continues: “If you want a safe compass to guide you through life, and to banish all doubt as to the right way of looking at it, you cannot do better than accustom yourself to regard this world as a penitentiary, a sort of penal colony.”[viii] He claims this is the view of Origen, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Cicero, as well as Brahmanism and Buddhism. Human life is so full of misery that if there are invisible spirits they must have become human to atone for their crimes.
If you accustom yourself to this view of life you will regulate your expectations accordingly, and cease to look upon all its disagreeable incidents … as anything unusual or irregular; nay, you will find everything is as it should be, in a world where each of us pays the penalty of existence in [their] own particular way.[ix]
Ironically there is a benefit to this view of life; we no longer need look upon the foibles of our fellow men with surprise or indignation. Instead we ought to realize that these are our faults too, the faults of all humanity and reality. This should lead to pity for our fellow sufferers in life. Thinking of the world as a place of suffering where we all suffer together reminds us of “the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor, of which everyone stands in need, and which, therefore, every [person] owes to [their] fellows.”[x]
Summary – Schopenhauer thinks life, both individually and as a whole, is meaningless, primarily because of the fact of suffering. It would be better if there was nothing. Given this situation, the best we can do is to extend mercy to our fellow sufferers.
[i] Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 45.
[ii] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 45.
[iii] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 45.
[iv] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 46.
[v] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 47.
[vi] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 47.
[vii] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 50.
[viii] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 52.
[ix] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 53.
[x] Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World,” 54.