Granting Value to the World

In the great contest to be the world’s gloomiest philosopher, there are many high-ranking competitors.

I won’t say that philosophers have cornered the market on gloominess. There are other walks of life that have always been abundantly supplied with people who can find a cloud in any silver lining.

But as a group, philosophers can give anyone a run for his money.

It is true that the sage Zarathustra is said to have been born laughing. And Aristotle seems to have been a happy, well-adjusted family man.

There are other cheerful chaps (interestingly, all great philosophers in history have been male) scattered here and there.

Some people will find it odd to find Thomas Aquinas on the list of those with a sunny disposition. But anyone who was so plump that he had to have a semi-circle cut out of the refectory table cannot have been too gloomy.

Then there was the great Nicholas of Cusa, the 15th century German cardinal, statesman, scientist, philosopher. He was a world-affirming fellow, as was proved by his having endowed a monastery with a vineyard for its perpetual support. Someone told me it is still going strong, 500 years later, though I haven’t checked up on that.

That Gloomy Philosophy

But for every cheerful philosopher there are 20 gloomy ones. Take Plato. Though he could write about dinner parties brilliantly (see The Symposium), Plato himself was hardly the life and soul of the gathering. He was always coming out with lines like “Human life is trash.”

That’s exactly the sort of thing you expect a philosopher to say. “Things are always worse than they seem” is stamped on the philosopher’s union card.

St. Augustine could never get over stealing some fruit from a neighbor’s tree when he was a child. Pascal, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein: gloomy, gloomy, gloomy. Descartes never seemed to be able to get out of bed. And Heidegger specialized in asking show-stopping questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (“Why not?” seems never to have occurred to him.)

Nevertheless, in the competition to be the gloomiest philosopher ever, one name towers above the others. That is the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). 

Schopenhauer had some reason to be gloomy. He was rich—which he liked—but his work was almost totally ignored during his life, and that irritated him mightily. When his father committed suicide, leaving young Arthur the family business, Schopenhauer soon sold up, explaining: “Life is a wretched business. I’ve decided to spend it trying to understand it.”

Statue of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer from artist Friedrich Schierholz from 1895 in Frankfurt.

When he briefly tried his hand at university teaching, Schopenhauer deliberately scheduled his lectures at the same time that Hegel (whom Schopenhauer detested—he wasn’t wrong about everything) had scheduled his. Hegel was then at the peak of his fame, and no one, not a single student, showed up for Schopenhauer’s class.

Schopenhauer’s great book was called “The World As Will and Representation” (1818). Its main idea is that the world that we see and experience is the expression of an irrational, purposeless, unfathomable Will.

Since the time of the Greeks, philosophers had emphasized that the essence of man lay in his reason or soul. Aristotle’s “rational animal,” Descartes’s “thinking substance,” the Christian idea that man was made “Imago Dei,” in the image of God: these traditional efforts to get at the essence of our humanity placed the accent in different places but all agreed that something separated man from the rest of animal life, and that thing had something to do with intelligence or spirit.

According to Schopenhauer, this was all wrong. Reason, the intellect, far from being a “pilot” that guides man’s will, is a mere servant of the will, a technician that discovers ways to expedite the will’s directives.

A Dreary Will

Schopenhauer inverts the traditional, Platonic-Christian image of man. He helped to inaugurate an intellectual and moral revolution that looks forward to Darwin (On the Origin of Species was published in 1859) and to Freud.

Schopenhauer knew he had come up with something revolutionary. “All philosophers before me, from the first to the last, place the true and real inner nature or kernel of man in the knowing consciousness . . . My philosophy . . . puts man’s real inner nature not in consciousness but in the will.”

We should not think primarily of “free will” here. In Schopenhauer’s view, man’s will speaks first of all with the immediacy of feelings, moods, desires—especially sexual desire—not in deliberate reasoning or conscious motives. “Intentions” really don’t come into it at all.

Furthermore, according to Schopenhauer, the will that speaks to us in desire is only one manifestation of the purposeless will of nature. If his reader were to reflect on the inexplicable urgings of his own will, Schopenhauer writes, he would recognize that “the force that shoots and vegetates in the plant, indeed the force by which the crystal is formed, the force that turns the magnet to the North Pole, . . . and finally even gravitation, which acts so powerfully in all matter” are all manifestations of the endless, procreative “Will” of nature.

At the center of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is the contention that man’s bondage to the will is just that, a bondage. “Willing springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering.” And because man is essentially will, he is essentially needy, essentially lacking.

Every apparent satisfaction gives way to boredom or fresh desire. “No attained object of willing can give a satisfaction that lasts and no longer declines,” Schopenhauer muses, “it is always like the alms thrown to the beggar, which reprieves him today so that his misery may be prolonged till tomorrow.”

But the foundation of Schopenhauer’s gloomy diagnosis of the human condition does not lie in his doctrine of the will alone.

Rather, it lies in the combination of that doctrine with his insistence that the only true satisfaction is a satisfaction that “lasts and no longer declines,” a satisfaction beyond the vagaries of time.

Together, these ideas are the ultimate source of his pessimism and his view of human life as tragic. For while Schopenhauer rejects the traditional view that locates man’s essential nature in reason, he continues to embrace the traditional Platonic-Christian identification of happiness with completeness, with a final release from all striving.

This is one reason that Schopenhauer placed such a premium on art and aesthetic experience. Art was valuable, he thought, because it offered a kind of foretaste of completeness, a momentary release from the will’s demands.

But the episodic nature of aesthetic experience renders it incapable of providing any lasting solution to the problem of the will. For Schopenhauer—and it is here that he is close to the teaching of Buddhism—genuine salvation lies only in the definitive renouncing of the will and the emancipation from the will’s imperatives.

Just how this is to be accomplished remains somewhat obscure. But it is clear that what Schopenhauer proposes is less an emancipation of life than an emancipation from life.

What aesthetic experience adumbrates, the renunciation of the will fulfills: “we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.” Schopenhauer gestures toward a wholeness that mere life, with its kaleidoscope of miscellaneous tasks, projects, and desires, can never achieve. “Existence is certainly to be regarded as an error or mistake,” he tells us, “to return from which is salvation.”

This is the unavoidable, deeply pessimistic, core of Schopenhauer’s teaching. The question remains, is it true? Is “existence . . . an error or mistake”?

The Value of the World

To challenge Schopenhauer’s teaching, one would have to challenge either his description of man as essentially will or his idea that any genuine satisfaction must be perpetual.

Take the latter. Is our pleasure in the flowers of spring any less real because it is short-lived? I write on a sunny day in a beautiful spot in the great state of Florida. No one I see is wearing a mask. Everyone has a smile on his or her face. I am told that it may rain later on. But right now the sun is shining, the ocean glittering. Perhaps the very brevity of these phenomena is inseparable from their beauty?

When Goethe met the young Schopenhauer in 1814, he sized him up immediately. He wrote an admonitory couplet for the budding philosopher: “If you want to delight in life, then you must grant value to the world.” By making happiness incompatible with man’s essence, Schopenhauer found himself deaf to Goethe’s wisdom.

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