Pessimism: Understanding Life, Yourself and Your Fellow Man

Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the most influential German philosophers. He wrote widely on topics such as metaphysics, ethics, morality, and psychology. His idea of the ‘will to live’ touches upon the subconscious drivers that are present in our psyche. This Will is the need that everyone has to stay alive and reproduce, whether your conscious of it or not.

Additionally, Schopenhauer is known for his pessimistic philosophy. This was perhaps developed due to his own failures in life much of which he spent on the outskirts of the intellectual circles and universities while his own deepest desires were to be part of such circles.

The pessimistic view can turn some people off. No one really wants to hear about how horrible and depressing life can be. People are aware of such a fact through their own existence and they rather escape this than be reminded of it. However, by truly understanding the pessimistic approach, you can gain a new perspective on life, on your own behavior and how you interact with others.

Every individual is embodied will, and the nature of will is to strive to live — will is ‘will to live’. This means that fundamentally every individual is an ego whose interest in staying alive overrides every other, including of course the life-interest of every other individual. The outcome is universal conflict. The suffering engendered by this conflict is the normal and inescapable condition of life, and happiness means merely the dimuition of suffering, i.e, happiness is negative.

It was Schopenhauer’s belief that we are only really aware of the negative. ‘The little place where the shoe pinches,’ as he says which means that your whole body might be in great physical condition and everything is good but your mind is focused on the little annoyance you feel in your foot.

The positive things are like a stream that isn’t obstructed, it just flows, unconsciously, but it’s the obstructions that draw our attention. The obstruction is the thing that comes in the way of something we desire. So, this negative thing makes us experience, it makes us conscious. All desires come with obstacles. So, if we desire something, we need to be willing to suffer.

The only way to not suffer is through the abolition of desires or by ending your own life but that contradicts the will to live, the reproductive will that we all have which forces us to keep living and hence keep suffering.

For the world is hell, and men are on one hand the tormented souls and on the other the devils in it.

It was Schopenhauer’s understanding that much of man’s suffering came from his own hands. The reason for this is because man has knowledge. An animal doesn’t compare himself to another animal and get filled with envy, sadness or regret. While, man is constantly bombarded by negative feelings which consume his thoughts. The ability to reflect and ponder can bring about disappointments and humiliations which add to the suffering.

More closely considered, what happens is this: he deliberately intensifies his needs, which are originally scarcely harder to satisfy than those of the animal, so as to intensify his pleasure: hence luxury, confectionery, tobacco, opium, alcoholic drinks, finery and all that pertains to them. To these is then added, also as a result of reflection, a source of pleasure, and consequently of suffering, available to him alone and one which preoccupies him beyond all measure, indeed more than all the rest put together.

The more we want, the more we desire, the more things we find pleasure from, the greater our troubles get because when we don’t get these things it brings about pain and suffering. Much of this is added baggage, things that we don’t necessarily need in order to survive but because we have to occupy time, to escape reality, to get out of our own head, we cling to such things.

In reality, the basic needs are easy to fulfill but such fulfillment doesn’t provide the individual with pleasure and happiness because we have the habit of dwelling on things that we don’t have or some future trouble that isn’t real.

In this manner, misfortune becomes the general rule as Schopenhauer believed.

However, in the pessimism, in the suffering, in the misfortune is an optimistic outlook. By accepting life as Schopenhauer saw it, we can also see what our fellow man is. He is you. The same sufferings, negativity, hardships you are going through are the same ones your neighbor is as well. This calls for understanding when dealing with other people because you know that they are suffering as well. Through comradery we may be able to ease the burden of life. With a helping hand, we may be able to make someone else’s time on this planet less troublesome.

From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the cause, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.

Or at the very least, we can be less judgemental and aggressive towards the fellow man for he is just like you, trying to make it through life.