Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Arthur Schopenhauer's
The World as Will and Representation

Lecture II

Life is Suffering, because Life is Willing 

Suffering springs from deficiency

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 # 171)

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 # 168)

And Pascal reminds us also about Ecclesiastes and Job.

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 # 174)

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.

Optimistic philosophies

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.

The question

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.