This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
On the Suffering of the World
by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
“Knowledge is in itself always painless.”
Insightful, sometimes elliptical or oblique, writings on the importance of art, morality, and self-awareness in a potentially meaningless world.
While reading the title piece in this collection of essays,* I began to think that maybe masochists are on to something. After all, this is Schopenhauer’s thesis: We know we’re alive not when we are happy, but when we are in pain: “…we never really become conscious of what is agreeable to our will; if we are to notice something, our will has to have been thwarted, has to have experienced a shock of some kind. On the other hand, all that opposes, frustrates, and resists our will, that is to say all that is unpleasant and painful, impresses itself upon us instantly, directly, and with great clarity. Just as we are conscious not of the healthiness of our whole body but only of the little place where the shoe pinches, so we think not of the totality of our successful activities but of some insignificant trifle or other which continues to vex us.” This, Schopenhauer reasons, reflects the “negativity of well-being” and the “positivity of pain.” And, for him, turns metaphysical systems on their heads: “For evil is precisely that which is positive, that which makes itself palpable; and good…is that which is negative, the mere abolition of a desire and extinction of a pain.”
Much in this affects our perception of our daily lives, in whatever career we have chosen, and thus serves as good guidance, even if that isn’t necessarily what Schopenhauer intended. There are types of pain that if worked through and confronted, result in achievement or the “negativity of well-being”–while being able to ignore or suppress petty pains of the kind Schopenhauer points to (the slight at work, the off-hand cruelty in someone’s blog post) also allows us to achieve well-being.
Further, in discussing the irony of how peaceful times are not much remarked upon in history, Schopenhauer tells us that perhaps our value system, based on conflict and action, is more than a little messed up.
When he argues that we “require at times a certain quantity of care or sorrow or want, as a ship requires ballast,” this is something everyone can relate to, but perhaps especially those in the arts, as crisis or upset can often be the catalyst for creation.
Equally as interesting is Schopenhauer’s reference to Buddhism and Hinduism, which I cannot recall encountering in any previous texts in the Great Ideas series. For example, “Brahma is supposed to have created the world by a kind of fall into sin, or by an error, and has to atone for this sin or error by remaining in it himself until he has redeemed himself out of it.” It’s interesting because Schopenhauer follows this statement with a somewhat atypical “Very good!” A discussion of Buddhism–whose metaphysics about the spiritual and physical worlds had struck me earlier on as perhaps being to S’s liking–is followed by “Excellent!”, as if Schopenhauer were an instructor giving out praise to worthy students. Schopenhauer, then, seems somewhat excitable at times, his prose not always the conduit for bloodless ideas but for his own enthusiasm about the world.
When Schopenhauer loses me in his essay it comes not from his theories, but from a reliance on the difference between animals and humans to prove his points. From a faulty idea that animal nervous systems are incapable of conveying as much pain or sensory detail as human nervous systems, to the idea that animals cannot suffer–are in large part insensate by his meaning–the essay begins to unwind for me. Certainly the idea that people have free will and animals do not carries some weight, but even this idea is somewhat disproved by animal studies on primates and on dolphins and whales. In wanting animals to be his control in proving his ideas about human suffering and happiness, Schopenhauer seems to enter a scientific realm that is not his specialty. Still, one of the essay’s more memorable lines has to be, “A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.”
And I like very much Schopenhauer’s closing arguments, especially his call for people to address each other not as sir or madam, but as “my fellow sufferer.” There’s a kind of offbeat humor to the suggestion, and applicability to the 60 in 60 project. For you are all my fellow sufferers, readers, even if you are voluntarily returning and I am very conscious at times (especially when reading another essay in this collection, “On the Vanity of Existence,”) of my own pain.
* Just to increase your pain, it must be noted that Schopenhauer’s opening gambit on suffering leads, with varying success, to the following essays: the mind-blowing and possibly harmful (if on drugs) “On the Vanity of Existence”; the somewhat Seussian and enigmatic (to me, because I just Kant get some of the context) “On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance”; “On Affirmation and Denial of the Will to Live,” which contains a somewhat weak conversation between “Man” and “The World Spirit, thus evoking the nightmare of Kempis for me in a more New Age context; the somewhat Soviet-sounding but more Bob Dylan influenced “On the Indestructibility of Our Essential Being by Death”; the mercifully short and not particularly profound “On Suicide”; the awful and condescending “On Women” (“One needs only to see the way she is built to realize that woman is not intended for great mental or physical labor”–cage match: Wollstonecraft versus Schopenhauer); and “On Thinking for Yourself”, which comes as a kind of thud following the way in which Schopenhauer discredits himself in “On Women”. Yes, think for yourself, so long as you’re a man. Otherwise, get busy making those babies we like so much.
It’s difficult, then, to go on to the Aphorisms section that ends the book. I have to confess I skipped “On Philosophy and the Intellect” and “On Aesthetics,”** making right for “On Books and Writing” in hopes that it would wash the foul taste out of my mouth. And it did, to some extent, because Schopenhauer has delightful things to say about writers, beginning with his first paragraph: “Writers can be divided into meteors, planets and fixed stars. The first produce a momentary effect: you gaze up, cry: “Look!”–and then they vanish forever. The second, the moving stars, endure for much longer. By virtue of their proximity they often shine more brightly than the fixed stars, which the ignorant mistake them for. But they too must soon vacate their place, they shine moreover only with a borrowed light, and their sphere of influence is limited to their own fellow travellers…The third alone are unchanging, stand firm in the firmament, shine by their own light, and influence all ages equally.” I could go on and quote much, much more, but I’ll stop now and just say, seek out this essay. It’s delightful and contains many truths. (You can find part of it here, but not in a translation as skillful.)
**I also admit that Schopenhauer requires, even in this condensed form, more time than I could give him.
I did not expect to find the line “turkeys fly around ready-roasted” in this book, but I am glad I did as it confirms a slight silly streak in the author that I quite admire. I also did not expect on the same night I read Schopenhauer to chance across a photo of his rabbit doppelganger, named after him. Please forgive the post holiday frivolity…
Question for Readers
Do you get bored easily? Do you consider boredom a kind of pain?
Next up, John Ruskin’s On Art and Life…