On this day in 1788, the great philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was born. He is undoubtedly my favorite philosopher. Not surprisingly, he was a proponent of philosophical pessimism, which is “a worldview or ethic that seeks to face up to the distasteful realities of the world and eliminate irrational hopes and expectations.” I think that puts rather too rosy a gloss on what Schopenhauer wrote. I don’t actually accept his idea in The World as Will and Representation, but I nonetheless think he is onto something profound. The will is what keeps us living even though life is nothing so much as a sequence of painful events. As Wikipedia describes the will as it applies to ontology, “Schopenhauer presents a pessimistic picture on which unfulfilled desires are painful, and pleasure is merely the sensation experienced at the instant one such pain is removed. However, most desires are never fulfilled, and those that are fulfilled are instantly replaced by more unfulfilled ones.” On the other hand, if you look at those photos of him as an old man, I think you can tell that he saw humor in the absurdities of life. Ultimately, I think that is our only hope. Because life does not make sense and continuing through all of this pain makes no sense. If it gets better, it will only be temporary.
But it isn’t actually the pessimism that I find most interesting about Schopenhauer. Rather, it is his thoughts on mysticism and Buddhism — which I share. Above all is the idea that we are not at base rational beings. Continuing to live is not a rational choice. It is a fundamental aspect of the universe. On the Origin of Species was published less than a year before Schopenhauer’s death. It explains, as a practical matter, why it is that the will must supersede the intellect. This doesn’t, however, remove the ontological question: why do species evolve in this way? Certainly, one could be evolve in such a way that life would be a rational choice. Or one could if it were not for the eternal will constantly empowering itself through the fact of existence. This is roughly how I think Schopenhauer would have reacted to Darwin’s work.
Here is an introduction to Schopenhauer that was part of The Giants of Philosophy series. Narrated by Charlton Heston, it isn’t a bad overview of his life and work. Or at least, I think it isn’t. I listened to it a long time ago:
Happy birthday Arthur Schopenhauer!