Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a German philosopher, and a regular in past posts on Backyard Philosophy, stands out for a few reasons–not counting his love of puddles and his obstinant rain-or-shine walking schedule.
He was one of the first major modern thinkers to actively, even aggressively, take an atheistic stance. He was also one of the first to incorporate Eastern Philosophy into his thought, particularly the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhist discourses. He influenced Wagner, Freud, Nietzsche, and Albert Swietzer, among others, and remains a favored philosopher of musicians.
Schopenhauer also coined the word “pessimism,” using the Latinate pessimismus in 1835. This is his main claim to fame, exemplified by the oft-quoted advice, which he may have never said: eat a frog each morning, so that the rest of the day won’t be as bad.
Indeed, Schopenhauer may be one of the most “pessimistic” thinkers in Eastern and Western thought, earning him the dour sobriquet “The Great Pessimist.” And this, not his love of poodles (unfortunately) has stuck.
But despite this pessimism, or maybe because of it, Schopenhauer’s writing has a certain power. While many of his thoughts are “old” and remain warped by egotism, misogyny, and indignation–particularly his spiteful essay On Women–other pieces offer a unique, applicable insight for life, even in the present day.
Schopenhauer’s “philosophical pessimism” differs from your typical glass-half-empty type. Exemplified by individuals like Giacomo Leopardi or True Detective‘s Rust Cohle, philosophical pessimists think that the universe is inherently negative. Pain outweighs pleasure, meaning is illusory, and progress isn’t possible–these sorts of claims. As Schopenhauer puts it bluntly in “On the Sufferings of the World,” “Each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule.”
In addition to his pessimistic outlook, Schopenhauer posits the “Will to Live, a seething, restless underpinning to existence. This “Will” drives everything–from grass to kings–in a pointless, ceaseless struggle to maintain life. It pushes humans, like animals, to desire sex, food, and stimulation. It is blind and thoughtless, and dominants every aspect of existence, unconsciously steering thoughts and urges and creating the physical structures, like teeth or sexual organs, to satisfy this constant life-striving.
This has dismal implications, explaining Schopenhauer’s pessimism: since we can never satisfy the Will, we never rest from its painful push. As Schopenhauer writes in his magnum opus, Will and Representation:
“Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless, boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring. . . its desires are unlimited, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives birth to a new one. . . . Everything in life proclaims that earthly happiness is destined to be frustrated or recognized as illusion.”
Like a hedonistic treadmill of epic proportions, our lives remain one fruitless search for one satisfaction after another, whether it be love, wealth, fame, pleasure, or purpose. And then we die, which for Schopenhauer, is a relief.
But from this odd, grim little precipice, one finds a “hope” of sorts. As the contemporary philosopher and public intellectual Alain de Botton notes, pessimism has its values. And Schopenhauer is likely at his most insightful when he discusses the relief one can find amid the wreckage.
Art is one. When one contemplates art, argues Schopenhauer, one momentarily escapes the pleasure-seeking pulse of the Will. Schopenhauer draws from Kant’s own theory of aesthetics, which saw the experience of beauty as “disinterested,” and”final without purpose,” i.e. without any striving.
For Schopenhauer, one does not desire the object of aesthetic contemplation. It lies beyond the observer as some inaccessible quality or feeling that moves him or her without really being possessed. It is like holding onto the warmth of another hand: while partly your own, neither person really posses it.
As he writes, “an external cause or inward disposition suddenly raises us out of the endless stream of willing, and snatches knowledge from the thralldom of will, the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will.”
This occurs, argues Schopenhauer, because such contemplation delivers the viewer into deeper understanding of Platonic Ideas. One becomes a “pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge.”
Thus, studying beautiful things, whether they be in nature or by the hands of an artist, whether they be a Rodin sculpture or a Mozart symphony–or for that matter, a song from a modern band–shows us the roots of understanding, the raw Forms that supply the objects of existence. And pursuing such knowledge liberates us, now and then, from pain. We lose ourselves in the depth of art.
A similar redemption occurs in compassion. While, as he says in one of his aphorisms, “Man is at bottom a dreadful animal,” people also have the capacity for immense compassion. Indeed, compassion is one of the essential qualities of the human self for Schopenhauer. Everyone has it to some capacity. Some of the most endearing passages of Schopenhauer occur when he attacks slavery, animal abuse, child abuse, war, and the other miseries that people impose on other living things. Instead, he says, we should try to reduce the suffering. We have enough already.
Even in this reductive, speedy glimpse at Schopenhauer I hope one sees that his thought is more than pessimism and eating frogs. He’s for anyone who’s seen a dream unrealized, a love stale, or a person die with unrealized potential–for anyone who questions whether life is indeed worth living or if the earth was meant to just torment us.
Now and then, I turn through Schopenhauer and find an aphorism that sticks, a sympathetic thought, or a wry observation. He’s the sort of curmudgeonly old friend we may not want around much, but somehow earns his keep, a bit like an old Johnny Cash Song or a Leonard Cohen album. As John Elton sang,”When all hope is gone/ Sad songs say so much.”