Schopenhauer is infamous for his morbid pessimism, but upon reading him I did find him to be more than that. His core philosophy describes a realism, and although he certainly sometimes interprets it pessimistically, in other times he leaves it as be, without imposing any explicit value judgment on it. I recently decided that I’ll write very short posts about anything and everything, and increase the regularity and quantity of my writing rather than worrying about the novelty and quality of it. This post is about the Schopenhauerian positive conception of suffering. As it will be evident, I’m writing mostly to clarify my own understanding, but if it does end up helping or traumatizing others that’s all the better! The primary source of this post is his essay “On the Suffering of the World”.
At this point I should note that I’m using terms such as pessimism and realism quite loosely, I’m referring to the common dictionary definitions rather than the philosophical schools of thought. In case I do refer to the philosophical thoughts I’ll make sure to make it explicit.
With the opening sentence of the essay Schopenhauer sets the tone, “If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world”. Upon witnessing the amount of suffering individuals and humanity as a whole goes through, it simply would be absurd if this were not the direct “purpose” of our life. Of course, “purpose” here does not signify some transcendental objective of our life. It simply states the fact that suffering is the most fundamental reality we face—“Each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule”—thus it must be inherent in the nature of life itself.
Phenomenologically, whatever we take notice of thwarts our will in some way, when things go our way we simply don’t notice it. This can be noticed at various levels of individual and social reality. Considering pure sensations, we are not conscious of our whole body but only where it’s uncomfortable, “where the shoe pinches”. In case of interpersonal relationships as well as socio-political developments, conflicts are much more real to us and they leave a far greater impression than the easy times. “History shows us the life of nations and finds nothing to narrate but wars and tumults; the peaceful years appear only as occasional brief pauses and interludes”. Childhood traumas leave such an impact that they continue to haunt us for the rest of our lives, whereas an easy childhood is just a mere backdrop to the further life that lies ahead. Even if we disregard trauma as an outlier, in general, “we think not of the totality of our successful activities but of some insignificant trifle or other which continues to vex us”. If we keep thinking about this, we can come up with lots and lots of examples.
Schopenhauer was gripped by this realization, he concluded that evil, pain, and suffering are the positive aspects of existence, only they exist of themselves; happiness, gratification and all goodness can only defined negatively, as the absence of the former. This realization is not something very new; like with almost everything in philosophy, ancient Greeks did it first. In particular, Epicurean philosophy is founded on this purely negative notion of happiness as the absence of pain. But Schopenhauer went one step further and created a system of metaphysics founded upon this realization, but more on that later on a separate post.
Moreover, men require this constant pressure of wants, desires, frustrations and sufferings, otherwise they would simply give into “the most unbridled folly, indeed madness”. In an Utopia where suffering doesn’t exist and every desire is satisfied as soon as it arose, men would either kill themselves or deliberately create conflict and suffering, because suffering—when thought of as a thwarting of our will and the subsequent overcoming thereof—is the fundamental drive for life, the “purpose” of our lives.