Commentary on Schopenhauer’s “On the Sufferings of the World”

I think Schopenhauer’s philosophical insights are generally underrated by philosophers, which is in large part due to their supposed pessimism. (I discussed Schopenhauer in yesterday’s post.) 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 it seems is what 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 opposed 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 from an animal one 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 correct in his essential message: the sufferings of the world count strongly against its meaningfulness, even if not definitively so.

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