Schopenhauer Made Me a Pessimist. But Then He Helped Me Enjoy Life.
“The world is my idea:”—this is a truth which holds good for everything that lives and knows, though man alone can bring it into reflective and abstract consciousness.”
This is how Arthur Schopenhauer introduces us to his most celebrated work, “The World as Will and Representation.”
Such a potent way to introduce your audience to your inner world requires quite some audacity.
And Schopenhauer showcased a considerate amount of that throughout his life.
He was the philosopher that preceded Nietzsche and succeeded Kant.
These three philosophy moguls created a continuum of critical thinking and life-defining concepts that influenced the western thought like few.
In my mind, Nietzsche has always epitomized the idea of the quintessential philosopher. He was strong-minded, poetic, inquisitive, romantic, and has brought abstract reasoning to a whole new level. In a nutshell, he knew how to absorb the totality of my being. And this ability of his to captivate my attention so effortlessly has rendered me somewhat snobbish towards other philosophers.
I thought that Nietzsche has said everything that needs to be said and that I should veer my attention towards other disciplines in order to expand my cognitive repertoire.
Unfortunately, this naïve assertion alienated me from very important thinkers in human history and limited my ability to understand how different schools of thought were connected to each other.
If you look at the history of philosophy (or at least part of it), beginning with the ancient Greeks and ending with, let’s say, the post-modernists, you will clearly identify thinking patterns that not only are connected to each other but also complete each other in an attempt to adapt to the epoch that they represent.
Let’s take, for example, the topic of religion which was an incredibly hot topic among philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries. One can identify that the criticism formulated in their writings was fierce and unapologetic. For religion was such a dominant force during that time that all the great philosophers considered it a personal responsibility to criticize it in order to help the populace unshackle from the dogmas that it was trying to impose upon them.
Today, religion is rarely discussed in philosophical circles and that is because its dogmatic nature has been reduced. Instead, other ideas, such as the political system or societal dynamics, are considered more relevant and important. But, we shouldn’t disregard the fact that it was because of the 18th and 19th century philosophers and their critique of religion that we now have the luxury to philosophize more on different matters.
Nietzsche stated in “Human, All Too Human” that:
“A lack of historical sense is the congenital defect of all philosophers…. They will not understand that man has evolved, that the faculty of knowledge has also evolved, while some of them even permit themselves to spin the whole world from out of this faculty of knowledge…. But everything has evolved; there are no eternal facts, nor are there any absolute truths. Thus historical philosophizing is necessary henceforth, and the virtue of modesty as well.”
One ought to realize such details in the way the human mind interprets certain ideas and events. For me, such a realization didn’t just constitute an inflection point in the way I view certain philosophers and philosophical movements, but it also urged me to dive deeper into their works and lives.
Schopenhauer was a man of great depth who tried to understand the maladies of the human condition and propose pragmatic ways to deal with it.
Through his writings, I discovered notions that not only re-engineer the ways we think about ourselves and our relationship with reality, but also transcend the way we view the very fabric of reality.
These notions I endeavor to lay out today in the most lucid way possible.
But first, some history.
Arthur Schopenhauer was born in 1788 in the city of Danzig (present-day Gdańsk in Poland). His family was quite wealthy and well-educated. His father, Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, was a “Voltairist” 1, a supporter of the French revolution, and an Anglophile that admired England as the land of freedom and intellect.
In 1793, his family decided to move to Hamburg, after opposing Prussia’s invasion to Danzig. Arthur stayed in Hamburg until 1797 and then he was sent to Le Havre in order to immerse himself in the French culture. In 1803, he rejoined with his family who were touring around central Europe due to his father’s merchant business. Later on, he attended a school in Wimbledon where he came to despise the strictness and pretentiousness of the British educational system.
His father died in 1805 (suspected suicide). Despite the seemingly turbulent relationship Arthur had with his father, he admired him a lot and always talked about him in a positive light. On the other hand, he didn’t share the same sense of admiration for his mother, and their relationship deteriorated due to temperamental differences.
When he entered adulthood, in 1809, he joined the University of Göttingen where his appreciation of Kant and his writings started to commence.
His main source of income was an investment he made in government bonds after inheriting part of his father’s fortune.
During his 20s, Schopenhauer studied philosophy, traveled a lot, fought a lot with his mother and his stepfather and also exchanged letters with Goethe who admired his dissertation and the spirit of the young philosopher.
His most popular treatise, “The world as will and representation” was published in 1818 but did poorly.
Arthur was an interesting young man who found himself constantly tapping into new ideas in order to answer life’s most challenging questions. He was rebellious and complicated. He attempted to lecture in the university Berlin, but unsuccessfully.
Throughout his life, he remained a controversial figure that was characterized by his contrarian views, but also by his lack of empathy towards philosophers whose views he didn’t agree with.
One could argue that his works were mainly influenced by Plato, Kant, and the Upanishads (ancient Sanskrit texts that influenced Hinduism).
Schopenhauer had many disputes with other philosophical figures of his time, but he also amassed a significant following during his late days.
He died in Frankfurt in 1860.
The Main Ideas
Schopenhauer’s work was dense and his language assertive. He was a pessimist but also a pragmatist. He detested puerile arguments and wanted to get the gist of things. Most of his postulates emerged from a strong desire to live a life that was within his scope of understanding, but also face the truth about reality, notwithstanding how harsh this may be.
He was a great admirer of Kantian philosophy and more specifically his ideas about the thing-in-itself and transcendental idealism.
The thing-in-itself: This is quite self-explanatory. The thing-in-itself is the object as it is, regardless of how we perceive it.
Transcendental idealism: Schopenhauer described transcendental idealism as a “distinction between the phenomenon and the thing in itself.” In essence, what Kant supports it that the human experience is totally subjective and disengaged from the nature of the phenomena we perceive. For instance, we can observe and interact with a dog, but we can’t really have a dog experience as a dog actually perceives it.
Extrapolating from these two concepts, he attempts to evolve the concept of perception and reality by adding the notion of will in the equation.
The will, as Schopenhauer understands it, is the expression of the desire of all nature to pursue and propagate life.
Without will there can be no life but it is also through will that most of mankind’s misery and suffering is manifested.
Based on this posit, he produced his Magnum opus “The world as will and representation” and, by drawing inspiration from this momentous work, I will attempt to explain Schopenhauer’s main theories.
The World as Will and Representation
We, as humans, are consumed by our drives. Drives such as sexual desires, pursuit of pleasure, need for interaction, will to power, the elucidation of aesthetics and much more.
They are all integral constituents of the way we operate and they all fall under the umbrella of what Schopenhauer refers to as the will to live.
Life isn’t just an abstract concept for us. It is an experience manifested through a plethora of wills that are intertwined in an attempt to form an ensemble that justifies the reasoning behind our existence.
But this conglomerate of individual wills isn’t limited solely to the human dimension. It can be found in the whole of nature in ways we cannot comprehend due to our limited perception – this is what Schopenhauer calls the Will (capital W). And this limited perception, according to Schopenhauer, is the source of our misery and suffering.
The supreme principle of the universe is apprehensible only through introspection and through the transcendence of egoism that each human is endowed with. Ego is the enemy, an enemy that can be confronted only through self-awareness, empathy, and compassion.
The curse that has befallen our species is that we cannot really free ourselves from the Will. The Will can be released or negated, but it can’t change.
Within this inauspicious landscape, we ought to attempt to operate in the most effective way possible.
It sounds like an arduous challenge, it feels like groping and fumbling in the dark, but Schopenhauer adumbrates that the denial of the will to live might be the only way to salvation from suffering.
This pessimistic outlook towards life is observed all over his narrative, and it was because of this tone that many refer to him as the Philosopher of Pessimism.
An Innate Pessimism that Leads to Moral Awareness
The absurdity of reality has always been the main area of interest for most western philosophers. Schopenhauer, in his attempt to create meaning out of this absurdity, illuminated a very pessimistic rhetoric. Take for example the following passage from “The World as Will and Representation”:
“And to this world, to this scene of tormented and agonised beings, who only continue to exist by devouring each other, in which, therefore, every ravenous beast is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of painful deaths; and in which the capacity for feeling pain increases with knowledge, and therefore reaches its highest degree in man, a degree which is the higher the more intelligent the man is; to this world it has been sought to apply the system of optimism, and demonstrate to us that it is the best of all possible worlds. The absurdity is glaring.”
It is self-evident that his inner world is tormented due to the absurdity that is prevalent all over our existence.
This nihilistic approach connotes an alignment with the idea of determinism due to our inability to influence the Will.
However, he doesn’t give up. He understands that there is an escape, even if this can be found on a metaphysical level.
“Not merely that the world exists, but still more that it is such a miserable and melancholy world, is the tormenting problem of metaphysics.”
Here, he is tapping into the world of metaphysics by realizing that there needs to be another dimension to our existence. One we will never experience if we keep recycling the same thinking modus ad infinitum.
“The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.”
Sarcasm is also a weapon he uses from time to time in order to alleviate the significance of the tragedy of the human condition. Through self-awareness, we came to understand that our creator has either a very sadistic taste or that he, she, it or they are testing us. When we realize how tragic that is, we end up thinking that it could all be a travesty of some sort. Having to deal with this level of absurdity makes you either angry or you laugh at it.
“For if anything in the world is desirable, so desirable that even the dull and uneducated herd in its more reflective moments would value it more than silver and gold, it is that a ray of light should fall on the obscurity of our existence, and that we should obtain some information about this enigmatical life of ours, in which nothing is clear except its misery and vanity.”
Eventually, he ends up adopting a more pragmatic stance. Lamenting can only get one so far and, after we get over our anger, we need to face the truth and deal with it. Schopenhauer emphasizes that in the face of a world filled with endless strife, our only escape is a universal moral awareness that will allow us to achieve a more balanced frame of mind.
By merging Christian precepts and Indian wisdom, he attempts to lay out some major principles of moral awareness that can lead humanity to a more tranquil state. Principles such as the repudiation of violence altogether, the idea that one should treat others as one treats oneself, the transcendence of egoism, the fight against suffering in the world, and the perennial cultivation of compassion as an absolute humanitarian doctrine.
The Two Paths – Aesthetics and Asceticism
After tasting the truth of human nature from a moral standpoint, Schopenhauer realizes that there are only two paths that can help one deal with this conundrum – Aesthetics, and Asceticism.
Aesthetics is presented as the antidote to the ugliness of suffering. It is through aesthetic perception that the transcendence of ego can manifest itself, for with aesthetics (that is any object, person, or artform) we can evaluate an idea beyond our earthly interpretation of reality. This idea is analogous to the idea of sublimation that Freud put forth during his time. Orienting consciousness towards states of mind that are less individuated and more cosmic has always inspired great thinkers, hence the strong affinity towards eastern philosophies.
“Only through the pure contemplation . . . which becomes absorbed entirely in the object, are the Ideas comprehended; and the nature of genius consists precisely in the pre-eminent ability for such contemplation. . . . (T)his demands a complete forgetting of our own person.”
We can temporarily emancipate ourselves from what the Will dictates through an aesthetic experience.
“On the occurrence of an aesthetic appreciation, the will thereby vanishes entirely from consciousness.”
Asceticism, on the other hand, arises as the more secure attitude, since, according to Schopenhauer, aesthetic perception, due to its transient nature, is most of the time short-lived. Asceticism can result in the denial of our will-to-live, thus allowing us to fight against the suffering that the Will attempts to impose upon us.
“By the expression asceticism, which I have already used so often, I understand in the narrower sense this deliberate breaking of the will by refusing the agreeable and looking for the disagreeable, the voluntarily chosen way of life of penance and self-chastisement for the constant mortification of the will.”
The issue, usually highlighted as a contradiction in this way of thinking, is that the suffering that asceticism tries to assuage paradoxically leads to different types of suffering like isolation, anxiety, antisocial behavior, sexual oppression and so on.
Regardless of how asceticism is portrayed or exercised, Schopenhauer truly believes that the ascetic struggle is the ultimate struggle against the Will and this act in itself can give us a modicum of what self-transcendence might actually entail.
Many prominent philosophical figures criticized Schopenhauer’s work and claimed that there are numerous contradictions in his philosophy.
This is inevitable when one possesses such a genius in the art of abstract reasoning.
The world in and of itself is full of contradictions and we should all just embrace the absurdity of that fact.
Schopenhauer, with his works, has rightfully earned a place in the pantheon of philosophers across space and time.
In my first introduction to him, he made me a pessimist. But then he helped me enjoy life.
His words can be mesmerizing and can alleviate the pain of existence for most of us insofar as we open our hearts and our minds to them.
I have thought about how to deal with the suffering of life a lot. Schopenhauer suggests Aesthetics and Asceticism. I applaud these two ideas but suggest one more: To challenge yourself in order to provoke life. That’s why I created “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero Excuses“. I have collected the most interesting challenges, inspired by renowned individuals, that aim to help you reinvent the way you approach life and focus on adopting physical, spiritual and mental practices that are not only feasible but also enjoyable and meaningful. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain. You discover the challenges here.
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Featured Image © Nicolás Verdejo.
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