I have been reviewing the philosophy of Schopenhauer recently, and it got me thinking again about the concept of suffering and how so much of philosophy seems to be tainted by the idea that it’s something to be minimized or avoided altogether. This is not something I agree with. My thoughts on the matter run as follows.
The deficiency in Schopenhauer’s philosophy is that is espouses asceticism as the only possible escape from the suffering of will.
‘Life is suffering’
However, to manifest will is inescapable – indeed, it’s the fundamental principle of life. Only in death is there hope for relief, and even that’s not known for certain. Therefore, even the most accomplished ascetic is still beholden to it. There is no escape from the desire to eat, drink, breathe and achieve shelter. So, the ascetic can only hope to minimize their engagement with will, but not to transcend it.
Rather, what is necessary is to realize the truth of existence and to see – and therefore experience – its necessary ‘suffering’ as a sacrament at life’s altar. Suffering may be the root of all our misery, but it is equally that which motivates us to change for the better. We cannot even attain the wisdom required to realize this fact without having first experienced the dissatisfaction (suffering) of not knowing and in response felt motivated to improve one’s knowledge and understanding with regard to it.
Compare this with what the Buddha espouses; i.e., that rather than trying to eliminate suffering, one rather ought to strive toward a state of equanimity to all experience, suffering or otherwise. After all, suffering is itself subjective – there is nothing about any experience that can unequivocally identify it as leading to a brighter or worse future; therefore, to form an attachment one’s assumptions is foolish.
Knowing this, it ought to be possible to train oneself to view the total contents of one’s life experience equally and to press on according to one’s will. Wisely, one should act in the knowledge that desire is endless and that the reward for achieving a goal is but a rapidly-fading feeling of relief that is soon replaced by those familiar feelings of dissatisfaction that motivated us initially, and will again toward our next goal.
Constant catharsis != good
What might be taken from Schopenhauer is that the real joy of life occurs when one momentarily transcends the active mode of life into an elevated, aloof and contemplative mode – as might occur while enjoying aesthetic beauty – a painting, melody, landscape, etc. We know, however, that overindulging in this mode leads itself to dissatisfaction and boredom, and can only be truly enjoyed when set in contrast against the ordinary active mode of life.
Knowing this, however, we are then doomed to oscillate between experiencing desires and striving to satisfy them in order to relieve oneself of the self-created burden of seeking change and then temporarily transcend this mode to experience the ‘pleasure’ of not being beholden to the active mode. But, is that ‘pleasure’ itself not just another ‘relief’?
So, Schopenhauer’s endpoints are to either situate oneself mostly in the struggle of life and seek occasional catharsis in the arts; or, to seek the denial of life and will – as an ascetic. While such a state might make more room for ‘mystical’ thought, it can never fully extinguish the ‘suffering’ that living entails, and we are therefore left to wonder whether or not the personal experience of the ascetic isn’t perhaps just as ‘dissatisfactory’, and that the nature of this dissatisfaction is more obscure and less able to be comprehended by non-ascetics. How are we to really know that the ascetic’s game isn’t just as vexatious as the ordinary game we all play?
We’re left hanging. He’s adequately described some of the truths of this existence, but failed to really investigate their fundamental nature. As the Tao Te Ching reminds us, our ultimate goal is to resolve the dichotomy of “this” and “that”, but Schopenhauer embraces categorizing action into good and bad. Surely, for a philosophy to be considered complete, it must at least pay heed to that fundamental truth.
Experience transcends judgement
The way we regard our experience of life is not fixed. Whether we regard experiences as pleasant or unpleasant relies heavily on cultural norms and the meanings and values we impose upon them. A good example is that of the Japanese work ethic. In Japan, one’s particular station in life is seen as far less important than the sincerity and dedication employed in servicing that station. The most accomplished scientist is held in similar regard to the most accomplished dumpling chef. For a Japanese person, doing a job well – an honorable feat – is held as salient, seemingly in the knowledge that all functions must necessarily be completed, and the ultimate good is best served by fulfilling best the role to which they are suited.
In the west, however, those of us in a lowly station feel ashamed and unaccomplished. We assign a strong vocation-based hierarchy of personal value upon people and continually exhort everyone to try to ascend the hierarchy. We maintain that as imperative. To remain in one’s station is to be pathetic, a wretch, dead already. To have failed to grow and evolve, to have failed in one’s mission to achieve the ‘success’ of ascending the hierarchy is regarded as a fundamental and conclusive failure.
However, regardless of the extent to which one ascends the hierarchy in and of itself, there is no greater joy to be found regardless of one’s vantage point. At the bottom we might escape persecution, but insofar as most of us occupy the middle levels, there is little to be ultimately gained from ascending the hierarchy beyond the satisfaction and pride of having achieved something arbitrary but nevertheless upon which great value has been placed, deludedly, by society at large.
So, given this evidence from Japanese society, we can extrapolate to say that there is no inherent reason to feel that devoting oneself to doing something that one is good at and gives one a feeling of satisfaction is somehow a worse existence than doing the next most prestigious thing.
In fact, it might be said that the continual pressure to change and improve with regard to vocation is simply to deny more time to the actual avenue of improvement which is philosophical thought. Faced with constant intellectual challenges, where is the time or energy to think about one’s nature, their existence and their place in reality, or what reality is or how it might be best experienced. Instead, we seek the fame of honor in achieving ‘linear career progression’, or just a promotion. It’s still the joy of winning approval, not because it affords us any more help on our path to proper self-actualization.
This is just one of many examples whereby a thing that we take for granted as being undesirable (and therefore to be avoided if we seek to eliminate all suffering) is clearly just an opinion. It’s impossible to know the value of any experience. Therefore, it is impossible to distinguish good experiences from bad. Therefore, one should greet all new experiences equally, and above all else, reject asceticism because it’s a load of bull!