Category Archives: pessimism

Summary of Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

Schopenhauer.jpg

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 main motivation, which Schopenhauer called will. This will is an aimless striving which can never be fully satisfied, hence life is essentially dissatisfaction. Moreover consciousness makes the situation worse, as conscious beings experience pain when thinking about past regrets and future fears.

He believed that desires cause suffering and, consequently, he favored asceticism—a lifestyle of negating desires or a denying the will similar to the teachings of Buddhism and Vedanta. In its most extreme form, asceticism leads to a voluntarily chosen death by starvation, the only form of suicide that is immune to moral critique according to Schopenhauer.

I have summarized and commented on his nihilism and pessimism in these previous posts:

Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, ‘On the Vanity of Existence’
Commentary on Schopenhauer’s ‘On the Vanity of Existence’
Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, “’On the Sufferings of the World’
Commentary on Schopenhauer’s ‘On the Sufferings of the World’

The above posts contain the most sustained defense of pessimism and nihilism of which I’m aware. In the very briefest sense, Schopenhauer claims that:

(1) existence is a mistake;
(2) there is no meaning or purpose to existence;
(3) the best thing for humans is non-existence;
(4) life is essentially suffering and suffering is evil;
(5) this is the worst of all possible worlds.

Of course Nietzsche argued that Schopenhauer’s view of the world says more about Schopenhauer than it does about the world. Moreover, Nietzsche wrote that Schopenhauer’s asceticism and denial of Will were self-defeating. For to will nothingness is still a willing. Schopenhauer was willing nothing, rather than not willing at all. Thus Nietzsche claimed that Schopenhauer advocates a kind of “romantic pessimism.” Schopenhauer desired or willed nothing so as to achieve tranquility and peace. In contrast, Nietzsche adopted a philosophy that said yes to life, fully cognizant of the fact that life is mostly miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd.

Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, “On the Vanity of Existence””

In “On the Vanity of Existence,” Schopenhauer argues that life’s futility:

is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists. Time and that perishability of all things existing in time that time itself brings about is simply the form under which the will to live, which as thing in itself is imperishable, reveals to itself the vanity of its striving. Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.[i]

The past is no longer real and thus “it exists as little as does that which has never been.”[ii] The present compares to the past as something does to nothing. We came from nothing after eons of time and will shortly return to nothing. Each moment of life is transitory and fleeting and quickly becomes the past—in other words, vanish into nothingness. The hourglass of our lives is slowly emptying. In response one might simply try to enjoy the present, but since the present so quickly becomes the past it “cannot be worth any serious effort.”[iii]

Existence rests in the fleeting present; it is thus always in motion, resembling “a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on… Thus existence is typified by unrest.”[iv] Such a life is one of striving continually for what can seldom be attained or what, when attained, quickly disappoints. We live life hurrying toward the future but also regretting what is past—while the present we regard as merely the way to the future. When looking back on our lives we find that they were not really enjoyed, but instead experienced as merely the way to the future. Our lives were all those present moments that seemed so impossible to enjoy.

What is life then? It is a task where we strive to sustain our lives and avoid boredom says Schopenhauer. Such a life is a mistake:

Man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, then there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. As things are, we take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something—in which case distance and difficulties make our goal look as if it would satisfy us (an illusion which fades when we reach it)—or when engaged in purely intellectual activity, in which case we are really stepping out of life so as to regard it from outside, like spectators at a play. Even sensual pleasure itself consists in a continual striving and ceases as soon as its goal is reached. Whenever we are not involved in one or other of these things but directed back to existence itself we are overtaken by its worthlessness and vanity and this is the sensation called boredom.[v]

That our will to live will eventually be extinguished is “nature’s unambiguous declaration that all the striving of this will is essentially vain. If it were something possessing value in itself, something which ought unconditionally to exist, it would not have non-being as its goal.”[vi] We begin our lives in the bodily desires of other persons and end as corpses.

And the road from the one to the other too goes, in regard to our well-being and enjoyment of life, steadily downhill: happily dreaming childhood, exultant youth, toil-filled years of manhood, infirm and often wretched old age, the torment of the last illness and finally the throes of death—does it not look as if existence were an error the consequences of which gradually grow more and more manifest?[vii]

Summary – The finitude of existence, the ephemeral nature of the present, the contingency of life, the non-existence of the past, the constancy of need, the experience of boredom, and, most importantly the inevitability of death, all lead to the conclusion that life is pointless.

Commentary

In focusing upon the movement of time Schopenhauer has zeroed in on a fundamental fact of life which may render it meaningless—the sense in which we can never be in the present and savor it, as life is always slipping through our grasp. I don’t think he is correct when he says that the past is no longer real—the present is partly the result of what happened in the past; the past is partly instantiated in the present. But he is correct that the present is ephemeral, disappears quickly, and much of it seems to vanish into nothingness. Enjoying the present is difficult for these very reasons. Life does hurry us along, and we are incapable of stopping its relentless march. Life is fleeting.

Schopenhauer is also correct that we do strive for successes to avoid boredom, but I think this says more about us than it does about life—life may not be boring, we may be! Those with rich and passionate inner lives find many things interesting. The fact that our striving can be so compelling to us suggests that life does not have to be boring; we may choose to make our lives interesting.

But Schopenhauer has a response to all this. All our striving is in vain because of death; the goal of our being is non-being. He may be mistaken that death implies that our lives have no value, but certainly they have less value because of death. If you honestly consider the trajectory of our lives from birth to infirmity and death—there is a vanity to life. In the end Schopenhauer’s analysis is fundamentally right: suffering, the transience of the present, the awareness of death, and fact of death, all detract from the possibility of a meaningful life. His case against meaningfulness is strong indeed. But that doesn’t mean its the end of the story.

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[i] Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 67.
[ii] Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” 67.
[iii] Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” 68.
[iv] Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” 68.
[v] Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” 69.
[vi] Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” 69-70.
[vii] Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” 70.

Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, “On the Sufferings of the World”


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 main 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 don’t consider what is really in store for us—life, aging, and death; (Of aging 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. Of his pessimism he says:

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 creator it is really 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 to 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.

Commentary

I think Schopenhauer’s philosophical insights are generally underrated by philosophers, which is in large part due to their supposed pessimism. They should be considered as a clarion call to look at life more realistically and improve it. Seen thus, his philosophy is not so pessimistic after all.

Schopenhauer is correct that suffering is real; philosophers who think it merely a privation of good are deceiving themselves. If we bring pain or evil to an end we experience happiness—surely this suggests that suffering is real. There is also something intuitive about the idea that the pleasure we look forward to often disappoints, whereas pain is often unendurable. How often have you looked forward to something whose reality disappointed? In Schopenhauer’s graphic image the pleasure of eating does not compare with the horror of being eaten. However, this comparison is unfair, since we eat many times and can only be eaten once—naturally eating a single time cannot compare in pleasure to the terror of being eaten. A better comparison would be a lifetime of eating versus one moment of being eaten. We can certainly imagine that one would opt for multiple culinary pleasures in exchange for being quickly eaten at some later time.

Schopenhauer’s idea that we are like lambs waiting to be slaughtered is an even more powerful image. We are sympathetic to the lambs, cows, and pigs as they await their fates, but ours is not much different. We typically wait longer for our death, and the field in which we are fenced may be larger and more interesting, but our end will be similar, even worse if we linger and suffer at the end of life. Just like the animals awaiting slaughter we too cannot escape. Surely there is some sense in which our impending death steals from the joy of life. We are all terminal, all in differing stages of the disease of aging which afflicts us. And this basic idea holds together his many images and ideas. We cannot stop time; we worry; we slowly realize many of our dreams will never be realized; and we recognize that each day we will grow older and more feeble, leading to an inevitable outcome. It may have been better if we had never existed at all.

It is this consciousness of suffering and death which makes human life worse than animal life, according to Schopenhauer. Yet this argument is not quite convincing, inasmuch as that same consciousness provides benefits for us as compared to non-human animals. So Schopenhauer’s argument is not completely convincing. Still, although he has not established that the life of the brute is better than that of the human, he has shown something quite powerful—it is not obvious that human animal life is better than non-human animal life. This is no small achievement and ought to be taken seriously. If this argument is correct, then humans should change their own nature if possible—by using their emerging technologies.

Schopenhauer is also correct that non-human animal suffering is hard to reconcile with Christian theism, as generations of Christian apologists have discovered. Moreover, his Stoic response to the evils of the world is commendable, as is his call for tolerance for the foibles of our fellow travelers. In the end, Schopenhauer is right: the sufferings of the world count strongly against its meaningfulness, even if not definitively so.

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[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.