Commentary on Schopenhauer’s “On the Vanity of Existence”

(Yesterday’s post summarized Schopenhauer’s “On The Vanity of Existence”)

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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3 thoughts on “Commentary on Schopenhauer’s “On the Vanity of Existence”

  1. The life trajectory, given no belief in eternal souls, is: birth, growth, maturity, decline, death. Pretty bleak in comparison with the vision of eternal bliss offered by religions.

    Thus the tenacity with which beguiling fairy tales hold sway over the human mind.

  2. Does death make life less valuable? I mean, I don’t want to die, but I don’t know if that means it makes my life less valuable.

    If I were immortal, yet I just sat on the couch and watched TV all day, would that make my life any more valuable? Does it make that activity less valuable because I’m mortal?

    I’m not sure. Just writing out some thoughts provoked by this. 🙂 Thanks for the post.

  3. Immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for what I call a fully meaningful life.

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