For many years, as we wrote in a recent post, Friedrich Nietzsche has been misunderstood as a philosophical nihilist and even a proto-Nazi. This is unfortunate, given all Nietzsche has to say about living courageously in the face of nihilism and proto-Nazism, both of which he feared and hated. But if we're looking for a philosopher who espoused few, if any, positive values, who saw the entire world as empty and malevolent, and who had little sympathy for his fellow man, we could instead turn to the German thinker whom Nietzsche called his “teacher,” Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer adopted Buddhism early, years before D.T. Suzuki arrived in Europe and the U.S. and popularized Eastern religion and philosophy. Perhaps Schopenhauer’s version of Buddhism didn’t quite catch on the same way because in his interpretation, it resembles a dark, pessimistic inversion of Rene Descartes' propositions two centuries earlier. “In my 17th year,” wrote Schopenhauer (1788-1860), “I was gripped by the misery of life, as the Buddha had been in his youth when he saw sickness, old age, pain and death.” So far, textbook intro to Buddhism.
But Buddhism has little to say about how the world came into existence. Schopenhauer goes on to write, “The truth was that this world could not have been the work of an all loving being, but rather that of a devil, who had brought creatures into existence in order to delight in their sufferings.” Schopenhauer fits into the rare company of philosophical Antinatalists, those who believe it would be better for us not to have been born at all. How is it then that Alain de Botton can claim, as he does in his School of Life intro to Schopenhauer above, that “like the Buddha… he deserves disciples, schools, artworks, and monasteries to put his ideas into practice.” What would that even look like?
Schopenhauer’s pessimism was thoroughgoing, and arrived fully developed in his 1818 masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, published when he was thirty. The Schopenhauer we tend to know, if we know him at all, is a scowling old man with an incongruously comic ring of white hair surrounding his bald head like a fluffy winged halo. But until his death at age 72, he stuck to the systematic thinking of his youth; “he published a great deal,” says Bryan Magee above in a discussion with philosopher Frederick Copleston,” but all of it was to extend, or elaborate, or enrich the philosophical system he had developed in his twenties and from which he never departed.”
In those many later publications, including two works on ethics and a revised edition of Will and Representation over twice the original length, Schopenhauer theorized the world as essentially irrational and the creatures in it as governed by the “will-to-life,” which, says de Botton, “makes us thrust ourselves forward, cling to existence, and look always to our own advantage.” Expressed mainly through sex, the will-to-life drives us to fall in love again and again, a phenomenon Schopenhauer respected, “as one would a tiger or a hurricane.” But Schopenhauer resented love, and saw it only as a necessity for the preservation of the species.
Aside from serving this essential function, the will-to-life expressed through love only drove us to unhappiness. Schopenhauer tends to be much less quotable than his most famous admirer, Nietzsche, but in one quote that sums up his idea of love, he wrote, “directly after copulation the devil’s laughter is heard.” It is perhaps needless to point out that he had a very low view of the business of procreation, not only because he opposed birth, but also because he opposed the conditions that give rise to it. Rather than elevating us above the run of other sexually procreating animals, our consciousness only serves to make us aware of our misery.
“At every stop, in great things and small,” Schopenhauer wrote, "we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being happy. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are deeply etched with such disappointment.” Nonetheless, we can “rise above the demands of the will-to-life,” he believed, in the manner of celibate monks and nuns. As Buddhist monastics have for 2,600 years, and more recently a few scowling German philosophers, we can renounce the pleasures and the sufferings of everyday human life.
The other way in which Schopenhauer recommended that we face the grimness of human life is through a form of art therapy, spending “as long as we can with art and philosophy, whose task is to hold up a mirror to the frenzied efforts and unhappy turmoil created in us by the will-to-life.” Where Schopenhauer’s first proposal for dealing with life’s suffering closely resembles that of Theravada Buddhism, his second is a Mahayana for a German Romantic, who finds compassion for other suffering individuals only through the medium of art, literature, and philosophy.
In the full embrace of pessimism, Schopenhauer may sound to us a little like another German artist, Werner Herzog, who also stares into the abyss of human misery and finds value only in its relation to art: “To marry means to do everything possible to become an object of disgust to each other,” Schopenhauer writes, “Every life history is the history of suffering,” “Life has no intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by desire and illusion.” Should you find such statements comforting because they sound true to your experience, then perhaps Schopenhauer holds for you a key to understanding and accepting the tragedy of existence. But maybe he was wrong in assuming everyone was as miserable as himself.
See de Botton expand on Schopenhauer’s view of love in the video above from his A Guide to Happiness series.