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.
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 strive for success 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 can choose to live interesting lives.
But Schopenhauer has a response. All our striving is in vain because we die; 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. So Schopenhauer’s analysis is fundamentally right: suffering, the transience of the present, the awareness of death, and the fact of death, all detract from the possibility of a meaningful life. His case against meaningfulness is strong, but that doesn’t mean its the end of the story.
For more see my entries: “Schopenhauer on Hope,” “Schopenhauer’s Pessimism,” and “Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, On the Sufferings of the World.”
[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.
19 thoughts on “Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, “On the Vanity of Existence”””
Ugh. Didn’t need that reminder today. 🙂
You’re probably right. One of my colleagues from Belgium says we should leave the nihilism for academic consideration and emphasize the more positive ideas.
Great series of posts. I started reading this blog with your post on nihilism and I love how you’re starting with Schopenhauer. I think he was truly an insightful philosopher.
I don’t know how much I agree with your last comment though. I feel like nihilism is in the air of our times. It’s no longer just an academic consideration. Think about all the zombie movies and inspirational stories about people’s quest for meaning. I know Nietzsche predicted that this was gonna be the problem we’d have to wrestle with in the 20th century. I feel that it’s positive if everyone is working with this though. I know Nietzsche thought that we can push through by re-evaluating our values.
“The inevitability of death…”
I’m not so sure. From my perspective, the most straightforward interpretation of quantum indeterminacy is branching universes. Everything that CAN happen, DOES happen, along divergent timelines.
Since consciousness is the perception of continuity, and there is always SOME way to remain conscious a moment longer, then from the internal perspective we are each immortal. This doesn’t guarantee a lack of suffering, but it does imply the futility of suicide. Indeed, attempting suicide just INCREASES the chances of future suffering, since there are many more ways to partially annihilate the brain than avoid any lasting damage from a failed attempt.
The best option we have, in my view, is to place our brains in cryogenic storage when the time is right, and see if we awake in cybernetic utopia.
Again, no guarantees, since anything that CAN happen DOES happen.
I agree about cryonics. It is our best chance.
“… nihilism is in the air of our time …”
Most certainly, which is why I suggested after John’s initial post for this arc that he look into the Adult Swim show “Rick and Morty”. Its protagonists operate in a universe where everything that can happen will happen, and therefore all intentions are futile, and life is meaningless. It’s great fun!
Schopenhauer must have been bemused by wizened but happy old people. And to think of such geriatric folk as both “self-actualized” (in the Maslow sense if that’s even possible) and nontheist would perhaps puzzle him even more?
I disagree. I believe there is a meaning to life. Just because you don’t know the answer to a big question mark floating around inside our minds and out of it does not mean there is not an answer. Arthur Schopenhauer would philosophize and devoted his life to share his nihilistic ideas which is a paradox in stating that life has no meaning.
I appreciate your comments Natalie. Thanks.
Life, for me, is an experience without an explanation.
I give my life meaning by creating a myth.
My myth is now.
Would you share yours?
Still, I value you.
As was said in a harrowing section of a certain Good Book, “let us hear the end of the whole matter”;
Man hands misery on to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf
Get the FUCK out as soon as you can,
DON’T HAVE ANY KIDS YOURSELF!!!
I chosed not to have children and certainly I wouldn’t want to live every possible human lives… but the sad fact is that we have no control over reality so that our decisions are more or less irrelevant. Whatever the reason that lead to this existence, we have no clue to determine if it’s gonna come again and again. The sheer size of the universe is also testimony to the fact that life might exist somewhere else… and if that multiverse thing is true, if a large quantity of “possibles” actually do exist, then… we are in Hell, somehow…. Only a God can save us, said Heidegger.
It may be correct that “we have no control over reality” but that does NOT imply “that our decisions are more or less irrelevant” because we still have some INFLUENCE as to the course reality takes. This may be a small consolation, but it is one nonetheless. And it can give us hope for the future.
I am 94 and have been reading Schopenhauer for 70 years since I first encountered him in a book by Copleston. His philosophy strikes home as the unwelcome truth about human existence.
If we are, as the scientists tell us, mere vehicles and temporary containers of DNA molecules. rather than Kantian ends in ourselves, it is no wonder that the vehicles can never be happy.
Schopenhauer admired Leopardi and Hume as kindred spirits, and his beautiful way with words is a constant pleasure in my old age.
what an insightful comment. as for old age, Adam Smith described Hume’s death well:
“Poor David Hume is dying fast, but with more real cheerfulness and good humor and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God.”
“Inside every person is a very special ingredient, we never seen it, we’ve never located it,
we’ve never touched it; call it soul, spirit light, or flame; what we call it is unimportant, as long as we know we have it. This light is diminished in many people, but it never goes out and I am convinced it was put there by God. What’s it worth to our world if we can save even one person from the misery of poverty and Despair; No Alex we cannot save them all, but even the Greatest Teacher who walked this planet could not save them all, and that’s enough motivation for me ”
Mark Christopher from Og Mandino’s “The Choice “
Cryonics are for people that want to get back into this univere, but before you do it, realize that this place is hell. That there is no truth. That there is no morality. Everything is amoral here. The world is illusory. All is vanity etc,
I’m not crazy into philosophy so take this point with a grain of salt, but Schopenhauer made a good point about life in his writing “On The Sufferings of The World.” “…there is one respect in which brutes show real wisdom when compared with us – I mean, their quiet, placid enjoyment of the present moment,” (Schopenhauer, pg 6). Life doesn’t stop marching, but if you don’t stop to smell the roses ever, you’ll march with it to a miserable grave. Time is invaluable, so spend it the best you can and enjoy even the little things. I like to stare out the train window on my way to and from school and enjoy the buildings go by.
thanks for the comments Paul. A lot of wisdom in what you say. Also, you might be interested in Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, “On the Sufferings of the World” and Commentary on Schopenhauer’s “On the Sufferings of the World”