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The Ethics of a Pessimist
Dennis Vanden Auweele looks at Schopenhauer’s response to suffering.
“I was born a few months before my due date,” he said in a tone of solemn proclamation. “I was quite fragile, very thin, and on top of everything, I came down with a bad case of pneumonia. Our family’s physician, a stern elderly man, took my mother’s hand, looked her in the eye, and advised her not to get overly attached to me.” He paused for a moment, then added: “And I must say, my mother has followed the doctor’s orders to this day!”
I laughed out loud when I heard this joke, only just restraining myself from rolling on the floor. Later the same day, in a moment of quiet solitude, I started pondering what the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote about jokes. He said that laughter originates where there is an incongruity between a concept and the content of that concept – put simply, when we’ve represented something we were not expecting. The larger the incongruity between our expectations and reality, the more vociferous the laughter. Too large an incongruity, and laughter might turn into fear. It’s a thin line sometimes.
What does this joke make us expect, before its punchline? Many things, perhaps. A mother who would get attached to her son despite her doctor’s orders? Relief that the child lived through his sickness, the mother getting attached after the child had recovered? A more compassionate doctor offering some hope despite the cold harsh facts?
Let’s ponder the last possibility for a moment. What do human beings need more in life, truth or consolation? For those among us who are lucky, the truth itself can be a consolation. I receive the news of a new job; the doctor tells me that my headaches are not caused by syphilis; my beloved answers my sudden declaration of “I love you” with “I love you too.” But we are not always so lucky, and when bad news is afoot, are we served best by the truth, or by the consolation of a gentle white lie? Do love and compassion commit us to truth always, or do they allow for the occasional falsehood? Should I hide my momentary infidelity from my beloved? Should I tell my children that our dog has moved to a farm upstate? I have been reading Schopenhauer for over a decade now and I think these very questions go to the heart of his philosophical quest. Let me explain.
Image © Venantius J Pinto 2019. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was lucky enough to be born into a well-off family. His father, Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, was a successful businessman with a keen eye for international trade. He deliberately gave his only son a name that was easy to pronounce in all major European languages. (I chuckle slightly when I think about eighteenth century British and French merchants struggling to enunciate He-in-rich Flo-ris.) Arthur’s mother Johanna (née Trosiener) was a well-known and successful novelist whose literary salons in Weimar were the talk of the town. Illustrious minds such as Goethe, the brothers Schlegel, Christoph Martin Wieland, and Ludwig Tieck were in regular attendance.
From a young age Arthur was groomed to contribute to and ultimately take over his father’s business. He became fluent in German, French, and English – even had a decent grasp of Italian, Spanish, and Greek – and he developed a keen mind for rhetoric, banter and practical insight. He also developed a soft spot for animals, particularly dogs. Life would be unbearable, he wrote once, without our four-legged companions. He was an Anglophile, and though generally annoyed by the newspaper business, he would read the London Times frequently. He was once overjoyed by a news item about a man who kept his dog on a chain until one fateful day he was mauled to death by that same dog.
Arthur was never a people person. He wrote that human beings are like hedgehogs: they huddle together for warmth, but when they get too close they start to prick each other. Best to have a lot of ‘inner warmth’ so one can dispense with other human beings. He did enjoy literature and poetry from all corners of Europe. At an older age, he would visit insane asylums in search of genius.
Young Arthur had money, a famous mother, and a bright future. Life was good. And yet he was far from happy. This was not just adolescent self-entitled rebellion. He claimed to have been gripped firmly by the misery of life at the age of seventeen.
Upon fleeing cholera-infested Berlin in 1832 – an outbreak which killed his philosophical nemesis Hegel – Schopenhauer would reminisce about this turn towards pessimism. He would say that at seventeen and without academic education he had been struck suddenly by the misery of life. Like the young Buddha venturing out of the palace where he had been brought up, he saw clearly for the first time sickness, age, pain, and death. The world called out loud and clear that it could not be the work of an all-good being, but of a devil who had called creatures into existence so as to revel in their misery. Perhaps I ought to mention that his father killed himself when Arthur was seventeen. Eden was corrupted and paradise lost.
The official notice of his father’s death made mention of an accident, but there was no doubt in Arthur’s mind that his father had killed himself. When his relationship with his mother had turned entirely sour, Schopenhauer would even accuse her of being the main cause of his father’s self-willed end. Throughout his writings, Schopenhauer would develop argument after argument to discredit suicide. The first of these – never to appear in published form – would call the suicide a mauvais joueur: a bad card player, who, when dealt a bad hand, throws his cards on the table and quits the game. A buzzkill.
After a period of mourning, the family inherited a small fortune, split between Arthur, his mother, and his sister Adele. Arthur invested the money wisely and cautiously, earning himself dividends that far exceeded the wages of any academic position. His mother and sister were not so cautious and lost most of their inheritance to bad investments.
After a short while trying his luck as a merchant (a promise he had made to his father), Schopenhauer decided to follow his real passion and study philosophy. His primary instructor was G.E. Schulze, but he would later move to Berlin to study under J.G. Fichte and Friedrich Schleiermacher. He would always appreciate Schulze. Schleiermacher and Fichte he found annoying. He wrote a fairly innocuous doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The principle of sufficient reason is nihil est sine ratione sufficiente cur potius sit quam non sit: ‘Nothing either is or is not without a good reason’. Later Schopenhauer would emphasize that this work remained the bedrock of his thought, and he published an extensively reworked edition in 1847, forty-four years after his doctoral defense.
The story goes that Arthur hurried home and proudly showed his mother the final version of his dissertation. She glanced at its title and snidely asked: “Did you write a manual for gardening?” Angered, Arthur replied, “In a hundred years, you will be known only as the mother of Schopenhauer, and no one will be able to find your books.” As a riposte his mother said: “All will be able to find your books, my dear, for they will never have left the book stores.” After this exchange, they never again spoke face to face.
Nevertheless, after a memorable but ultimately failed one-term academic career in Berlin – scheduling his lectures to overlap with Hegel’s – Schopenhauer would become one of the best known non-academic philosophers in history. His main work, The World as Will and Representation, is celebrating its bicentennial in 2019. Formally, the work was published in December 1818; but the first page had the year 1819 printed upon it (the same thing happened to a book of mine on Kant’s ethics exactly two hundred years later). This work, and Schopenhauer’s later elaborations and supplements to it, would many years later cause a tremendous stir in philosophy. Its impact on Friedrich Nietzsche is widely known, but it also occasioned the famous Pessimism Controversy of the second half of the nineteenth century. Schopenhauer had steered a turn to existential concerns in philosophy: Is life at all worth living?
About The World as Will and Representation: if the reader manages to drag him or herself through the epistemological and metaphysical first two chapters, they then come upon one of the most influential aesthetic theories of the last two centuries. But the final chapter, announced by Schopenhauer himself as ‘the most serious one’, has been known to throw readers into despair. It tells us that life is hell.
The Misery of Life
Let’s return to the question I raised earlier, about truth and consolation. Jesus said, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). But will it? Schopenhauer was in two minds about the whole thing. He offers an analysis of human nature that is suffocating, yet it is as compelling as it is simple. Human beings are driven by desire. That is our nature. Everything else about how we present ourselves ultimately mere masks our very being, namely will. And there is no end to desire. Even if we would lack any particular thing to desire, we would start to desire to desire; we would feel a lack because of our lack of lacks.
Let me illustrate.
As an undergraduate I was supported financially by my parents. I got by. But I desired some luxuries, especially the then-new PlayStation 3. I calculated that it would take me about two years if I saved 20 euros each month of my allowance. I sped things up with a weekend job. I must have poured thousands of beers. It still took me about a year. I was not the most adept financial planner. At long last, and after a long and painstaking process, I went to the store and made the purchase. Two weeks later the PlayStation 4 was announced. The whole desire thing would start anew.
Schopenhauer at the time of writing WWR, by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl, 1815
This is in a nutshell Schopenhauer’s view of desire. The moment a desire is met we enjoy brief satisfaction, but that feeling soon makes way for new desires. Satisfaction is always brief; pain and lack are the undertone of our existence. But say we were to manage at some point to satisfy all our desires, even our most nonsensical ones. This would make our will nervous, denying it an object to latch unto. We would suffer from a lack of desire. We would feel boredom, which moves us into the perilous space of desire once again. At one point – Schopenhauer says the human condition is like the fate of the Greek king Ixion. Ixion was persecuted by his fellow mortals, and Zeus, taking pity, offered him refuge in Olympus. No sooner had he arrived than Ixion started romancing Zeus’ wife Hera. Zeus punished Ixion by strapping him onto an ever-revolving fiery wheel in Tartarus. His agony was unending. This to Schopenhauer is life: a never-ending circuit of pain, suffering, and boredom, only momentarily relieved by the most fleeting moments of satisfaction. And then you die, and that is the end of you.
Truth be told, Schopenhauer narrates our dismal condition eloquently and convincingly. One enthusiast of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Philipp Mainländer was so convinced of Schopenhauer’s analysis that he wrote a corroborating book, purchased a stack of copies for himself, stood atop of them, rope around his neck, and jumped off.
This is a conclusion that Schopenhauer would not have supported. He would have pointed out that there are other ways in which one can escape the circuit of suffering. The most famous of these is art: immersion in a work of art can briefly dislocate the spectator from the pursuits of the will. It’s true that when listening to good music my thoughts only seldom drift towards food, drink, sex or the purchase of consumer durables. Bad music though (especially music videos these days) might arouse my will. This continues the myth of Ixion, actually. When Orpheus descended into Hades to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice, he managed to bypass the gate-guarding hellhound Cerberus by lulling him to sleep with beautiful music on his lyre. At that blessed moment, all the damned souls were given momentary relief: the Danaids momentarily stopped pouring water in a sieve; Tantalus stopped yearning for fruit or water; Sisyphus could take a break from pushing his rock; and the revolving wheel of Ixion stood still.
Music can do that. However, for the remainder of this article I would like to focus on another, less well-known aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, namely his ethics of compassion.
A Glimmer of Hope
The truth is pretty rough. Art might give a temporary solution to the human problem, but human beings cannot live in galleries or opera houses. Schopenhauer singles out two ways of life that might more substantially deal with the suffering of existence.
The first of these comes somewhat unexpectedly. The misanthropic sage of Frankfurt points out how a life of compassion can not only assuage the sufferings of our fellow beings, human and animal alike, but can also provide succor to the compassionate agent.
Schopenhauer reads ‘compassion’ (‘Mitleiden’) quite literally: it means we suffer (leiden) with (mit) the other. Through some mysterious process we stop making a distinction between ourself and the other person, and take up their suffering as just as important as our own. The most ethical person makes no distinction between his or her own suffering and the suffering of the other. If the need of the other is more acute than our own, the compassionate individual responds to their need. Though peckish, they will give their lunch to someone who has not eaten in days.
Few people are entirely bereft of compassion. It is easiest to feel the suffering of those close to us: lovers, family, friends, members of our community. With them we feel part of a greater whole. But Schopenhauer asserts that if we allow ourselves to do so, we intuitively recognize that all beings are connected and that we are never wholly distinct from one another. (In Sanskrit this is rendered tat tvam asi: ‘You are that’.) Through recognizing this, we stop making the egoistical distinction privileging ourselves over others, and feel driven to react instinctively to the most pressing suffering. The walls of our individuality crumble.
Schopenhauer wrote fundamental theory, not applied ethics, and indeed it can be difficult to apply his ethics of compassion, when you get down to practical cases. If our need to satisfy our desires is a major cause of our suffering, are we not enablers when we assuage the sufferings of others through fulfilling their desires? If someone suffers profoundly from a severe lack of alcohol, would the compassionate person, feeling that suffering as their own, buy the alcoholic a drink? In the long run this might make things worse; on the other hand the suffering is real now. What best to do?
Schopenhauer does not address the troubling issue of compassionate enabling. The focus of his ethics is not so much on the person who suffers, but on the person who suffers with them. To immerse oneself in the pain of the other releases us from our individuality. We lose ourselves in the other, and forget our pain in our care for the other. Nietzsche understood Schopenhauer’s view of compassion well when he described neighborly love as hatred of the self. We cannot handle ourselves, he says, so we distract ourselves with the sufferings of others.
Is it true? Are some of the most caring individuals fundamentally unhappy with themselves? The anti-hero Rorschach tells a joke in the graphic novel Watchmen. A man goes to the doctor and tells him that life is hell: he feels alone and miserable. The doctor tells him that the cure is simple, for the circus is in town and the great clown Pagliacci is sure to make him laugh. The man answers: “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.” It’s well known that great comedians and entertainers can be miserable and tormented (Robin Williams, Michael Jackson and Chester Bennington, vocalist for the rock band Linkin Park, all spring to mind), but what of those people who devote their lives in all sorts of ways to easing human suffering? Does their care for others improve their own lives, as Schopenhauer suggested? It might, but I see no guarantee of this. Perhaps sometimes compassion can be a drug, a way to numb our pain, and when brought back to their private particularity, the caring individual is all the more profoundly exposed to his or her own suffering.
There is another Schopenhauerian way to escape suffering: dive into it. Seek it out, embrace it, fill yourself with all the suffering of the world. Excessive suffering can mortify the will. This happens when the truth of the misery of existence becomes so visceral that the very thought of affirming life fills us with disgust. Here the will starts to turn against itself: it starts to devour itself. The human being turns into a ‘nothing’ – a desire-less being that exists in blissful emptiness (cf nirvana). Schopenhauer calls this state ‘sainthood’. The saint is without desire, without aspiration, and therefore without suffering. Much like compassion, saintly self-abnegation is something that overcomes the subject. It is a grace rather than a labor. One could try to make oneself more receptive to it, but one cannot force nothingness upon oneself.
Some readers have believed that Schopenhauer was only half serious about this as a possibility, because here his life contradicts his teachings. Rarely did a week go by that he did not enjoy the opera, or good food and drink. In a letter to his admirer and literary executor Julius Frauenstädt, he apologizes for mistreating him and writes that his philosophy teaches saintliness, but he never suggested that he was himself a saint.
Schopenhauer held the world to be a dark and vexing place. The highest achievement would not be to excel in this world, but to overcome it. Art, compassion, and asceticism allow us to retreat from this world – to be released from our penal servitude to the will. We become nothing, and the world is nothing to us.
© Dr Dennis Vanden Auweele 2019
Dennis Vanden Auweele is lecturer in philosophy at KU Leuven (University of Leuven).