Suffering springs from
When Schopenhauer says that all life is
suffering he means that all life, that is, everything that lives
and strives, is filled with suffering. Life wants, and because its wants
are mostly unfulfilled, it exists largely in a state of unfulfilled
striving and deprivation. Schopenhauer says it thus:
All willing springs from lack, from deficiency,
and thus from suffering. Fulfillment brings this to an end; yet for
one wish that is fulfilled there remain at least ten that are denied.
Further, desiring lasts a long time, demands and requests go on to
infinity, fulfillment is short and meted out sparingly. But even the
final satisfaction itself is only apparent; the wish fulfilled at
once makes way for a new one; the former is a known delusion,
the latter a delusion not as yet known. No attained object
of willing can give a satisfaction that lasts and no longer declines;
but it is always like the alms thrown to a beggar, which reprieves
him today so that his misery may be prolonged till tomorrow. Therefore,
so long as our consciousness is filled by our will [which is as long
as we are will-filled living beings], so long as we are given up to
the throng of desires with its constant hopes and fears, so long as
we are the subject of willing, we never obtain lasting happiness or
peace. Essentially, it is all the same whether we pursue or flee,
fear harm or aspire to enjoyment; care for the constantly demanding
will, no matter in what form, continually fills and moves consciousness;
but without peace and calm, true well-being is absolutely impossible.
(Die Welt, vol I, p 196)
We have seen this theme in The Book of
Ecclesiastes and we could have seen it as well in Leo Tolstoy's
A Confession, as well as in Blaise Pascal's Pensées,
so it should not really be new to us.
Pascal tells us in his Pensées,
for example, that we all do actually realize life to be so full of suffering,
emptiness, and unsatisfaction that the only way we can tolerate it is
by filling our lives with a whole variety of diversions and entertainments.
Misery.--The only thing which consoles
us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of
our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting
upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without
this [diversions] we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness
would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But
diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death. (Pensées
Diversion.--As men are not able to fight
against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads,
in order to be happy, not to think of them at all. (Pensées
And Pascal reminds us also about Ecclesiastes
Misery.--Solomon and Job have best known
and best spoken of the misery of man; the former the most fortunate,
and the latter most unfortunate of men; the former knowing the vanity
of pleasures from experience, the latter the reality of evils. (Pensées
What Schopenhauer adds to this awareness
of universal suffering is, as we saw above, that the root of all life's
suffering lies in wanting, desiring and fearing, i.e., in willing
You will see much of Schopenhauer's thinking
on this theme in pp 311-26 of Die Welt, so you might want to
pay particular attention to those pages.
For example, on p 315 he tells us
The ceaseless efforts to banish suffering
achieve nothing more than a change in its form. This is essentially
want, lack, care for the maintenance of life. If, which is very difficult,
we have succeeded in removing pain in this form, it at once appears
on the scene in a thousand others, varying according to age and circumstances,
such as sexual impulse, passionate love, jealousy, envy, hatred, anxiety,
ambition, avarice, sickness, and so on. Finally, if it cannot find
entry in any other shape, it comes in the sad, grey garment of weariness,
satiety, and boredom, against which many different attempts are made.
Even if we ultimately succeed in driving these away, it will hardly
be done without letting pain in again in one of the previous forms,
and thus starting the dance once more at the beginning; for every
human life is tossed backwards and forwards between pain and boredom.
And even what we call "happiness,"
he says, is really only a temporary cessation of some particular suffering.
Schopenhauer tells us that
All satisfaction, or what is commonly
called happiness, is really and essentially always negative
only, and never positive. It is not a gratification which comes to
us originally and of itself, but it must always be the satisfaction
of a wish. For desire, that is to say, want [or will], is the precedent
condition of every pleasure; but with the satisfaction, the desire
and therefore the pleasure cease; and so the satisfaction or gratification
can never be more than deliverance from a pain, from a want. (p 319)
Furthermore, all this suffering is without
any purpose or meaning (pp 161-65). It is all pointless and in vain.
Finally, Schopenhauer has a few words to
say against all the "optimistic philosophies," viz., all those
philosophies (including most of the popular psychologies that are around
today) that say it is possible for people to achieve happiness.
For the rest, I cannot here withhold the
statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless
talk of those who harbour nothing but words under their shallow foreheads,
seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked,
way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the unspeakable sufferings of
mankind. (p. 326)
Schopenhauer acknowledges that his philosophy
may appear cheerless and pessimistic, but he believes it is better to
speak the simple truth, even though many people may not wish to hear
it, rather than to tell rosy lies that some people may find more palatable.
The truth dream
This belief of Schopenhauer's -- that people
would rather hear the truth than pretty falsehoods -- reminds me of
a dream I once had back in graduate school. The dream came several nights
after a particularly bad experience had happened in my life. The bad
experience was this:
I had been working on a dissertation for
almost a full academic year and had only a couple months of writing
left before it would be completed and I would finally be done with my
degree. This was one of the final requirements for completing my PhD,
and I was definitely ready for the process to be over. Then, just a
few days before the dream, I had taken a new chapter to my mentor and
had sat down with him to discuss the dissertation's progress.
"I don't know, Tom," he told me.
"I think maybe this topic is just not going to be viable. I think
we're going to have to drop this one and start a whole new topic."
He told me this after I had been working
on the dissertation for nine full months. After I had gone through the
whole lengthy approval process a year prior to that, and had gotten
official signatures from all five graduate faculty members acknowledging
that the topic was indeed a good and viable one. After my mentor himself
had signed that form acknowledging that the topic was a good one. And
after I had been meeting with him regularly during those nine long months.
And now he decides that maybe the topic isn't viable? I had my own theory
as to why he was suddenly dumping my dissertation now. The theory was
that he just simply had not gotten around to studying the topic as much
as he had hoped to and he had simply decided now that he just didn't
want to study it any more. But whatever the real reason was, he was
now telling me that all my work for the past nine to twelve months was
completely for naught. In the nights following that I had at least one
axe murder dream, as I recall, but the interesting dream came several
nights later. Here it is:
In the dream we were all at a party, a grad
school party at which both students and faculty were in attendance.
I saw my mentor over on the other side of the room, so I worked my way
through the crowd to say hi and shake hands with him. As I reached out
to shake his hand, he took my hand in his and effortlessly flipped me
up into the air and over his shoulder so that I landed splat! behind
him on the floor, flat on my back, stunned and paralyzed. And I was
also now suddenly blind. I couldn't see anything. Everything was black,
and I couldn't move at all. I felt something warm, liquid and sticky
flowing down my cheeks, and I felt like something was hanging down on
one side of my face.
Then I could sense a lot of people standing
over me, peering down at me, and I could hear them making sounds like
"oooooh." "ugh." "wow!" "yuck."
and so on. I was desperate to know what had happened and what was going
on with me.
"What's happening?" I cried out.
"Tell me what's happening.
And then I heard several people leaning
down over me saying "Don't worry, Tom; everything's all right.
There's no need to worry at all. Everything's fine. You're just fine.
Everything will be OK. You look just fine." and so on. Nobody would
tell me what was going on, but were instead trying to reassure me that
everything was just fine.
Then I heard my good friend John's voice
somewhere nearby and I hollered out to him: "John, come over here;
what is happening to me? What is going on?" Then I heard John bend
down close to my head and begin to truthfully describe exactly what
had happened to me and what I looked like.
"You can't see, Tom, because one of
your eyes has popped out of its socket and is hanging by its optic nerve
down against your cheek, and the other eye is all covered with blood.
Blood is pooling up out of your eye sockets and is pouring down each
side of your face. There's a gash in your forehead about four inches
long," and so on and on. He was describing a scene of enormous
horror that was happening to me, but the feeling that swept through
me as he started describing this terrible situation was one of immense
relief and huge gratitude. "Thank you! Thank you, John!" Finally
someone was telling me the straight truth and not just trying to reassure
me that everything was fine. "Finally," I thought. "Someone
has the courage to tell me exactly what's happening, and I am enormously
thankful for it."
Now some people have this same feeling toward
Arthur Schopenhauer. Here is a philosopher, they feel, who is finally
telling them how it really is, with no sugar coating at all, a philosopher
who would rather speak the difficult and painful truth to people than
to tell them sweet and pretty lies.
That, in any case, is what Schopenhauer
himself believes he is doing: not sugarcoating the world as most philosophers
and theologians do (he believes). It will be part of your task to determine
whether you believe his philosophy to be a realistic one, as he believes
it to be, or only a pessimistic one.