Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Arthur Schopenhauer's
The World as Will and Representation

Lecture VI


Suffering and willing

According to Schopenhauer, all suffering is caused by willing, and the more intense the willing the more intense the suffering.

This great intensity of willing is in and by itself and directly a constant source of suffering, firstly because all willing as such springs from want, and hence from suffering. Secondly because, through the causal connexion of things, most desires must remain unfulfilled, and the will is much more often crossed than satisfied. Consequently, much intense willing always entails much intense suffering. For all suffering is simply nothing but unfulfilled and thwarted willing, and even the pain of the body, when this is injured or destroyed, is as such possible only by the fact that the body is nothing but the will itself become object. Nor for [this] reasonmuch intense suffering is inseparable from much intense willing. (p 361)

And again:

The more intense the will, the more glaring the phenomenon of its conflict, and hence the greater the suffering. A world that was the phenomenon of an incomparably more intense will-to-live than the present one is, would exhibit so much the greater suffering; thus it would be a hell. (p 395)

Thus, the more intense the willing the more intense the suffering. If, by some evil motivation, someone wanted to actually increase the suffering of another person, the way to do it, Schopenhauer believes, would be to find some way to increase the intensity of their willing. (Parents who spoil their children - that is, always given them everything they want - may actually accomplish this unintentionally.)

Addiction as metaphor

Addiction is a particularly apt illustration of what truly intense willing feels like, as any of you know who have ever been addicted to something. So if we can discover how to get over an addiction, we would then also know something about how to diminish the intensity of our willing in other areas as well.

So how does one get over an addiction? I'll recall my own time as a cigarette smoker many years ago, but any experience of addiction will be pretty much the same.

Whenever I wanted a cigarette, I gave myself a cigarette. It was that simple. That is, whenever the will wanted something, I gave it what it wanted. I did that over and over for several years, and the effect of it was to maximally increase the intensity of my wanting. So when I wanted a cigarette I wanted it very intensely, craved it, needed it. If I ever went without one for more than a couple of hours, I really felt it. I longed for, craved, needed a cigarette. The intensity of the willing was very high, and every time I gave the will what it wanted it had the ultimate effect of actually increasing the need for - i.e., increasing the intensity of the will for - more cigarettes.

But what the addict truly wants is to not want it or need it any more. What they actually wish for is a state of will in which they no longer have any desire whatsoever for the object of their addiction. They would like the desire to be completely gone, because with less intense willing there will also be less intense suffering.

So the problem becomes one of how to diminish the intensity of the willing. What the recovering addict discovers is that the way to diminish the intensity of the wanting/willing is to not give the will what it wants. When I want a cigarette, I deny myself that cigarette. The first time I do that the pain and struggle will be immense, and will seem to last forever. As I keep denying my will what it wants, though, over time the pain of not having a cigarette slowly (very slowly) diminishes. And by practicing that self-denial over a very long time, eventually the desire for a cigarette diminishes to literally zero. (I quit smoking on April fool's day 1970, and writing these sentences is probably the first time I've even thought about cigarettes in years.) Any of you who have ever gotten over an addiction know how this process works, even if it does take a very long time.

So what actually happened there? The intensity with which one wills something can be greatly diminished (and maybe even extinguished?), and the way this is accomplished is by denying the will what it wants.

Denying the will

Schopenhauer says that the more intense the willing, the more intense the suffering. So the problem is how to diminish the intensity of one's willing. The answer is actually a very simple one (though not, by any means, easy to accomplish): The answer is: practice denying the will what it wants. It's that simple. This practice is called asceticism (Greek = askesis) or self-denial and, according to Schopenhauer, is the one adequate solution to the central life problem.

The scholastic Latin term for this practice is "agere contra," to act against. It means the practice of deliberating acting against what the will wants. When the will wants something, you deny it what it wants. And, in addition, when the will fears or is repelled by something, you give it what it fears. Schopenhauer says

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. (p 392)

If Schopenhauer and Buddhism are correct that life is full of wanting and that unfulfilled wanting is what causes suffering, then the solution to that life problem comes down to one or the other of the following two choices:

  1. either trying to get what you want, or
  2. trying to get rid of the wanting

Trying to get what you want, according to Schopenhauer, just increases the intensity of your wanting and thus increases the intensity of suffering. The other solution is to get rid of, or at least greatly diminish the intensity of, the willing.

This answer, when you think about it, is actually a rather obvious one (given the insights of Buddhism and Schopenhauer about the causes of suffering), but we so dislike the idea of asceticism - or rather, the will so dislikes the idea - that we have a hard time seeing the obvious-ness of the solution.

The happy monk

A Buddhist story tells of a rich young man walking along the road and coming upon a monk his own age who owns nothing at all except his cloak and sandals and one bowl for alms. The rich man is very moved and impressed, and stops to tell the monk how much he admires him.

"I so much admire your choice of a life," says the rich man. "You have given up so much and now have so little. Your self-denial and seriousness are truly admirable."

"On the contrary," says the monk. "I admire you very much for all that you have given up. I have given up only a few comforts and baubles in order to have real inner serenity and happiness. You, on the other hand, have given up the most valuable things of all, serenity and happiness, just in order to have a few pleasures and physical objects. I think you are the one to be admired for having given up so much to gain so little."

And this is Schopenhauer's point exactly. We have all foolishly given up much, viz., peace and inner serenity, for the mere opportunity to continue feeding our will with its desires and fears. And in the process we are simply strengthening the intensity of our willing and hence the intensity of our suffering.

Schopenhauer is, of course, not alone in seeing the value of self-denial and asceticism. The great spiritual traditions all over the world have always had ascetic themes through them. These themes are not much evident in our own culture and age, however.

Self-sacrifice, self-denial and asceticism are values that one virtually never hears about in a culture as devoted to consumerism as the west has been. The basic message of every advertisement and every commercial establishment is this: when you want something, you should satisfy that want. The way to happiness is to satisfy (and definitely not to deny) all your wants, i.e., to get what you want and avoid what you fear.

For those of us raised in such a culture, the message of asceticism seems very counter-intuitive. So when you read Schopenhauer's arguments for asceticism, and his full description in Book IV of what it is - a much fuller description than my short summary here - you may want to keep in mind the biases that a self-serving consumerism would naturally have against any philosophy that urges ascetic self-denial.

In sum

Finally, the one-paragraph summation of Schopenhauer's philosophy which we have already looked at (an p 152) can indeed serve as a good skeletal outline of his main message, but you will discover that his philosophy is much richer and more detailed than its summary in this one short paragraph

Therefore, destined originally to serve the will for the achievement of its aims, knowledge [what I have called consciousness] remains almost throughout entirely subordinate to its service; this is the case with all animals and almost all men. However, we shall see in the third book how, in the case of individual persons, knowledge can withdraw from this subjection, throw off its yoke, and , free from all the aims of the will, exist purely for itself, simply as a clear mirror of the world; and this is the source of art. Finally, in the fourth book we shall see how, if this kind of knowledge reacts on the will, it can bring about the will's self-elimination, in other words, resignation. This is the ultimate goal, and indeed the innermost nature of all virtue and holiness, and is salvation from the world.