Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

This piece assumes some knowledge of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, here is an excellent introduction. I will do my best to explain the elements of his philosophy pertinent to the following discussion, but only very briefly.

Schopenhauer believed that the world is an expression of a blind force: the will. Through blind striving it produces the continuation of the species and life in general. Humans spend their lives as slaves to this omnipresent will and it is the cause of suffering. Humanity is the result of the will being objectified through the operations of consciousness (time, space and causality). In this piece, I want to examine the reasons for Schopenhauer’s pessimism and propose an alternative perspective.

Throughout Shopenhauer’s writing he rightly brings attention to the suffering that is experienced by all forms of life on a constant basis. However, he errs by not also talking about the many wonderful things this ephemeral existence of ours has to offer. It feels as if he has made his mind a long time ago about the meaning of life and stuck to this belief no matter what happened to him subsequently. R.J Hollingdale thinks this, and says this in his introduction to a collection Schopenhauer’s later writings that Schopenhauer was afflicted by an “… immovability of mind1.” which meant the beliefs of his early life he stubbornly carried with him into his later years. His belief that life is essentially meaningless seems to have come from bad experiences he had in as a young man, Hollingdale contends that the two years he spent working as a clerk after the death of his father were so miserable that the negative attitude towards life in general became an “irremovable part of his make-up2“. His suborn attitude can seen in the fact that in his main philosophical work The World As Will And Representation he has almost nothing to say about the positive aspects of life at all. Nor in any of his subsequent work has he changed his mind. Setting aside psychological explanation I will now examine the reasons for he presents for his pessimistic outlook. I will try and show how he was mistaken and what a more balanced outlook on life might be.

The Case For Pessimism

The first argument Schopenhauer uses for the essentially meaninglessness of life is that the metaphysical whole from which all individuals are representation of is in essence blind and without purpose that brings forth individuals into lives of suffering: “Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in and endless and boundless world , among innumerable individuals , all striving , suffering and erring 3…” We can see this most clearly in the forces of nature which operate without any agency. As we move higher up the hierarchy of being that Schopenhauer calls levels of wills objectification we arrive at animal life, at this level of complexity all we can perceive and endless struggle for reproduction and survival in having this insight he has discovered the basic premise of Darwinian thought many years before Darwin’s time. Moving next to the level of sophistication,namely, human society we see that humanity is also engaged in similarly brutal and harsh existence. Many die every day of disease, poverty, are enslaved and become the victims of war and oppression. If these fates are avoided then they often become trapped in what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” unable to do what they truly want but instead subject to the will of another whether that be family, employer or government.

The second argument Schopenhauer uses is that pleasure is essentially negative and ultimately empty; no sooner are our desires satisfied than our cravings are renewed afresh and must be satisfied again. “All satisfaction or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative 4….” We become trapped in a vicious cycle of pleasure seeking that ultimately leads nowhere. This claim has a great deal of factual weight behind it, we have only to consult our own experience to see countless examples of such a dynamic. For example, on a hot day when I am thirsty the need for a drink becomes all consuming. When my thirst is quenched I am deeply satisfied. However, this satisfaction is only temporary. If I have another drink the effect is not nearly as strong and decreases with each drink I have. Eventually, my mind wanders to considering the next desire that must be fulfilled, and so on…

Schopenhauer believed that the only ultimate release from perpetual cycle of desire, toil, satisfaction and unhappiness is death. Aside from this, the only route of escape he saw a being possible in this life was living a life of aestheticism; as the saints of all religions have done. He recognized that his teaching had many similarities with those of Buddhism and Christianity in so far as they preach the denial of the will and a life of self sacrifice and hardship as preferable to one of hedonism. Further, that they have pessimistic views of the external world and its ability to deliver us happiness and fulfillment. However, Schopenhauer errs here in that he has not paid very close attention to the contents of the gospels, for as much a Jesus advocated poverty and simplicity of living he also turned water into wine. He is also reported to have to have in John 10:10 that “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” In light of this a life of pure aestheticism is not totally consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to take the role of art seriously. He thought that through the aesthetic experience consciousness could temporarily be relieved from the dominance of what we would now refer to as the ego. I am going to use the word “will” (in the metaphysical and psychological sense) and “ego” interchangeably. He also believed this escape was also possible through the operation of an unusually strong intellect, that this is what makes the discoveries of genius possible. Great minds were endowed with an excessive amount of the intellect capacity that was more than the bare minimum by required by the will/ego for the practical matters of life. Further, that occasionally the intellect is able to escape the service of will and operate freely in the same way we are able to escape the its dominance through aesthetic experience. Crucially, he thought any dethroning of will could only ever be only temporary that even the most gifted were still subject to its dominance most of the time. This idea is supported by the evidence of the greatest artist and intellectuals have had the capacity to be as narrow minded and petty as anyone else. Kant complained that the inmates at the prison near his house sang too loudly. The famous architect Brunelleschi pretended to unwell in order to to show up a rival who was working on a project with him. Schopenhauer himself unwittingly proved his own point by pushing a woman down the stairs outside his apartment because she was making too much noise.

The tragedy in Schopenhauer’s philosophy is that he believed without living a life of pure aestheticism release from the dominance of the will was impossible. That the most that could be hoped for were fleeting moments of reprieve in a life otherwise controlled by the selfish agenda of the ego. He never seriously considered the idea that any form of enlightenment was possible without a life of privation. It is said the Buddha only found enlightenment once he had given up aestheticism. Further, that as described in this excellent video the pursuit of deprivation for its own sake can never constitute a true release from attachment as implicit in the pursuit itself is an attachment, namely, an attachment to the avoiding pleasure. In erring on this matter we must not judge Schopenhauer too harshly. According to Eckhart Tolle some Buddhists think enlightenment is “just for the Buddha5“. The belief that the the will/ego can be never be defeated permanently is a a widespread one. Even if such a total defeat was not possible would not even the slightest loosening grip of the ego’s control over our lives be a wonderful thing? It seems to me that Schopenhauer like myself in the past had decided this was not possible in advance and had therefore never tried.

What of Schopenhauer’s arguments for the futility of life? Regarding the purposelessness of existence in general it is by no means clear that this is the case. For although the forces of nature of evolution appear to operate without purpose this purposelessness and existence these thoughts are inexorably linked to our perspective as human beings. To an ant the foot that squashes is not capable of being attributed with any concept of agency, as agency is not part of the ant’s mental framework. However, from the perspective of the person stepping on the ant all sorts of motives can be attached to the action. As an idealist Schopenhauer should have appreciated this. To be clear, I am not trying to smuggle any teleological explanation of the universe here. However, it must remain an open question from a purely philosophical perspective as whether existence has a purpose. For is entirely possible that there is a purpose to life that is beyond of the capacity of our cognitive abilities or that some aspects are comprehensible, whilst others are simply out of reach. We simply do not know. Schopenhauer’s mistake is to jump from the conclusion that life appears to be meaningless (an idea supported by evidence) to the far stronger conclusion that this is must be the case of a metaphysical level. In some respects this mistake is similar to the mistaking of appearance for reality that he lambasts materialists for.

The second argument Schopenhauer’s uses, namely, the futility of all desiring in general is backed by a great deal of psychological evidence but is it true? For are there also not those who live lives of contentment also? Who do fall victim to the hedonic treadmill on occasion but are able to see it for what it is and are not deceived by it. Schopenhauer does not see this possibility except outside the realm of sainthood. This is clearly a mistake, this attitude may have been motivated by the snobbery that was a large component of his outlook on life, he is forever contrasting the brilliant intellectual and artists with the generic and replaceable mass of mankind. He clearly sees himself as part of the former category. The problem with this attitude is not that there is no such thing as those who are uncommonly talented and exceptional. His mistake is to fixated on the extremes of the human condition rather than seeing all achievements spiritual or otherwise as existing on a continuum. Even if the will (in the metaphysical sense) cannot be totally defeated perhaps meaningful victories are possible. Further, that such questions cannot merely be answered by philosophical reasoning alone, an investigation into what is possible in the human experience must be done on a empirical basis also. This is not to say Schopenhauer did not partially conduct such an investigation; he lived in many different countries throughout his life and read widely. Rather, the deficiency is that even if he did not see examples of more ordinary levels of enlightenment he did not consider the possibility seriously. Instead, he dismissed it on theoretical grounds.

In summary, both of Schopenhauer’s arguments for the inherent futility of life are insufficient. In his defense it must be pointed out that much philosophy prior to him had been characterized by a misguided optimism. The classic example being Leibniz’s idea that we live in the of the best of all possible worlds. Schopenhauer correctly shows the this idea cannot make sense of the vast amount of suffering in the world. However, by arguing against one extreme of belief he ends up advocating an equally extreme position that life is inherently futile. This position cannot make sense of all that is undoubtedly good about life. The two opposing positions cancel each other out.

The Alternative

If life can have a meaning what meaning should we give to it? I fear a blog post is not going to answer such a perennial question. However, what I hope I can achieve is to outline an approach to the question.

First, I must a make a crucial distinction this is between what I know intuitively and what can be established within the bounds of reason. The theologian Hans Kung persuasively argued in his work Does God Exist? that nihilism and specifically the ideas espoused by Nietzsche rest on shaky foundations. That the fundamental meaninglessness of life is something that does not accurately take into account all aspects of reality “For fundamental trust can also accept the element of truth in fundamental mistrust -the nullity of reality- while, on the other hand, fundamental mistrust cannot recognize any element of truth fundamental trust, any reality in all the nullity. Hence the attitude of fundamental trust , and this alone, is open to reality in its uncertainty6. This asymmetry reveals to us the that fundamental trust is the more rational attitude to life. However, one might argue that a false dichotomy has been set up here, surely, a third intermediate attitude is possible? Where one maintains an ambivalent attitude to life neither fully trusting nor wholly rejecting its meaningfulness. Kung could easily respond to this criticism by saying that the alternative I am describing is really just a lesser form of nihilism and thus can still be fitted into the his conceptual schema. In light of this, the criticism I have offered is not fatal to Kung’s project but we must bare in mind that he has not considered all options. Reason can establish (although tentatively) that life having meaning is a rationally defensible position.

It is my belief that intuitively we can know on a deeper level that life is meaningful with no reference to reason. That when the egoic consciousness is stripped away we are able to feel a freedom that his hard to describe. Over and over again such experiences of transcendence have been reported by those in the most desperate and wretched circumstances. I must make it clear that I am not trying to glamorize suffering nor pretend that all suffering is somehow for the good. What I wish to assert is that within a dark situation the opportunity for transcendence is always present, it is up to us whether we take it or not. Each of us most confront the riddle of life for ourselves and decide which way we chose to go. Suffering is a bottomless pit, that if we allow it to will consume us. Even in materially prosperous societies where there is little poverty many still suffer. The path to true happiness lies within not without.

In closing, it is a tragedy that Schopenhauer came so close to a deeper happiness but never discovered it. However, his stubbornness also aided him by enabling him to continually promote his philosophy decade after, decade whilst being almost totally ignored by the public and his intellectual peers. If he had not been so single minded it is possible he would never have completed his works and his writings would not have been transmitted to our time. For all the mistakes Schopenhauer made there is much of great value in his philosophy. His style is direct and conversational, his style is free of needless technical jargon and technical nit picking that which plagues modern philosophy. At times when reading him you feel as if he is speaking directly to you. It is my firm belief that his stubborn commitment to his work in face of many obstacles was not misguided. It is my hope that one day his philosophy will be appreciated more widely.