The Only Mattering Worth Caring About

03 April 2005

Schopenhauer's view of life certainly seems bleak and pessimistic.  Consider the following description of the life of man (and animals):

Willing and striving are its whole essence, and can be fully compared to an unquenchable thirst.  The basis of all willing, however, is need, lack, and hence pain, and by its very nature and origin it is therefore destined to pain.  If on the other hand, it lacks objects of willing, because it is at once deprived of them again by too easy a satisfaction, a fearful emptiness and boredom comes over it; in other words, its being and its existence become an intolerable burden for it.  Hence its life swings like a pendulum  to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.  This has been very quaintly expressed by saying that after man had placed all pains and torments in hell, there was nothing left for heaven but boredom

Interestingly,  the pendulum swinging to and fro betwixt the pain of desire and the boredom of attainment pretty much describes the approach taken  to sex by  Phillip,  the Schopenhauer  stand in   in Irv Yalom's novel The Schopenhauer Cure.   Phillip pursues women with a passion and urgency evidently  borne of some kind of emptiness.  But as soon as he makes a sexual conquest,  he experiences not pleasure and fulfillment, but  utter  boredom.  Almost  immediately, he returns to the chase with the same urgency and the whole cycle repeats itself.   Irv, by the way,  will be our guest tomorrow.  I don't doubt we'll spend lots of time talking about The Schopenhauer Cure and what seems to me it's non-Schopenhauerian ultimate message. 

Schopenhauer's pessimism is deeply held and forcefully argued.  He clearly sees it as  integral to his metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic system.  Notice how he heaps  ridicule and scorn on  the optimist:

...I cannot here withhold the statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless talk of those who harbor nothing but words under their shallow foreheads, seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really a wicked way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the unspeakable sufferings of mankind.  Let no one imagine that the Christian teaching is favorable to optimism: on the contrary, in the Gospels world and evil are used almost as synonymous expressions.

What I want to do briefly in the rest of this post is to  lay out an argument that maybe, just maybe,  Schopenhauer's pessimism is unwarranted and a trifle overblown.  I don't mean so much to suggest that  Schopenhauer is wrong to be a pessimist.  I'm not about to argue that this is the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz would have us believe.  I'm more concerned to suggest that you could have a metaphysics like Schopenhauer's  and could, in particular, accept  a lot of what he has to say about the nature of the will, and still  not be driven to anything so severe as his pessimism  Or so it seems to me.   What Schopenhauer misses, I think, is the power of creatures like us to create values ex nihilo, in a sense, from the very emptiness of the nature.    He seems to think that if value and meaning don't reside in, as it were, the antecedent universe itself, then they can't reside anywhere.   But that I think is his mistake.  Values exist because we create them.   And the kind of story he tells about the will seems perfectly consistent with such an approach. 

Without plunging deep into Schopenhauer's metaphysics, the argument I want to make is a little hard to state.  But let me try.   Suppose  that we grant Schopenhauer  that human life, indeed all existence,  is the "objectification," as he calls it,  of the ceaseless striving of an aimless, meaningless  will, a will that is the inner essence of all that exists.     Suppose too that this  will 'cares' nothing for the well being of individuals.  As  Schopenhauer puts it:

Nature too, the inner being of which is the will-to-live itself, with all her force, impels both man and the animal to propagate.  After this she has attained her end with the individual, and is quite indifferent to its destruction; for, as the will-to-live, she is concerned only with the preservation of the species; the individual is nothing to her.

So far, so bleak.   But even if we  grant that we as such simply don't matter to the  great scheme of things, that nature is indifferent to us, what exactly  follows from that?   After all, we  matter to ourselves.  Indeed,  our capacity to matter to ourselves is built on the very stuff about which Schopenhauer goes on at such great length.   Think, for example,  about what he has to say about our desires and about our knowledge.    Our desires are  the proximate  source of our own ceaseless striving.  He thinks they are merely  sources of pain and suffering.  But why think that, exactly?   Admittedly,  where there is a desire unsatisfied, there is disquiet and a striving toward fulfillment.  But if my desire can be fulfilled, especially if I can conceive that my desire  can be fulfilled, then the desire sets me a project.   Doesn't the capacity to be set a project in this way make me an entirely new kind of thing.  I am a thing that has and pursues  projects.  I am not just nature's tool.  Nature may have its own uses for me.  But I also have my uses for myself.     Let nature do with me what  it will, let it discard me when I have served the  reproductive needs of the species. Still, there is what I want.  What I strive for.  What projects I give myself.  Those projects  matter to me, whether or not it matters to nature whether I ever get what I want. 

Think of the earth.  The earth is an objectification of the all encompassing will, Schopenhauer would no doubt say.    Though the earth has endured for billions of years,  its existence too is a matter of indifference to nature at large.   If the earth were consumed by the sun tomorrow, nature would go on without a hitch, with no remorse or regret.   But does that mean that earth does not matter to us.    Our  caring is enough to make the earth matter, not to the universe at large, but to us.  Does our caring stand in some need of vindication from nature?  I don't see why it should. 

Schopenhauer would probably say that it's an illusion that your projects are "self-given."   When you learn to see yourself under the aspect of the will, you will see that you are nothing but nature's only temporarily useful tool.   But that's the step that I don't think is inevitable.  We have indeed been constituted  by blind, uncaring nature. And nature is through with us in the blink of an eye.    But we have been constituted by her  as creatures who are capable both of knowing and desiring, by Schopenhauer's own lights.    Merely this, however,   already gives us at least the beginnings of the capacity for  creating values, as it were, out of the nothingness that is nature.   The  values we create  are only  our values and not nature's own.  Nature  doesn't have any values.    It's blind and aimless, just as Schopenhauer alleges.   But that doesn't mean that we have to be.  Does it?

Comments (5)

nick's picture


Sunday, April 3, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I found similar thoughts in Finnis' "Natural Law a

I found similar thoughts in Finnis' "Natural Law and Natural Rights" He proposes that there are some basic goods that are self-evident such as Friendship, Play, Aesthetic Experience, Knowledge, Life, and Practical Reasonableness. "Desire sets me a project" The task of practical reason is an integration of desire in that lifelong project. I agree that "The values we create are only our values and not nature's own." But when we examine the values we create, we can break them down into the aforementioned goods. The Basic Goods are not given by nature; they are self-evident or intuitive.

Guest's picture


Monday, April 4, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Life is the quest to Eros, lack of the other. Ero

Life is the quest to Eros, lack of the other. Eros was a punishment from the Gods.
If there was no Eros, humans who go crazy contemplating things like Being and Essence all day.
Yes boredom is a luxury it really is depressing to look around you and not want
anything really: no food, jewelry, clothes, other things etc. that the younger humans want.
Going to a fro, seeking something to desire but finding nothing except empty time.
And women wonder why men don't call them, they are really bored of them. Yes when the
world began there was evil too, since the first days. The world in its finitude is evil in itself.
Yep, the will to reproduce cares nothing for the human, it tricks the human to have sex,
uses the carrot to get the animal to perform, knowing the hardships it will endure till death
because of the act. It cares nothing for the individuals hardship. The capacity to set a project
means that you are allowing yourself to be coerced by an object. This is similar to the idea of
Hegel that the individual does not matter, but only the State.

Guest's picture


Monday, April 4, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

On the show today, John raised a question I emaile

On the show today, John raised a question I emailed:
But ... are there *none* of my desires that aren't really products of nature or of this malign external Will to Live? Aren't *some* of my desires true reflections of me and my authentic choices?
But, pace John, I wasn't actually thinking of desires for iPods and the like. (Don't get me wrong -- I'd enjoy an iPod!)
I was actually trying to ask whether we might be capable of desires than are more than just fancy offshoots of Will-to-Live driven desires for food/drink/sex/sleep. I think Schopenhauer would probably say the desire for an iPod is just a particular desire we pursue to stave off the boredom that we feel when we are not chasing a desire. And, I'm not sure the I want the desire for an iPod to be what defines my authenticity.
Indeed, Schopenhauer himself suggests at least one goal I might pursue that would have to be mine rather than a product of the Will to Live: namely, the goal of denying the Will to Live. Of course, he suggests one do this by opting out of pursuing (other) desires. (There's something very paradoxical about this. My husband, who studies meditation with Tibetan Buddhists, has encountered the same paradox.)
Maybe it's not a paradox if the other desires for food/drink/sex/sleep/iPod belong to the Will to Live and my desire is to stand up to the bullying by denying the Will to Live. But I'd like to think that I can have desires that are really mine, and really worth pursuing, that go beyond sticking my thumbs in the eye of the Will to Live.
Can Schopenhauer help me with this? If not, can I find a more persuasive reason to reject Schopenhauer's account than that it makes me feel bad about myself?

Guest's picture


Tuesday, April 5, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Janet: Schopenhauer addresses something like

Hi Janet:
Schopenhauer addresses something like your worry at some length toward the end of Book IV of The World as Will and Representation. His dicussion is too complicated to summarize in brief compass. But here's a quotation that sums it up pretty succinctly:

Now since, as we have seen, that self-suppression of the will comes from knowledge, but all knowledge and insight as such are independent of free choice, that denial of willing, that entrance into freedom, is not forcibly arrived at by intention and design, but comes from the innermost relation of knowing and willing in man; hence it comes suddenly, as if flying in from without.
Hope that helps a little. Schopenhauer has a lot more to say about this kind of thing and its pretty fascinating stuff.

curmudgeon's picture


Sunday, May 20, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

I think most of the ?meaningful? projects we u

I think most of the ?meaningful? projects we undertake in the course of our lives stem from our innate selfish desires which still find their source in the Will. We would like to believe that we do what we do because we want to contribute to the world in some way, but the true reasons for doing what we do is because we want to become rich, or famous, or to attract mates, or to obtain respect from our peers and feel proud about who we think we are. In the same way most of us create values for ourselves simply because we want to distract ourselves from the ever-present spectre of death, and because we refuse to accept that our existence is essentially a meaningless one. It is in this insidious way that the Will still underlies everything that we do.
Yet for some people, there comes a time of sudden realization, in the way described in the quote above by Schopenhauer, that most of these pursuits are pitifully meaningless ? to look attractive, to try to get the best grades in class, to want to become rich and famous ? and then and only then, do they begin to live their lives partially, if not wholly, free from the Will. This understanding comes about through years of sincere self-reflection, study and contemplation, or years of adherence to religious tenets - in other words, through years of denying the Will. It is only then that they start living their lives truly for themselves, free of the Will. I suppose this is what the Buddhists term ?enlightenment?, and perhaps Socrates also was referring to this state as a comparison when he commented that ?the unreflected life is not worth living?. I believe Schopenhauer?s ?pessimism? (I prefer the word ?objectivity?) stems from just such an understanding and acceptance of the true nature of our desires.
Until we reach this stage, we will still remain slaves to our Will, even if we think we have found meaning through our undertaking of certain projects ? because even after succeeding in that project (which was not pursued for the purest of reasons) we look for other ways to satisfy our puerile desires for recognition and so on, and therefore we would then continue to be led by our noses through life by this quest for the end of the rainbow.
I don?t think the matter is a simple dichotomy of either being slave to the Will or free from it. Even for most of us still in the servitude of the Will, we occasionally find ourselves free from it: some examples include when we are lost within a work of art, or when we pursue knowledge purely for its sake, and when we act purely out of selfless (and Will-less) compassion. I believe that alongside true enlightenment will be the realization that in this ultimately meaningless existence, the single goal worth pursuing is the alleviation of the suffering of our fellow living creatures ? and this is the path which all saints tread. Schopenhauer himself stood somewhere between the extremes, and for this reason he was still tormented by the lack of recognition for his work: "Nature does nothing in vain?then why does she give me so many deep thoughts which find no sympathy among men?" But in his work he never compromised on what he felt to be the truth, even though he did so at the expense of personal fame and wealth ? and that is the mark of an enlightened man.