Reading Schopenhauer—Hegel-hater, poodle-lover, inventor of pessimism—puts me in the best mood. Really. Here’s why: he has decided that suffering is all there is, and that suffering will never be eliminated. Of course, we don’t believe this right off. What about all the beauty and pleasure and enchantment that life has to offer? We wouldn’t experience such positive things if suffering was the only thing. We wouldn’t eat cupcakes, listen to music, make love, drink wine, read poetry, or fill-in-the-positive-blank if we didn’t find joy or derive pleasure from these things. This is true and Schopenhauer would not even challenge it. But if we were to really think hard about why we do any of these things, he would say, it is to escape the quiet suffering that we are all fundamentally subject to (and if we deny this to be the case, he would say we are deluded). We listen to music to fill a void or because it stimulates and arouses positive emotions, and we eat cupcakes because they’re sweet, pretty and easy sources of pleasure.
Schopenhauer claims that we seek pleasure blindly due to the striving of the will to live, which is the force governing all existence and that aims to preserve life and keep the species going. Our two most basic inclinations—consuming and copulating—are the strongest examples of the the will to live operating in us. Organic matter is constantly striving to consume and devour other organic or inorganic matter, to get the most that it can, to plant its DNA, to persist—it is always struggling to keep itself afloat. But why? Well, there is no reason, and that’s Schopenhauer’s breakthrough point—that the world is a fundamentally irrational place.
We are subject to ongoing internal discord, varied and opposing inclinations, as the vehicles that we are for the will’s aimless striving. And the will is dangerous because it deludes us into chasing pleasure and joy, thinking that we can in fact find these things and escape our suffering. In actuality, striving only leads to more suffering, and the more pleasure we seek the more suffering we set ourselves up for. What is the point of all the striving, then? There is no point. There is no answer. Except for to resign, to cheat the will and to not strive. If all there is is suffering, and no amount of striving can eliminate that, then the solution is to just not try.
If you are wondering why this puts me in a good mood, my inadequate answer would have to be that I spent the past week being a sleep-deprived, over-worked, striving graduate student (there was suffering, I tell you!) and am relishing the few free hours I have tonight to…write about Schopenhauer? I was going to write “to be lazy” and “to not try,” but I am instead writing about not trying. Give me a few years to get the hang of this resignation business.