Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy challenges our conviction that life is inherently good. Life, Schopenhauer argues, is actually inherently bad. We may occasionally have good moments, but those are brief exceptions to the rule of otherwise constant suffering. While Schopenhauer certainly isn’t the most fun philosopher, his ideas do warrant a close examination. Schopenhauer presents a number of overlapping arguments in favor of pessimism; this piece examines what I consider to be the strongest (or at least most interesting) case for the belief that life is inherently bad.
At some point in your childhood, there was probably some toy, video game, or other item that you wanted more than anything else in the world. If you were lucky, you eventually got it. After a few days, though, that object seemed to lose the luster that it had before you owned it. Pretty soon, something else caught your eye, and the cycle repeated itself. Schopenhauer felt that this is an accurate description of all existence. We want to own things and achieve certain goals; in other words, we have a will. So, we work and struggle to own those things and achieve those goals, but, shortly after we succeed, the fun wears off. Getting a perfect score on the SAT may make you feel great for a few days, but pretty soon, you’re going to forget about it, even though you may have spent months or years suffering as you studied and prepared for the test.
If we aren’t struggling towards goals of ours, then we experience boredom. This type of boredom is not just lounging around on a lazy afternoon – it is the lack of any hopes, dreams, and desires. Boredom, as Schopenhauer used the word, is strikingly similar to extreme clinical depression. With no goals or drives, you simply waste away. Even if you don’t reach such an extreme level of boredom, it’s still a pretty terrible feeling to not have any sort of long-term goals or big dreams. You just sort of float through life, passively accepting it all, but without any larger purpose. Boredom, both in the extreme and limited senses, seems to involve rather significant suffering.
Your choices, then, are either struggling or boredom, both of which result in suffering. Schopenhauer used the analogy of a pendulum swinging back and forth, going between struggle and boredom. There are occasional moments of genuine happiness, but those are brief in comparison to the extensive time spent either struggling or bored. You waited weeks for the toy, but lost interest after a few days. You spent months studying for the SAT, but now it just doesn’t seem to matter that you aced the test. In each instance, the cycle repeats itself: struggle, momentary happiness, boredom.
Maybe you can take some comfort knowing that this is only how humans are. Even if we’re condemned to this pendulum of suffering, the rest of the universe is still beautiful and admirable, right? Wrong. Not only are humans built this way, but so is all of reality.
To prove this point, Schopenhauer invoked our scientific understanding of the world. Most scientists today will tell you that the universe is composed of matter and energy; Schopenhauer would disagree with them. Matter can (roughly) be thought of as the building blocks of reality (this is also known as the “atomism” theory). The problem with this theory is that nothing can actually meet the criteria necessary for being the smallest building block of reality. Any building block you find will be composed of smaller building blocks, and those smaller building blocks will themselves be composed of even smaller building blocks, and so on and so forth. The very idea of matter (as defined above) is illogical, since there are no smallest building blocks of reality which can be combined to create larger things (like chairs and people). Matter, therefore, cannot exist. If matter doesn’t exist, then all that does exist is energy or, to use a similar term, “force.”
The only analogy we humans have for understanding “force” is “will,” or, that part of us which wants and desires things. The idea of force is, Schopenhauer believes, literally inconceivable to us without the idea of will. When we see a rock breaking a window, the only way we can make sense of the interaction between forces is if we think of them like ourselves. The rock “wants” to go through the window, and the window “wants” to stop it. The two collide, and the rock wins. If everything is force, and force is will, then everything is will. And, as established above, to will is to suffer. Therefore, everything is suffering.
This argument about all of reality being a form of willing, and therefore suffering, is rather shifty. It contains a number of seemingly unjustified logical leaps, questionable premises, and other oddities (for instance, shouldn’t the objection used against matter also apply to force?) So forgetting that all of reality is suffering, and instead just looking at our existence, does Schopenhauer have a point? It seems that he does, as we will either be actively working towards a goal, which requires work and effort, or we’ll be inactive and un-stimulated. With that in mind, though, we don’t necessarily have to despair. This philosophy is very similar to Buddhism (Schopenhauer was heavily influenced by eastern philosophy), and Buddhists don’t seem to be in perpetual misery. Even if life is constant suffering, that doesn’t mean we have to be pessimists about it.
One other important consideration is whether or not struggle and/or boredom necessarily results in suffering. When I play a physical sport, I am constantly using my will, struggling and seeking an end goal, but I’m also having fun while I do it. Those times certainly qualify as physical suffering, but the pleasure that comes with it is worth my fatigue. For a more thorough discussion of this matter, I highly recommend Julian Young’s book “The Death of God and the Meaning of Life.” He’s a well-respected professional philosopher, but the book is a very easy read, even on dense topics. Without the book, I wouldn’t have been able to write this post on Schopenhauer.