There is something discomfiting about our society’s constant moral admonitions that we should be happy. The world is not always a benevolent place. And our lives are not always filled with joy. It is vexing to pretend perpetually that “all is for the best.” Such an optimistic attitude is intellectually fatiguing. It requires denying or actively ignoring what we all know: that tragedies are common place and ubiquitous. Every day, innocent children die from illnesses, anguished men and women kill their friends and lovers, and tortured men and women eagerly consume substances to numb pain. On a more mundane level, our day to day existence is often fraught with pain, suffering, and boredom. We hanker after something. We obtain it. We are happy for a day or two. Then we are sick of it and desire something else. In between these desires, these eruptions of our will, we are bored, anxious, or irritated.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides an intellectual reason for this sometimes miserable state of affairs. Influenced by Thomas Malthus’s analysis of population growth, Darwin recognized that more offspring are born to organisms than can possibly survive. These offspring vary in traits, some of which immediately affect their prospects for survival. For example, some birds can fly more adroitly and more quickly than others, allowing them to escape from predators. These traits are passed on to future generations. The result of this process is evolution by natural selection. We should pause for moment to reflect on just how disturbing evolution by natural selection really is. Its central premise is that by winnowing out different variations of traits—i.e., by “killing” the organisms that manifest them—nature selects “fitter” organisms. Humans are a late arrival on this planet, and the amount of waste and death that led to them is astonishing and must disturb the conscience of any decent person. There is, to put it succinctly, a surfeit of suffering on this planet. And we, like other animals, are engaged in a perpetual battle. Our battle might be more subtle, more sophisticated, and more “civilized’ than that of other nonhuman animals, but it is a battle nevertheless. (And, in fact, it might be noted that often we are quite a bit more savage than other nonhuman animals).
Despite this, many intellectuals of the past and present have persisted in propounding philosophies of optimism, insouciantly explaining away misery and suffering as aberrations or privations. Although this tendency was temporarily thwarted by World War II (which made “absurdism” popular), it still thrives in American popular culture (see, for example, Ehrenreich, 2009). For many, happiness is a moral good and being unhappy is immoral. People whisper about so and so and how he or she isn’t happy, as if his or her unhappiness were a contagious illness. I am not just talking about shunning a complainer, a person who constantly rails against every inconvenience as if the universe were conspiring against him or her; I am talking about shunning those who, for whatever reason, fail to see that the universe is a beneficent place and fail to deny the reality of suffering that surrounds them.
By all accounts, Arthur Schopenhauer was a morose, obstinate, and irascible man. He was prickly, convinced of his own genius, and intolerant of other thinkers who arrived at different conclusions from his. Hegel, Fichte, Schelling (great German philosophers all), he dismissed as quacks and mountebanks. He penned a pessimistic philosophy that was riddled with inconsistencies and obvious sophistries. And yet, there is something refreshing about that philosophy, something compelling and vital and solacing about it. Schopenhauer maintained that the universe is metaphysically evil. The tragedies, dashed desires, and thwarted hopes we witness around us are not accidents; they are the fundamental thread that holds together the tattered tapestry of existence. Each individual misfortune, to be sure, is an accident. But misfortune in general is the rule.
According to Schopenhauer, the universe is composed of one fundamental “thing” and the sundry objects that we perceive are composed of variations of that “thing.” Trees, plants, rocks, stars are really just manifestations of the one “true” reality (Schopenhauer, 1969). This may sound strange. Why assert that the variegated parade of empirical phenomena in the world is really one? Why not just consent to the senses and accept that the world is comprised of many things, all equally real? An answer to this perfectly sensible question would require multiple paragraphs. However, it is worth noting that this is not so strange as it sounds. Philosophers and scientists have engaged in similar speculations since the dawn of reflective thought. Today, we accept that everything we interact with is composed of microscopic particles, and that these particles, in some sense, are the fundamental reality of the universe. Schopenhauer’s assertion that the universe is one is not absurd, even if it is wrong.
But what is this fundamental “thing” of which the universe is composed? According to Schopenhauer, we can directly ascertain the reality of the universe through our own experience of our mind. There is, first, the external world. However, Schopenhauer, following Berkeley and Kant, believed that the external world is a creation of our mind—or is, at any rate, quite different from what we perceive; therefore, it is not ultimately real. And there is, second, the internal world—the will. This, according to Schopenhauer, supplies us direct knowledge of the underlying nature of reality. The universe is will—blind, struggling, ceaseless will. This will’s only goal is to perpetuate itself. This one unremitting need is felt inside each of our breasts and gives rise to the unceasing misery of the universe. We are ephemera; the will is eternal.
Schopenhauer believed that his insight justified a bleak outlook. And what a bleak outlook his was! “If the immediate purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world…” (Schopenhauer, 2004, p. 41). For Schopenhauer, life was an unceasing struggle of man against world and against fellow man: “..the life of an individual is a constant struggle, and not merely a metaphorical one against want or boredom, but also an actual struggle against other people” (Schopenhauer, 2004, p. 42). We can succor ourselves by observing the misfortunes of other, but what does this say about the horrible state of the world: “The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more unfortunate than we: and everyone can do this. But what does this say for the condition as a whole?” (Schopenhauer, 2004, p. 42).
Put aside Schopenhauer’s somewhat preposterous metaphysics for a moment and the reader will note that his theory is quite similar to Darwin’s. Schopenhauer emphasized that individual organisms were not important in the grand scheme of life. What was important, from his perspective, was the underlying substrate, the will. From Darwin’s point of view, organisms were not important. What was important was the underlying substrate of inheritance—which Darwin eventually called “gemmules.” Today, we would say that what is important is the gene, which is the unit of replication (Dawkins, 1976). Schopenhauer used his insight that individual organisms were irrelevant to explain the power of sexual love (Schopenhauer, 1969; see also an online version: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/essays/chapter10.html). Love is not a trifle, an insignificant decoration that adorns our lives; it is, rather, the force through which the will propagates another generation of humans. And this means that love does not give a fig for our happiness—ít only cares about the propagation of life. This, in turn, means that marriages are doomed to misery. All that matters is that reproduction has occurred. The happiness of the two participants is irrelevant.
Schopenhauer, then, viewed life as a tragic manifestation of the will. He was an inveterate pessimist, and he penned a philosophy that justified his pessimism. Behind the stars that speckle the sky and the flowers that decorate our earth, behind everything that seems good and beautiful, there is the ugliness and stupidity of the will. As Will Durant put it while describing Schopenhauer’s philosophy, “The total picture of life is almost too painful for contemplation; life depends on our not knowing it too well” (Durant, 1961, p. 424). Schopenhauer did, however, believe that man could attain some form of salvation through will-less contemplation of the universe; and he did forward a profoundly moving picture of morality as driven by empathy for our fellow sufferers. He was sensitive to the plight of animals and hurled obloquies at slave owners in North America: “…whatever the reader…may have heard or imagined or dreamed of the unhappy condition of the slaves, indeed of human harshness and cruelty in general, will fade into insignificance when he reads how these devils in human form, these bigoted, church-going, Sabbath-keeping scoundrels, especially the Anglican parsons among them, treat their innocent black brothers…” (Schopenhauer, 2004, p, 138).
To Schopenhauer, optimism was a form of callousness, an insult to the misfortunes of humanity.
The powerful pessimism that permeates Schopenhauer’s philosophy might be alarming, but it is also appealing. As Durant put it, “..there is about this philosophy a blunt honesty by the side of which most optimistic creeds appear soporific hypocrisies” (Durant, 1961, p. 455). Schopenhauer informs us that all might not be for the best and that it is intellectually dishonest, perhaps even mean spirited, to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s philosophy, if stripped of its metaphysics, resembles modern Darwinism enough to be useful to the contemporary researcher. I turn to his work often, and I find that I am rewarded with novel insights.
And what of those who deny that his pessimism is charming? It is worth noting that in his single-minded insistence on drawing attention the bleak and dreary in our world, Schopenhauer left out much that is joyous and worth celebrating. Every day, millions of humans sacrifice themselves for some noble ideal, rescue wounded animals, give charity to their fellow humans, create lasting works of art, fall in love, create new friendships, birth new children, laugh, sing, dance. Even war, terrible though it may be, compels sacrifice and aid. I have been critical of the facile optimism that some promote, but a realistic tally of the goods and evils of life does not require despair. Persistent pessimism is just as false as obstinate optimism. Schopenhauer himself loved to practice his flute, had many sexual liaisons, walked two hours a day, and penned many essays. I suspect that he secretly greeted every morning’s sun with a smile.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press.
Durant, W. (1961). The story of philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Schopenhauer, A. (1969). The world as will and representation. New York: Dover Publications
Schopenhauer, A. (2004). Essays and aphorisms. New York: Penguin Books.