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Lecture 14

PHIL 180 Lecture 14: Shopenhauer on Meaning of Life

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PHIL 180

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Shopenhauer on Meaning of Life. In On the Sufferings of the World (1851), Schopenhauer boldly claims: Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.[i] In other words, suffering and misfortune are the general rule in life, not the exception. Contradicting what many philosophers had stated previously, Schopenhauer argued that evil is a real thing, with goodness being the lack of evil. We can see this by considering that happiness or satisfaction always imply some state of pain or unhappiness being brought to an end; and by the fact that pleasure is not generally as pleasant as we expect, while pain much worse than imagined. To those who claim that pleasure outweighs pain or that the two balance out, he asks us to compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.[ii] And he quickly follows with another powerful image: We are like lambs in the field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who choose out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil Fate may have in store for ussickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason.[iii] Schopenhauer continues by offering multiple ideas and images meant to bring the reality of human suffering to the fore: a) that time marches on and we cannot stop itit stops only when we are bored; b) that we spend most of life working, worrying, suffering, and yet even if all our wishes were fulfilled, we would then either be bored or desire suicide; c) in youth we have high hopes, but that is because we dont consider what is really in store for uslife, aging, and death; (Of aging Schopenhauer says: It is bad today, and it will be worse tomorrow; and so on till the worst of all.[iv]); d) it would be much better if the earth were lifeless like the moon; life interrupts the blessed calm of nonexistence; f) if two persons who were friends in youth met in old age, they would feel disappointed in life merely by the sight of each other; they will remember when life promised so much, in youth, and yet delivered so little; g) If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist?[v] Schopenhauer argues that we should not impose the burden of existence on children. Of his pessimism he says: I shall be told that my philosophy is comfortlessbecause I speak the truth; and people preferred to be assured that everything the Lord has made is good. Go to the priests, then, and leave the philosophers in peace do not ask us to accommodate our doctrines to the lessons you have been taught. That is what those rascals of sham philosophers will do for you. Ask them for any doctrine you please, and you will get it.[vi] Schopenhauer also argues that nonhuman animals are happier than human beings, since happiness is basically freedom from pain. The essence of this argument is that the bottom line for both human and nonhuman animals is pleasure and pain which has as it basis the desire for food, shelter, sex, and the like. Humans are more sensitive to both pleasure and pain, but have much greater passion and emotion regarding their desires. This passion results from human beings ability to reflect upon the past and future, leaving them susceptible to both ecstasy and despair. Humans try to increase their happiness with various forms of luxury as well as desiring honor, other persons praise, and intellectual pleasures. But all of these pleasures are accompanied by the constant increased desire and the threat of boredom, a pain unknown to the brutes.
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