The Art of Suffering
Inspired by Plato and Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, a renowned philosopher of the 19th century, believed that in a world full of endless struggles, we should control our desires and show kindness to others to find inner peace. Although often seen as a pessimist, Schopenhauer actually proposed ways to overcome the inherent frustrations and pains of human life.
Schopenhauer was born on February 22, 1788, in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). When he was just 17 years old, his father, a successful merchant, met a tragic end by drowning himself in a Hamburg canal. However, the inheritance Schopenhauer received as a result of his father’s death brought him financial independence. This newfound freedom allowed him to abandon business and wholeheartedly dedicate himself to the pursuit of philosophy, a path he eventually embraced.
Photograph of Schopenhauer at the age of 71, by Johann Schäfer
Just four months later, Schopenhauer’s mother sold their house and embarked on a journey to Weimar. It was in Weimar that she found her calling as a successful writer and hostess of intellectual salons.
Interestingly, she preferred to keep her moody and argumentative son at a distance. In a letter to Arthur, she expressed her sentiment: “It is necessary for my happiness to know that you are happy, but not to be a witness of it.” Johanna found Arthur difficult to bear, citing his excessive cleverness that overshadowed his good qualities. To her, he was an obnoxious and tiresome know-it-all.
Arthur, on the other hand, found comfort in prolonged periods of self-imposed isolation. He firmly believed that solitude was the most fitting state for a philosopher. In fact, he once said:
Were I a King, my prime command would be—Leave me alone.
Considered by many as his most significant work, The World as Will and Representation, published in 1819, showcases Schopenhauer’s philosophy of Pessimism. He challenges the optimistic perspective of Leibniz, who believed this world to be the best possible. Instead, Schopenhauer endeavors to demonstrate that it is, in fact, the worst conceivable world filled with injustice, disease, oppression, suffering, and cruelty.
During his teenage years, Schopenhauer’s skepticism emerged, leading him to adopt atheism. He couldn’t fathom how a world as imperfect as this one could possibly be the creation of a supremely benevolent being. While his Romantic contemporaries in 19th-century Germany, including Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, were filled with boundless optimism, Schopenhauer viewed existence as ultimately futile. He believed that the fundamental nature of life is characterized by an insatiable longing for satisfaction that can never be truly achieved.
Schopenhauer argues that every pursuit in life is driven by a deep sense of lacking something, yet acquiring that something seldom brings lasting happiness. Even when one desire is fulfilled, there are always others waiting to take its place. Alternatively, if all desires are satisfied, we are left feeling bored, realizing that a life devoid of longing is dull and meaningless. This idea is encapsulated in his famous words:
Life swings back and forth like a pendulum between pain and boredom.
Schopenhauer acknowledges the existence of happiness, but he contends that our understanding of it is often misguided. In his view, happiness simply represents the absence of pain and suffering, a fleeting moment of relief between the fulfillment of one desire and the pursuit of the next. To illustrate this, consider the satisfaction of purchasing your first home. Schopenhauer would argue that the source of happiness lies not in the positive state of homeownership itself, but rather in the negative state of relief from the worries associated with not owning a home, as well as the stressful process of buying property. However, he emphasizes that this happiness is likely to be short-lived, as new concerns and stresses inevitably arise, such as mortgage payments or home renovations.
Schopenhauer’s perspective suggests that while we cannot completely eliminate suffering from our lives, we can minimize it by avoiding prolonged periods of any particular kind of suffering. Drawing upon his analogy of a pendulum, a happy life would consist of a balance between achieving our desires to avoid excessive pain and experiencing some degree of failure to prevent boredom. Striking a well-paced oscillation between longing and fulfillment, even if it means a partially satisfied life, is the most realistic aspiration we can have when it comes to pursuing happiness.
La Douleur (Sorrow) by Paul Cézanne, c. 1868-69
Schopenhauer also proposed some ways to reduce the inherent suffering in daily life. These include asceticism, compassion, and engaging in art and aesthetic experiences.
The most extreme approach to alleviating suffering is asceticism. It involves leading a highly disciplined life, which entails giving up pleasures like sex, food, and alcohol. Schopenhauer believed that by eliminating all desires, suffering could be permanently eliminated as well.
If following asceticism seems too difficult, one can still practice compassion. In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, compassion arises from recognizing the fundamental unity of all human beings. By extending compassion to others, one acknowledges the shared experience of suffering, fostering a sense of interconnectedness. This shift in perspective helps individuals break free from their individual desires and ego-driven pursuits, ultimately leading to a reduction in suffering.
In addition to asceticism and compassion, Schopenhauer also emphasized the power of art in alleviating suffering. When we engage with art, whether through paintings, music, or poetry, we transcend our daily worries and immerse ourselves in a different world. Art provides an escape, a temporary relief from the difficulties of reality. By immersing ourselves in the beauty of art, we momentarily forget our troubles and find solace in the enjoyment of aesthetics.
Schopenhauer passed away peacefully on September 21, 1860, at the age of 72, in his Frankfurt apartment. Despite publishing numerous works, Schopenhauer remained relatively unknown until 1853, when J. Oxenford’s review article brought him recognition. However, by the 1870s, his philosophy gained significant influence in Europe. Philosophers, writers, composers, and artists such as Nietzsche, Wagner, Brahms, Freud, Wittgenstein, Horkheimer, Mann, Rilke, and Proust were all influenced by Schopenhauer’s ideas.
“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
“It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
“A pessimist is an optimist in full possession of the facts.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
“A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
“A high degree of intellect tends to make a man unsocial.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
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