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Come to Pessimism: Come to Schopenhauer

Come to Pessimism: Come to Schopenhauer

Sunday, 15 January, 2023 - 10:00

What if one of us were to come across an assessment of life and the world that concludes with a series of commandments and recommendations for how to deal with them that tells us, among other things:

This world we live in is an extremely miserable and melancholic place. As for life - every life - it is always a tragedy, though it may seem, when we look into the details, like a comedy. There is no escape from its misery and pain for us humans, as even if we could avoid them, we would find boredom lying in wait for us.

So long as life is meaningless and everything on earth awaits its eventual annihilation, we ought to try to stop chasing material things, seeking to expand our spending, and searching for advancement- minimizing our natural desires to the greatest possible extent and sacrificing pleasure in order to avoid pain. We should become more absorbed in spiritual practices and contemplations of the meanings of life and death. Indeed, we must come to terms with the idea of death and the fact that everything dies. As for the only thing we can do about it, it is to appreciate the fleeting beauty and affection of our connections with what and whom we love, on the condition that we do not become excessively attached to their presence so as to avert an excessive shock once they depart.

That is because happiness is negative, not positive. In the best of cases, happiness should not be measured in terms of the pleasures and joys it brings us, but the extent to which it distances us from pain. Let us work on lowering our expectations without hesitation, as the best way to reach happiness is to stop seeking it and to suffice with avoiding misery. It would be best to always expect the worst in order to see the calamities building up around us coming, as expecting catastrophes enables us to confront the ones that eventually set upon us as though they were merely simple developments compared to what we had expected. Within these modest limits, happiness is only found inside each of us, and if one found it difficult to find happiness within oneself, finding it in others would be impossible. As for the youths, they should discover loneliness as early on as possible. Loneliness is an inevitable fact of life, and the sooner we discover it, the sooner we liberate ourselves from our fear of loneliness. As for those who intend to make us miserable, we should confront them by being miserable from the start, very miserable, thereby thwarting their efforts.

… These depressing days in which we have seen the COVID pandemic, the Ukraine war, economic decline, millions migrating, and our countries collapsing… One becomes weak to the allure of Arthur Schopenhauer - the German philosopher who lived in the nineteenth century and provided us with these commandments and recommendations, as well as dozens of others of the same nature.

Schopenhauer, who is considered among the fathers of existentialism, especially the most pessimistic variety of it, and left an impact on figures of the stature of Tolstoy, Wagner, Nietzsche, Freud, Camus, and Thomas Mann, was not pessimistic about a particular circumstance, situation, or country. He was pessimistic about life itself, philosophically, historically, and existentially, and of course, his pessimism did not lack solid theoretical foundations.

Some of those who have studied him concluded that he was akin to a deviant commentator on Immanuel Kant, whom he was not economical in praising and venerating. That is because Kant concluded that we could not access anything of the world beyond appearances (the nomenal), the world of things in themselves; as for what we do see (the phenomenal world), it extends across time and space, and our mind can thus comprehend and organize it.

In this encounter with Kantianism, Schopenhauer contends that we do not perceive the world we see objectively. Instead, it is a representation created by our minds. There is no object without a subject, while things in themselves are little more than perceptions and images. The world is thus one, not two, though it does have two sides.

Moreover, he believed that the Upanishads, which are considered the foundation of Hinduism’s meditations and spirituality and had just been translated, reinforced his theory. Indeed, the concept of the Maya is equivalent to Kant’s phenomenal world, while Brahman is the invisible essence of its being. However, the understander and the understood are one and the same in the Upanishads, as are the subject and the object for Schaupenhaur.

The world of Schaupenhaur, which is both singular and dual, is “will and representation.” The thing in itself is the will or that irrational drive that constitutes the essence of the world. Will is the driving force for everything, organic or nonorganic, living or dead. However, this will is the reason for our pain, as it is the engine of our existence and desires. The desires inside us drive our actions, as we cannot escape them so long as we are caught in the trap of striving to satisfy them. Even suicide, as a negation of life, is little more than a strong demand for it that was not met.

Will operates like a stubborn, diligent, and mighty instinct in the heart of our being. As for the world, it is nothing more than a mirror for the will or a representation that our minds have created. Our bodies are rendered little more than manifestations of the will, or our bodies and our wills are one and the same, though it is presented to us in two different ways: bodies as representations and wills as direct inner experiences. It is not a consequence of the world, but rather the world is a consequence of it. And it is not, as the faithful claim, manifestations of god. Rather, the world is a manifestation of the will - a blind drive that is satanic, neither divine nor benevolent. So the will, according to another one of Schopenhauer’s frameworks, is the true internal nature of humans, and it is neither conceived nor disruptable. In a sentence that has become more of a slogan: “the world is my representation.”

Schopenhauer has been criticized as an irrationalist, which signals a setback to Enlightenment. He has also been referred to as parochial and a philosopher influenced by mysticism who was anti-modern and pre-capitalist. These are probably justified critiques. However, the most comprehensive criticism of this approach overall and of similar approaches to life is that put forward by Hannah Arendt in her book ‘The Human Condition.’ The German-American political scientist introduces the concept of “natality”: births are what matter, not deaths and endings. Every birth is a new beginning with which a new path and a new action are paved in this world.

Arendt was right, and Arthur Schopenhauer was wrong. As for the dark times that we are living in, they are an additional reason for us to think about beginnings and not follow in his footsteps.

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