Arthur Schopenhauer and Pain vs. Pleasure in life.
Arthur Schopenhauer was the German philosopher (1788-1860) most famous for his The World as Will and Representation. This short book is a collection of text on several topics: aesthetics, suicide, thinking and the intellect etc. and he’s is not holding back as he shares his dire views on the human condition!
First off he makes it clear for us that when it comes to life, suffering is its main characteristic. He compares the distribution of pain to pleasure to that of an animal being eaten alive to the animal eating it.
“A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweigh pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.”Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Suffering of the World
Suffering as the main characteristic of life.
And it’s quite easy to sympathize with his view that pain outweigh enjoyment in life once you give the experience of existence some thought.
For instance; as I write this I’m tucked in under a cosy cover, my beautiful daughter is by my side, and we live in a heated and spacious dwelling that protects me from the natural elements. I have everything a person can ask for but where do I focus? On the annoying itch on the left side of my nose.
Suffering, frustration and pain tends to take the center stage in how we experience life, while joys and pleasures often take conscious effort to appreciate. Schopenhauer suggests that we might do well to see life as a penal colony, a form of hell on earth.
“As a reliable compass for orienting yourself in life nothing is more useful than to accustom yourself to regarding this world as a place of atonement, are sort of penal colony. When you have done this you will order your expectations of life according to the nature of things and no longer regard the calamities, sufferings, torments, and miseries in life as something irregular and not to be expected but will find them entirely in order, well knowing that each of us is here being punished for his existence and each in his own particular way.”
Schopenhauer proposes that, maybe, that instead of calling people ‘sir’, ‘monsieur’, instead ‘fellow sufferer’ would be more suitable. This greeting would make us see other men in a truer light and reminds us of “the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity.”
On Thinking for Yourself
He also gives some great tips for all of us book nerds:
“As the biggest library if it is in disorder is not as useful as the small but well-arranged one, so you may accumulate a vast amount of knowledge but it will be of far less value to you than a much smaller amount if you have not thought it over yourself; because only through ordering what you know by comparing every truth with every other truth can you take complete possession of your knowledge and get it into your power.”
“…the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have free time.”
“Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts.”
“You should read only when your own thoughts dry up, which will of course happen frequently enough even to the best heads..”
“It may sometimes happen that a truth, an insight, which you have slowly and laboriously puzzled out by thinking for yourself could easily have been found already written in a book; but it is a hundred times more valuable if you have arrived at it by thinking for yourself.
On Women – Really?!
While most of the book is packed with powerful aphorism and insightful thoughts on the human condition, the chapter ‘On Women’ stands out. A lot of things have been added to the category of misogynistic in recent days, but Schopenhauer’s take on women is upright nasty.
“Women are suited to being the nurses and teachers of our earliest childhood precisely because they themselves are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children, their whole lives long: a kind of intermediate stage between child and the man, who is the actual human being, ‘man’.
I haven’t read any biographies about Schopenhauer yet, but judging from the tone he haven’t had much luck with the women. I think this chapter says more about Schopenhauer than the role and accomplishments of the person cast as playing the Lady in the 18th century.
The book held my attention. But it feels a bit unfocused as it’s covers such a wide range of seemingly unconnected topic. The chapters are titled:
- On the suffering of the World
- On the Vanity of Existence
- On the Indestructibility of Our Essential Being by Death
- On Affirmation and Denial of the Will to Live
- On Suicide
- On Women
- On Thinking for Yourself
- On Philosophy and the Intellect
- On Aesthetics
What strikes me with this book is how piercing and straightforward most of his arguments are and now I find myself seeing suffering everywhere. This is a short book and it’s probably a good starting point for anyone wanting to get a taste of Schopenhauer’s rather pessimistic but sober view on things.
Well, maybe except his views on women.. I found the chapter quite hilarious though!