Schopenhauer On Pessimism
Schopenhauer's system is set forth in all its fulness in his great work, The World
as Will and Idea. All that he wrote after the appearance of this book was confirmation
and expansion of the theories already laid down. It differs from his earlier books
in method. He no longer follows academic lines. He looks upon the work as a revelation
of the meaning of life, based on a clear and direct intuition into life, and the
style shapes itself accordingly. Metaphor frequently takes the place of argument,
and his theories are developed in a flow of passionate eloquence, contrasting remarkably
with the severer methods of the ordinary metaphysician.
Schopenhauer takes as his starting-point certain theories from the philosophies
of Plato and Kant. Things, as we know them in experience, said Kant, are made up
partly of forms or moulds, which are in the mind, and partly of something outside
the mind. That which we know, our actual experience, is a combination of the two
elements, the subjective and the objective element. That part of experience which
lies outside the mind, the reality, the thing-in-itself or the noumenon in philosophical
language, we can never know. For in order to be known by us, it has to run into
the forms or moulds supplied by the mind, and in this transition its nature has
been changed. To know it as it is, before it enters into contact with our minds,
is impossible. That we appear to have objective knowledge is therefore a deception
and an illusion.
Schopenhauer accepts Kant's analysis of experience, but denies that the thing-in-itself
is unknowable. For that which is real in our experience is not outside us altogether,
as in Kant's theory. It lies within ourselves; it is the only real and essential
part of our nature, and we have a direct knowledge of it. This reality Schopenhauer
finds in the will. Now the will is fully known to us through internal perception,
through intuition. It is the real, inner nature of everything in the world. It affords
the key to the knowledge of the inmost being of the whole of nature. It is the kernel
of every individual thing, and also of the whole universe.
It is important to note, that Schopenhauer's use of the word "will" is far wider
than that of common usage. It includes not only conscious desire, but also unconscious
instinct, and the forces of inorganic nature. He recognises will not only in the
existences which resemble our own, in men and animals, but also in the force which
germinates and vegetates in the plant, the force through which the crystal is formed,
that by which the magnet turns to the north pole, the force which appears in the
elective affinities of matter as repulsion and attraction, decomposition and combination,
and lastly even as gravitation, which draws the stone to the earth and the earth
to the sun. All these in their inner nature are identical. It is the same force
in every manifestation of nature, as in each preconsidered action of man. The difference
is merely one of degree.
The body is the most real thing for everyone. If we analyse the reality of this
body, we find nothing but the will. With this its reality is exhausted. The word
will, like a magic spell, he says, reveals the inmost being of all nature. Spinoza
says, that if a stone, which has been projected through the air, had consciousness,
it would believe that it was moving of its own will. Schopenhauer adds that the
stone would be right. The impulse given it, is for the stone what the motive is
for us. All blindly impelling force, all forces which act in nature in accordance
with universal laws, are equally in their inner nature to be recognised as will.
It is everywhere one and the same, "just as the first dim light of dawn must share
the name of sunlight with the rays of the full midday."
Now the will expresses itself necessarily as a struggle. Everywhere in nature we
see strife, conflict, and alternation of victory. Every grade of will fights for
the matter, the space, and the time of the others. For each desires to express its
own inmost nature. Nature exists only through such struggle. This universal conflict
is most distinctly visible in the animal kingdom. For animals have the whole of
the vegetable kingdom for their food, and even within the animal kingdom every beast
is the prey and the food of another. Each animal can maintain its existence only
by the constant destruction of some other life.
This is the "will to live" which everywhere preys upon itself, until finally the
human race regards nature as a manufactory for its own use. This strife manifests
itself just as characteristically in the lower grades of will, e.g. the ivy which
encircles the oak until the tree withers as if choked, the parasite which fastens
itself on the animal and kills it. Even crude matter has its existence only in the
strife of conflicting forces.
Man has need of the beasts for his support, the beasts in their turn have need of
each other as well as plants, which in their turn require the ground, water, and
chemical elements and their combinations. Thus in nature everything preys on some
other form of life. For the will must live on itself; there exists nothing beside
it, and it is a hungry will.
This theory of the will is connected by Schopenhauer with pessimism. Eternal becoming,
endless flux characterises the inner nature of the will. In the human race this
character of the will is most clearly marked. All our endeavours and desires delude
us by presenting their satisfaction as the final end of will. But as soon as we
attain our desires, they no longer appear the same. They soon grow stale and are
forgotten, and then are thrown aside as useless illusions. The enchantment of distance
shows us paradises, which vanish like optical delusions, as soon as we have allowed
ourselves to be mocked by them. We are fortunate if there still remains something
to wish for and to strive after, that the game may be kept up of constant transition
from desire to satisfaction, and from satisfaction to a new desire.
Happiness, therefore, always lies in the future, or else in the past. The present,
Schopenhauer compares to a small dark cloud, which the wind drives over the sunny
plain. Before and behind it all is bright, but the cloud itself always casts a shadow.
The present is always insufficient, the future is uncertain, and the past irrevocable.
The will strives always, for striving is its real nature. No attainment of the goal
can put an end to this constant striving. It is not susceptible, therefore, of any
final satisfaction, for in itself it goes on for ever. As in the life of the plant,
so in the life of all men. There is the same restless, unsatisfied striving, a ceaseless
movement through ever-ascending forms, until finally the seed becomes a new starting-point.
This is repeated ad infinitum, nowhere an end, nowhere a final satisfaction, nowhere
a resting-place. No possible satisfaction in the world can suffice to still the
cravings of the will, to set a goal to its infinite aspirations, and to fill the
bottomless abyss of its heart.
The hindrance of this striving, through an obstacle, we call suffering; the attainment
of its temporary end is well-being or happiness. But as there is no final end of
striving, there is no measure and end of suffering. In proportion as knowledge attains
to distinctness, as consciousness ascends in the scale of organic life, pain increases
also. It reaches its highest capacity, therefore, in man. The more intelligence
a man has, the greater his capacity for suffering; the man who is gifted with genius
suffers most of all. Suffering is in the very nature of all life, and the ceaseless
efforts which we make to banish it succeed only in making it change its form. Yet
we pursue our lives, absorbed in the interests of the moment, just as we blow out
a soap bubble as large as possible, although we know perfectly well that it will
burst. Willing or striving may be compared to an unquenchable thirst. Every act
of willing presupposes a want. The basis of all willing is need or deficiency. The
nature of man, therefore, is subject to pain originally and through its very nature.
If, on the other hand, man lacks objects of desire, being deprived of them by too
easy satisfaction, then a terrible emptiness and sense of boredom, comes over him.
His very existence becomes an unbearable burden to him. Thus life swings like a
pendulum backwards and forwards between pain and boredom. Men have expressed this
truth oddly, says Schopenhauer, in transferring all pain and torments to hell, and
in leaving what remains, that is, boredom, for heaven. Man is of all animals the
most full of wants and needs. He is a concretion of a thousand necessities. Driven
by these, he wanders through life, uncertain about everything except his own need
and misery. The care for the maintenance of his existence occupies, as a rule, the
whole of human life. A second claim, that of the reproduction of the species, is
related directly to this. At the same time, he is threatened from all sides by different
kinds of dangers, from which it requires constant watchfulness to escape. "With
cautious steps and casting anxious glances round him, he pursues his path, for a
thousand accidents and a thousand enemies lie in wait for him. Thus he went while
yet a savage, thus he goes in civilised life. There is no security for him."
The majority of men wage a constant battle for their very existence, with nothing
before them but the certainty of losing it at last. Man's greatest care in avoiding
the rocks and whirlpools of life, only bring him nearer at every step to the greatest,
inevitable, and irremediable shipwreck of death. This is the final goal of the laborious
Whatever nature and fortune may have done, whoever a man be, and whatever he may
possess, the pain of life cannot be cast off. Excessive joy and excessive suffering
always occur in the same person, for they condition each other reciprocally, and
are conditioned by great activity of the mind. Error and delusion lie at the foundation
of keen joy or grief. Joy rests on the delusion that lasting satisfaction has been
found for the desires. The inevitable result is that when the delusion vanishes,
we pay for it with pain as bitter as the joy was keen. The greater the height from
which we drop, the more severe the fall.
For the most part we close our minds to the knowledge that happiness is a delusion.
We strive unweariedly from wish to wish, and from desire to desire. It is incredible
how meaningless when viewed from without, how dull and unenlightened by intellect
when felt from within, is the course of life of the great mass of men. It is a weary
longing and complaining, a dreamlike staggering through the four ages of life to
death, accompanied only by trivial thoughts. Such men go like clockwork, without
knowing the reason why. The life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole,
is always a tragedy, but looked at in detail, it has all the character of a comedy.
Everyone who has awakened from the first dream of youth, who has reflected on his
own experience and on that of others, must conclude inevitably that this human world
is the kingdom of chance and error, which rule without mercy in great things and
in small. Everything better struggles through only with difficulty. That which is
noble and wise seldom attains to expression. The absurd and the perverse in the
sphere of thought, the dull and tasteless in the sphere of art, the wicked and deceitful
in the sphere of action, assert a supremacy which is rarely disturbed.
Nothing external has power to deliver man from this dominion of woe. In vain does
he make to himself gods, in order to get from them by prayers and flattery what
can be accomplished only by his own will-power.
The most beautiful part of life, its purest joy, is pure knowledge. It is removed
from all willing, and lifts us out of real existence. This relief, however, is granted
only to a few, because it demands rare talents and rare opportunities. Even the
few, to whom it comes only as a passing dream, are made susceptible of far greater
suffering than duller minds can ever feel. They are placed in lonely isolation by
their nature, which is different from that of others. To the great mass of men,
purely intellectual pleasures are not accessible. They are almost incapable of the
joys which lie in pure knowledge. Their lives are given up to willing.
If we could bring clearly to a man's sight the terrible sufferings and miseries
to which his life is exposed, he would be seized with horror. The brevity of life
may be the best quality it possesses.
All happiness is negative in character, and never positive. Only pain and want can
be felt positively. Happiness is merely the absence of pain, for it follows upon
the satisfaction of a wish. Some want or need is the condition which precedes every
pleasure. But with the satisfaction, the wish, and therefore the pleasure, cease.
The satisfaction can never be more than deliverance from a pain or want. We observe
that the days of our life were happy after they have given place to unhappy ones.
In proportion as pleasures increase, the capacity for them decreases. What is customary
is no longer felt as a pleasure. Achievement is difficult, but when attained it
is nothing but deliverance from some sorrow or want. Therefore we value our blessings
and advantages only when we have lost them, for the deprivation, the need, is the
Man's real existence is only in the present, and the present is slipping ever into
the past. There is thus a constant transition into death. The future is quite uncertain,
and always short. Our existence, therefore, is a constant hurrying of the present,
into the dead past, a constant dying. On the physical side, the life of the body
is but an ever-postponed death. In the end death must conquer, and he only plays
for a little with his prey before he swallows it up.
With such intensity did Schopenhauer feel that pessimism was the only possible conclusion,
that he maintained that optimism was not only absurd, but really a wicked way of
thought. For optimism is a bitter mockery of the unspeakable suffering of humanity.
He revolted against the theory of Leibnitz, who maintained that this is the best
of all possible worlds. It is, on the contrary, he declared, the worst of all possible
worlds. Optimism is at bottom the unmerited self-praise of the will to live, the
real originator of the world, which views itself complacently in its works. It is
not only a false, but also a pernicious doctrine. For it presents life to us as
a desirable condition, and happiness as its end. Everyone believes that he has a
just claim to happiness and pleasure, and if these do not fall to his lot, he believes
that he is wronged. It is far more correct to regard misery and suffering, crowned
by death, as the end of our life, for it is these which lead to the denial of the
will to live. It is difficult to conceive how men can deceive themselves and be
persuaded that life is there to be thankfully enjoyed, and that man exists in order
to be happy. The constant illusion and disillusion seem intended to awaken the conviction,
that nothing at all is worth our striving, our efforts, or our struggles, and that
all good things are but empty vanity. The truth is, he says, we ought to be wretched
and we are.
The world is a hell, which surpasses that of Dante. One need look only at man's
treatment of his fellow-men.
Schopenhauer points to the children, who are sent into factories to work there daily
for long hours, performing day after day the same mechanical task. This, he adds,
is to purchase dearly the satisfaction of drawing breath. Everyone would have declined
the "gift" of life, if he could have seen it and tested it beforehand. But life
has never been chosen freely. Everyone would retire from the struggle gladly, but
want and boredom are the whips which keep the top spinning. Every individual bears
the stamp of a forced condition. Inwardly weary, he longs for rest, but yet he must
press forward. All movement is forced, and men are pushed from behind. It is not
life that tempts them on, but necessity that drives them forward.
Suicide is no solution of the problem of life. It is not to be regarded as a crime,
as in the code of modern society. But there is a valid moral reason against it,
in that it substitutes for the real emancipation from the world of suffering, a
merely apparent one. So far from being a denial of the will, suicide is indeed a
strong assertion of the will. The suicide destroys merely the individual manifestation
of life. The wilful destruction of the single existence is a vain and foolish act.
The suicide gives up living, because he cannot give up willing. He denies the individual
only, not the species. There is a more adequate way of conquering life than by destroying
it, which Schopenhauer expounds when he deals with the ethical aspect of his philosophy.
His analysis of the worth of human life, as represented in this theory of pessimism,
is the most passionate and terrible indictment of existence which has ever found
expression. His sense of disenchantment is felt with such intensity, that it colours
and distorts the whole fabric of his vision of life.
There is much affinity between the character and work of Schopenhauer and that of
Leopardi. In both are displayed penetrating profundity of thought, extraordinary
beauty of expression, and deep insight into the workings of the human mind, while
the same passionate revolt against the misery of life colours the outlook and achievement
of philosopher and poet alike. Schopenhauer was acquainted with the writings of
Leopardi, and had great admiration for his work. His subject, he says, is always
the mockery and wretchedness of existence, and he presents it with such wealth of
imagery, such multiplicity of forms and applications, that he never wearies us,
but is always entertaining and exciting. This estimate of the work of Leopardi might
with equal justice be applied to Schopenhauer himself.
As his philosophy gained ground gradually, and became known, he won many disciples
and enthusiastic followers, and for a time his theories of pessimism became fashionable.
Certain literary groups adopted them with enthusiasm, but in that direction his
influence was not permanent. It is not in Schopenhauer's theory of pessimism that
his true importance and real significance lie. In philosophy this influence has
but faintly shown itself. Schopenhauer's direct successor on these lines of thought
is Eduard von Hartmann. He rejects Schopenhauer's doctrine that all pleasure is
merely relief from pain, but admits that the greater number of pleasures are of
this kind. Satisfaction, he asserts, is always brief, while dissatisfaction is enduring
as life itself. The pain in the universe greatly preponderates over the pleasure,
even for those who are regarded as the fortunate ones in the eyes of the world.
The future, moreover, seems likely to bring us only increased misery. Hartmann's
practical conclusion is that we should aim at the negation of the will to live,
not each for himself, as Schopenhauer taught, but universally, by working towards
the annihilation of all existence. Schopenhauer's influence is here, obviously,
very strongly marked.
Another disciple, and a far more famous one, is Nietzsche. He came under Schopenhauer's
influence while a student at the university, and threw himself with passionate enthusiasm
under the spell of his philosophy. Although in his later development he reacted
strongly in an opposite direction, yet all his work bears the mark of the deep impress
which Schopenhauer had made upon his mind. His outlook on life had been changed
profoundly by "that wonderful heart-stirring philosophy," as he calls it. One of
his earliest works was an essay on Schopenhauer as Educator, in which he bases the
greatness of Schopenhauer on his power to see the picture of life as a unity, and
to express it as such. He is held up as the ideal philosopher, and as one of three
models for future man, the other two being Goethe and Rousseau. Schopenhauer's insistence
on action as the proper sphere of man, as contrasted with the mere life of thought,
made a strong appeal to Nietzsche. A philosopher, says Nietzsche, must be not only
a great thinker, but a living man. Schopenhauer had not been spoilt, as was Kant,
by his education. He had seen life as well as studied books, and so was able to
see how the free, strong man could be evolved. Many of Nietzsche's most characteristic
doctrines are suggested in this early essay, and are read partially into Schopenhauer's
It is more especially Schopenhauer's theories of art which influenced Nietzsche's
thought, and left the deepest and most permanent mark on his work. He adopted in
his early days the pessimism along with the rest of Schopenhauer's system. But this
conception of life was not really native to his mind, and it was against this aspect
of Schopenhauer's philosophy that he reacted most violently in later life. Nietzsche
stands, above all else, for the affirmation of life, Schopenhauer for the negation
of life. In his protest against pessimism, Nietzsche reaffirms with passionate intensity
the worth of life and the splendour of human destiny. He told men to believe in
the glory of things, and bade them shout for the joy of living. "All that's joyful
shall be true," he says in one of his poems. In another passage he insists that
"it is necessary to remain bravely at the surface, to worship appearance, to believe
in forms, in tones, in words, in the whole Olympus of appearance." It is clear that
by this time nothing of the pessimistic outlook on life had been left in Nietzsche's
Pessimism will always find an echo in the minds of those who by temperament tend
to see only the darker colours of the picture of life. Too much questioning and
too little responsibility lead down to the abyss, as William James points out. Pessimism,
he says, is essentially a religious disease. It consists in nothing but a religious
demand, to which there comes no normal religious reply.
To the great mass of mankind there is something alien and repellent in this grim
and bitter outlook of hopelessness. It finds little or no response in the heart
of the normal human being, even though at times the nightmare view may force itself
upon him. "Deliverance," says the Indian poet Tagore, "is not for me in renunciation.
I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight. All my illusions will
burn into illumination of joy and all my desires ripen into fruits of love."
For Schopenhauer the way of escape lay in two directions. In considering his æsthetic
theories, we shall see how he found in art a temporary release from the bondage
of life, and in his ethical system he points the way to a permanent deliverance.
It is in these statements, the æsthetic and the ethical aspects of his system, that
we find the most significant part of Schopenhauer's philosophy. His pessimism left
little permanent mark on the course of philosophic thought. It is to the other side
of his work that we must look for a fruitful issue, to his statement of the function
of art and its meaning for life; his insistence on the will, the active element,
as that which has most reality and significance in life; to the part which the feelings,
instinct, and impulse play in his system. In all these directions, Schopenhauer's
influence has been powerful and far-reaching. To-day he is a stronger force than
any other of the great thinkers of his time, overshadowed though he was by them
during his lifetime. In Germany especially, his influence is felt as a powerful
factor in the thought of the present day.
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