Sunday, February 10, 2013

Suffering with Schopenhauer

I’ve really grown to love edited collections of a given philosopher’s writings. I got started with Aristotle through a little reader back in 1988. I loved what I learned in that sampler, so why did it take me so long to try more of them? In the past few years, I’ve read anthologies of Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hegel, and others. This year it’s Peirce and Schopenauer. It seems I’ve come away from each of the ones I’ve finished with a good overview of an entire system, an idea of the philosopher’s development, and an expert’s selection of the most important, influential, or famous passages. So I’m hoping the same will happen this year.

Right now I’m about halfway through The Essential Schopenhauer, edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher, president of the International Schopenhauer Society. Now, what must it be like to belong to the International Schopenhauer Society? Or to be its president? The book begins with Schopenhauer’s assertion that life is so full of pain and suffering, it is not worth living. The only reason we don’t all commit suicide, he says, is that death is so terrifying. It is absurd to think of a God creating this wretched world. And yet, he says, man causes his own special brand of pain by trying to increase pleasure. Schopenhauer says the only thing that makes sense to him about the Old Testament is the story of the Fall of Man, because it shows our race choosing its own miserable doom. I can’t imagine going to a convention with the morbid body of people who not only agree with this outlook but wish to promote it.

Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I know that suffering surrounds us, threatens us, plagues us every day. I believe in a God who reminds us with constant images of blood just how disgusting our condition is. Talk with me privately, and I’ll be only too ready to bore you with a litany of the history of anguish in my life. But that this is worst of all possible worlds? That life isn’t worth living? Schopenhauer says we’re all incurably unhappy, but the evidence clearly says otherwise. It doesn’t matter how unhappy Schopenhauer was or how unhappy I’ve been at times in my life or how unhappy any one person is: some people are constitutionally happy. Many of them even live lives of pain and still keep smiling and caring for others and thinking life is worth living.

Schopenhauer strays maybe even farther from the evidence when he says that pleasure is only the absence of pain: only pain has a positive presence, he says, while pleasure is mere negation. I agree that relief, as wonderful as it is, only lasts a while before we take it for granted, showing its absent quality. But relief is not the only kind of pleasure, and I can only pity the man when I think that if his doctrine on this point is sincere, it means he lived a life never having felt a positive pleasure.

But set aside Schopenhauer’s extreme position. Perhaps he suffered clinical depression. He fathered one child, but it died within a year, so one can forgive him for not thinking to mention beholding his child’s face for the first time as a positive pleasure. Whatever the particular conditions of his life and however gray they may have colored his view, most of his position on pain and suffering still cannot be denied: all humans suffer, and all make their own suffering worse by needless desires. Schopenhauer builds a simple ethic on the idea: we should treat everyone we meet as a fellow sufferer and offer all the grace, forgiveness, and assistance we can. No argument here, either.

I have two remarkable coincidences to report regarding this first part of my Schopenhauer reading. The first connects Schopenhauer to two or three of the Lewis essays on animal pain that I just read in God in the Dock. Both authors, comparing the actions of insects and dogs, conclude that the sensation of pain requires intelligence. They even both mention the situation of an insect eating calmly while its body is torn apart. Lewis must have remembered the earlier man’s observation. The second coincidence came up when I looked up a passage of Les Misérables for my previous blog post. In the short chapter in which Hugo defends the existence of God and the power of prayer, he mentions Schopenhauer’s theory of the world as will just long enough to disagree with it. More about that theory in a later post.

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