Schopenhauer On Pessimism

By Margrieta Beer, M.A.


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 voyage.

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 positive factor.

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 philosophy.

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 philosophy.

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 ├Žsthetic 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 ├Žsthetic 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.

For Further Reading

Source: Schopenhauer By Margrieta Beer, M.A.
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