A while back, I was browsing through the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, when I happened upon a short section called 'Life, Meaning and Value of'. Lo and behold, it is a detailed rebuttal to the position to which I seem to have become entrenched—that is, it is a discussion and dismissal of pessimism.
Over a number of parts I will present the main arguments, and where appropriate chip in with my own comments. Enjoy. 😉
The most systematic and probably the most influential, though in fact not the gloomiest, of the pessimists was Arthur Schopenhauer. The world, he wrote, is something that ought not to exist: The truth is that “we have not to rejoice but rather to mourn at the existence of the world; that its nonexistence would be preferable to its existence; that it is something which ought not to be.” It is absurd to speak of life as a gift, as so many philosophers and thoughtless people have done. “It is evident that everyone would have declined such a gift if he could have seen it and tested it beforehand.” To those who assure us that life is only a lesson, we are entitled to reply: “For this very reason I wish I had been left in the peace of the all-sufficient nothing, where I would have no need of lessons or of anything else” (The World as Will and Idea, Vol. III, p. 390).
Happiness, according to Schopenhauer, is unobtainable for the vast majority of humankind. “Everything in life shows that earthly happiness is destined to be frustrated or recognized as illusion.” People either fail to achieve the ends they are striving for or else they do achieve them only to find them grossly disappointing. But as soon as a man discovers that a particular goal was not really worth pursuing, his eye is set on a new one and the same illusory quest begins all over again. Happiness, accordingly, always lies in the future or in the past, and “the present may be compared to a small dark cloud which the wind drives over the sunny plain: before and behind it all is bright, only it itself always casts a shadow. The present is therefore always insufficient; but the future is uncertain, and the past is irrevocable” (ibid., p. 383). Men in general, except for those sufficiently rational to become totally resigned, are constantly deluded—“now by hope, now by what was hoped for.” They are taken in by “the enchantment of distance,” which shows them “paradises.” These paradises, however, vanish like “optical illusions when we have allowed ourselves to be mocked by them.” The “fearful envy” excited in most men by the thought that somebody else is genuinely happy shows how unhappy they really are, whatever they pretend to others or to themselves. It is only “because they feel themselves unhappy” that “men cannot endure the sight of one whom they imagine happy.”
On occasions Schopenhauer is ready to concede that some few human beings really do achieve “comparative” happiness, but this is not of any great consequence. For aside from being “rare exceptions,” these happy people are really like “decoy birds”—they represent a possibility that must exist in order to lure the rest of humankind into a false sense of hope. Moreover, happiness, insofar as it exists at all, is a purely “negative” reality. We do not become aware of the greatest blessings of life—health, youth, and freedom—until we have lost them. What is called pleasure or satisfaction is merely the absence of craving or pain. But craving and pain are positive. As for the few happy days of our life—if there are any—we notice them only “after they have given place to unhappy ones.”
Schopenhauer not infrequently lapsed from his doctrine of the “negative” nature of happiness and pleasure into the more common view that their status is just as “positive” as that of unhappiness and pain. But he had additional arguments that do not in any way depend on the theory that happiness and pleasure are negative. Perhaps the most important of these is the argument from the “perishableness” of all good things and the ultimate extinction of all our hopes and achievements in death. All our pleasures and joys “disappear in our hands, and we afterwards ask astonished where they have gone.” Moreover, a joy that no longer exists does not “count”—it counts as little as if it had never been experienced at all:That which has been exists no more; it exists as little as that which has never been. But of everything that exists you may say, in the next moment, that it has been. Hence something of great importance in our past is inferior to something of little importance in our present, in that the latter is a reality, and related to the former as something to nothing. (“The Vanity of Existence,” in The Will to Live, p. 229)
Some people have inferred from this that the enjoyment of the present should be “the supreme object of life.” This is fallacious; for “that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”
The final “judgment of nature” is destruction by death. This is “the last proof” that life is a “false path,” that all man’s wishing is “a perversity,” and that “nothing at all is worth our striving, our efforts and struggles.” The conclusion is inescapable: “All good things are vanity, the world in all its ends bankrupt, and life a business which does not cover its expenses” (The World as Will and Idea, Vol. III, p. 383).
The Pointlessness Of It All
Some of Schopenhauer’s arguments can probably be dismissed as the fantasies of a lonely and embittered man who was filled with contempt for humankind and who was singularly incapable of either love or friendship. His own misery, it may be plausibly said, made Schopenhauer overestimate the unhappiness of human beings. It is frequently, but not universally, true that what is hoped for is found disappointing when it is attained, and while “fearful envy” of other people’s successes is common enough, real sympathy and generosity are not quite so rare as Schopenhauer made them out to be. Furthermore, his doctrine that pleasure is negative while pain is positive, insofar as one can attach any clear meaning to it, seems glaringly false. To this it should be added, however, that some of Schopenhauer’s arguments are far from idiosyncratic and that substantially the same conclusions have been endorsed by men who were neither lonely nor embittered and who did not, as far as one can judge, lack the gift of love or friendship.
If everything wasn't so pointless, I think I'd look forward to reading a lot more from Schopenhauer. Two questions though. Is life worth living? I for one still cannot answer this question. Finding ourselves alive is only a temporary situation anyway, but certainly a life filled with pain and misery would be worse than no life at all. Is happiness negative and pain positive? Like the author of the piece, I must admit this looks false, but as I've discussed before on this blog, happiness is a chemical state of the brain (the action of endorphins if you will) and as such is merely akin to a drug user getting a fix. Whether you think that is an admirable way to spend your time, is of course a personal opinion...
Clarence Darrow, one of the most compassionate men who ever lived, also concluded that life was an “awful joke.” Like Schopenhauer, Darrow offered as one of his reasons the apparent aimlessness of all that happens. “This weary old world goes on, begetting, with birth and with living and with death,” he remarked in his moving plea for the boy-murderers Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, “and all of it is blind from the beginning to the end” (Clarence Darrow—Attorney for the Damned, edited by A. Weinberg, New York, 1957). Elsewhere he wrote: “Life is like a ship on the sea, tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed for no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot; simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves” (“Is Life Worth Living?,” p. 43). In addition to the aimlessness of life and the universe, there is the fact of death. “I love my friends,” wrote Darrow, “but they all must come to a tragic end. ”Death is more terrible the more one is attached to things in the world. Life, he concludes, is “not worth while,” and he adds (somewhat inconsistently, in view of what he had said earlier) that “it is an unpleasant interruption of nothing, and the best thing you can say of it is that it does not last long” (“Is the Human Race Getting Anywhere?,” p. 53).
Darrow was an interesting fellow, and from what I've read of him, he seems to have understood life quite well.
Leo Tolstoy, unlike Darrow, eventually came to believe in Christianity, or at least in his own idiosyncratic version of Christianity, but for a number of years the only position for which he could see any rational justification was an extreme form of pessimism. During that period (and there is reason to believe that in spite of his later protestations to the contrary, his feelings on this subject never basically changed) Tolstoy was utterly overwhelmed by the thought of his death and the death of those he cared for and, generally, by the transitory nature of all human achievements. “Today or tomorrow,” he wrote in “A Confession,” “sickness and death will come to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort?” Tolstoy likened the fate of man to that of the traveler in the Eastern tale who, pursued by an enraged beast, seeks refuge in a dry well. At the bottom of the well he sees a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. To escape the enraged beast above and the dragon below, he holds onto a twig that is growing in a crack in the well. As he looks around he notices that two mice are gnawing at the stem of the twig. He realizes that very soon the twig will snap and he will fall to his doom, but at the same time he sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the branch and reaches out with his tongue to lick them. “So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces.… I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure.… I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. And this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth.”
These considerations, according to Tolstoy, inevitably lead to the conclusion that life is a “stupid fraud,” that no “reasonable meaning” can be given to a single action or to a whole life. To the questions “What is it for?” “What then?,” “Why should I live?” the answer is “Nothing can come of it,” “Nothing is worth doing,” “Life is not worthwhile.”
What ways out are available to a human being who finds himself in this “terrible position”? Judging by the conduct of the people he observed, Tolstoy relates that he could see only four possible “solutions.” The first is the way of ignorance. People who adopt this solution (chiefly women and very young and very dull people) have simply not or not yet faced the questions that were tormenting him. Once a person has fully realized what death means, this solution is not available to him. The second way is that of “Epicureanism,” which consists in admitting the “hopelessness of life” but seizing as many of life’s pleasures as possible while they are within reach. It consists in “disregarding the dragon and the mice and licking the honey in the best way, especially if much of it is around.” This, Tolstoy adds, is the solution adopted by the majority of the people belonging to his “circle,” by which he presumably means the well-to-do intellectuals of his day. Tolstoy rejects this solution because the vast majority of human beings are not well-to-do and hence have little or no honey at their disposal and also because it is a matter of accident whether one is among those who have honey or those who have not. Moreover, Tolstoy observes, it requires a special “moral dullness,” which he himself lacked, to enjoy the honey while knowing the truth about death and the deprivations of the great majority of men. The third solution is suicide. Tolstoy calls this the way of “strength and energy.” It is chosen by a few “exceptionally strong and consistent people.”After they realize that “it is better to be dead than to be alive, and that it is best of all not to exist,” they promptly end the whole “stupid joke.” The means for ending it are readily at hand for everybody, but most people are too cowardly or too irrational to avail themselves of them. Finally, there is the way of “weakness.” This consists in seeing the dreadful truth and clinging to life nevertheless. People of this kind lack the strength to act rationally and Tolstoy adds that he belonged to this last category.
Ha. Me too. I've quoted that Tolstoy story before, and it really is a very good description of human existence.
Strengths of the Pessimist Position
Is it possible for somebody who shares the pessimists’ rejection of religion to reach different conclusions without being plainly irrational? Whatever reply may be possible, any intelligent and realistic person would surely have to concede that there is much truth in the pessimists’ claims. That few people achieve real and lasting happiness, that the joys of life (where there are any) pass away much too soon, that totally unpredictable events frequently upset the best intentions and wreck the noblest plans—this and much more along the same lines is surely undeniable. Although one should not dogmatize that there will be no significant improvements in the future, the fate of past revolutions, undertaken to rid man of some of his apparently avoidable suffering, does not inspire great hope. The thought of death, too, even in those who are not so overwhelmed by it as Tolstoy, can be quite unendurable.
Moreover, to many who have reflected on the implications of physical theory it seems plain that because of the constant increase of entropy in the universe all life anywhere will eventually die out. Forebodings of this kind moved Bertrand Russell to write his famous essay “A Free Man’s Worship,” in which he concluded that “all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” Similarly, Wilhelm Ostwald observed that “in the longest run the sum of all human endeavor has no recognizable significance.” Although it is disputed whether physical theory really has such gloomy implications, it would perhaps be wisest to assume that the position endorsed by Russell and Ostwald is well-founded.
Enough pessimism and reality for one day. I'll leave you to think about that for a bit. Part II will follow shortly...Go Top