Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum


The semi-satisfied life

Renowned for his pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer was nonetheless a conoisseur of very distinctive kinds of happiness

by David Bather Woods + BIO

Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

On 13 December 1807, in fashionable Weimar, Johanna Schopenhauer picked up her pen and wrote to her 19-year-old son Arthur: ‘It is necessary for my happiness to know that you are happy, but not to be a witness to it.’

Two years earlier, in Hamburg, Johanna’s husband Heinrich Floris had been discovered dead in the canal behind their family compound. It is possible that he slipped and fell, but Arthur suspected that his father jumped out of the warehouse loft into the icy waters below. Johanna did not disagree. Four months after the suicide, she had sold the house, soon to leave for Weimar where a successful career as a writer and saloniste awaited her. Arthur stayed behind with the intention of completing the merchant apprenticeship his father had arranged shortly before his death. It wasn’t long, however, before Arthur wanted out too.

In an exchange of letters throughout 1807, mother and son entered tense negotiations over the terms of Arthur’s release. Johanna would be supportive of Arthur’s decision to leave Hamburg in search of an intellectually fulfilling life – how could she not? – including using her connections to help pave the way for his university education. But on one condition: he must leave her alone. Certainly, he must not move to be near her in Weimar, and under no circumstances would she let him stay with her.

What her line of 13 December doesn’t reveal is that Johanna simply couldn’t tolerate Arthur: ‘All your good qualities,’ she wrote on 6 November, ‘become obscured by your super-cleverness and are made useless to the world merely because of your rage at wanting to know everything better than others … If you were less like you, you would only be ridiculous, but thus as you are, you are highly annoying.’ He was, in short, a boorish and tiresome know-it-all.

If people found Arthur Schopenhauer’s company intolerable, the feeling was mutual. He spent long depressive periods in self-imposed isolation, including the first two months of 1832 in his new rooms in Frankfurt, the city that became his adoptive home after a stint in Berlin. He defended himself against loneliness with the belief that solitude is the only fitting condition for a philosopher: ‘Were I a King,’ he said, ‘my prime command would be – Leave me alone.’ The subject of happiness, then, is not normally associated with Schopenhauer, neither as a person nor as a philosopher. Quite the opposite: he is normally associated with the deepest pessimism in the history of European philosophy.

Schopenhauer’s pessimism is based on two kinds of observation. The first is an inward-looking observation that we aren’t simply rational beings who seek to know and understand the world, but also desiring beings who strive to obtain things from the world. Behind every striving is a painful lack of something, Schopenhauer claims, yet obtaining this thing rarely makes us happy. For, even if we do manage to satisfy one desire, there are always several more unsatisfied ones ready to take its place. Or else we become bored, aware that a life with nothing to desire is dull and empty. If we are lucky enough to satisfy our basic needs, such as hunger and thirst, then in order to escape boredom we develop new needs for luxury items, such as alcohol, tobacco or fashionable clothing. At no point, Schopenhauer says, do we arrive at final and lasting satisfaction. Hence one of his well-known lines: ‘life swings back and forth like a pendulum between pain and boredom’.

Schopenhauer knew from his extensive studies of classical Indian philosophy that he wasn’t the first to observe that suffering is essential to life. The Buddhists have a word for this suffering, dukkha, which is acknowledged in the first of its Four Noble Truths. The fourth and final of these truths, magga, or the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of dukkha, would also inspire large parts of his moral philosophy.

The second kind of observation is outward-looking. According to Schopenhauer, a glance at the world around us disproves the defining thesis of Gottfried Leibniz’s optimism that ours is the best of all possible worlds. On the contrary, Schopenhauer claims, if our world is ordered in any way, it is ordered to maximise pain and suffering. He gives the example of predatory animals that cannot but devour other animals in order to survive and so become ‘the living grave of thousands of others’. Nature as a whole is ‘red in tooth and claw’, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson later put it, pitting one creature against another, either as the devourer or the devoured, in a deadly fight for survival.

Civilisation doesn’t help much either. It adds so many sites of human suffering. In The World as Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer wrote:

if you led the most unrepentant optimist through the hospitals, military wards, and surgical theatres, through the prisons, torture chambers and slave stalls, through battlefields and places of judgment, and then open for him all the dark dwellings of misery that hide from cold curiosity, then he too would surely come to see the nature of this best of all possible worlds.

If you had to guess the world’s purpose just by looking at the results it achieves, you could only think it was a place of punishment.

These observations, the first on human nature and the second on nature itself, support Schopenhauer’s pessimistic claims that life is not worth living and the world should not exist. We are never given in advance the choice whether to exist or not but, if we were, it would be irrational to choose to exist in a world where we can’t profit from life but only lose. Or as Schopenhauer puts it in another key line: ‘life is a business that does not cover its costs’.

Is there a place for happiness in all this? There certainly should be. It can’t be ignored that happiness exists; too many people have experienced happiness for themselves and seen it in others. But once Schopenhauer admits that happiness exists, there is a risk that his pessimism will start to unravel. Even if it’s true that every living thing must encounter suffering, this suffering might be offset by finding some amount of happiness too. Some suffering might be the means to a happiness worth having or even a part of such happiness. If this is so, then Schopenhauer hasn’t yet given us a good reason not to want to exist. Happiness might make life worth living after all.

Schopenhauer doesn’t deny that happiness exists. He does, however, think that we are generally mistaken about what happiness is. According to him, happiness is no more than the absence of pain and suffering; the moment of relief occasionally felt between the fulfilment of one desire and the pursuit of the next. For example, imagine the satisfaction of buying your first home. What makes us happy here, Schopenhauer would say, is not the positive state of being a homeowner, but the negative state of relief from the worries that come with not owning your own home (as well as relief from the notoriously stressful process of buying property itself). This happiness, Schopenhauer would be quick to point out, is likely to be short-lived, as a host of new worries and stresses emerge, such as paying down the mortgage, or doing up the bathroom.

He reinforces his stance on the negative nature of happiness with some astute psychological observations. All of them highlight the difficulty of achieving and appreciating happiness. For example, we tend not to notice all the things that are going well for us, but instead we focus on the bad things, or as Schopenhauer puts it with his keen eye for an analogy: ‘we do not feel the health of our entire body but only the small place where the shoe pinches’. If we do manage to resolve whatever is bothering us, we tend quickly to take it for granted and shift our focus to the next problem: ‘it is like a bite of food we have enjoyed, which stops existing for our feeling the moment it is swallowed.’ Moreover, however small the next problem, we tend to magnify it to match the previous one: ‘it still knows how to puff itself up so that it seems to equal it in size, and so it can fill the whole throne as the main worry of the day.’ Consequently, we rarely feel the benefit of the things we have while we still have them: ‘We do not become aware of the three greatest goods in life as such – that is, health, youth and freedom – so long as we possess them, but only after we have lost them.’ Or as later immortalised in lyrics by Joni Mitchell: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.’

None of this is to say that no one ever feels happy. Again, this would fly in the face of the personal experience of countless people who have felt happy at some point in their lives. It does tell us, however, that happiness differs from pain and suffering in the way that it’s felt. Pain and suffering announce themselves whether we like it or not. They highlight that something is wrong and needs fixing. However small and trivial the problem might be, pain and suffering will make it our number-one priority. Happy feelings, on the other hand, don’t always announce themselves. We can have all the things that should make us feel happy and yet fail to feel happy. It could be because pain and suffering are tirelessly flagging up things not to feel happy about, but it could just be that – like the mouthful of food after it’s swallowed – we have forgotten all the things that are doing us good.

‘As Schadenfreude is simply theoretical cruelty, so cruelty is simply practical Schadenfreude

For this reason, Schopenhauer emphasises the essential role of recollection and reflection in generating feelings of happiness: ‘Our cognition of satisfaction and pleasure is only indirect, when we remember the sufferings and privations that preceded them and ceased when they appeared.’ To appreciate the benefit of having things, in other words, we must recall what it was like not to have them. The fact that this happiness is based on the cessation of previous suffering is not incompatible with intense feelings of pleasure. The intensity of the pleasure is proportionate to the intensity of the suffering that preceded it. Although far from happiness, Primo Levi gives a powerful example of the possibilities of profound relief in his book If This Is a Man (1947), his account of imprisonment at Auschwitz, when he reports on the brief moments between the labour tasks he was forced to complete: ‘When we reach the cylinder, we unload the tie on the ground, and I stand stiffly, my eyes vacant, mouth open, and arms dangling, sunk in the ephemeral and negative ecstasy of the cessation of pain.’

In fact, recalling our own actual suffering from the past is not our only option for feeling good about the present. We can instead reflect on all the suffering that was merely possible for us. This kind of reflection might be just as effective in generating feelings of relief, only about the limitless bad things that could have happened to us but fortunately never did. We might even reflect on the bad things that are happening or have happened to other people. In this respect, Levi’s painful recollections offer us another service: it is impossible for observers to read If This Is a Man without feeling extremely fortunate never to have encountered the scarcely imaginable hardships and indignities that Levi describes.

On the pleasure of avoiding another’s misfortune, Schopenhauer quotes Lucretius:

It is a joy to stand at the sea, when it is lashed by stormy winds,
To stand at the shore and to see the skipper in distress,
Not that we like to see another person in pain,
But because it pleases us to know that we are free of this evil.

Schopenhauer wisely cautions us about this kind of pleasure because it ‘lies very near the source of true and positive malice’. He might have in mind its proximity to – or identity with – Schadenfreude, the attitude of taking joy in the suffering of others. Lucretius identifies the thin line that separates Schadenfreude from sadism: it is not that we enjoy someone else’s misfortune, but that their misfortune acts as a reminder of how fortunate we are, and enables us to feel pleased about it.

Sometimes, however, Schopenhauer condemns Schadenfreude in the strongest terms: ‘the worst trait in human nature is Schadenfreude’. The difference between Schadenfreude and cruelty, he says, is merely the difference between attitude and action: ‘As Schadenfreude is simply theoretical cruelty, so cruelty is simply practical Schadenfreude.’ While attitudes such as envy – wanting someone else’s success for yourself – are flawed but merely human and therefore excusable, Schadenfreude is positively ‘devilish’.

On Schopenhauer’s understanding of things, then, in order to be happy, we must aim to eliminate pain and suffering from our lives, and in order to feel happy, we must also take the time to reflect on their absence. In search of an ethical system based on similar insights, Schopenhauer turned not to the moral philosophers of his own day but instead to ancient Greek schools of thought. Of all of these schools, he suggests, his own views on happiness have the closest affinity with Stoicism: like him, he claims, the Stoic philosophers such as Stobaeus, Epictetus and Seneca identified a happy life with a painless existence.

In general, ancient Greece is a good place to start the search for a philosophy of happiness because, according to Schopenhauer, the Greeks agreed on one thing: the task of practical reason is to figure out the best kind of life and how it can be achieved. Furthermore, Schopenhauer says, with the exception of Plato, they all equated this task with providing a guide to a happy life. They cared only about how virtue can improve our earthly lives, and thought little about how it might relate to any life after death or otherworldly realm.

Thinking of happiness as the avoidance of suffering is the view that distinguishes Stoicism from other schools, according to Schopenhauer, as well as the one he shares with it. He identifies two functions of practical reason that the Stoics used in their quest for a painless existence. There is the indirect function, on the one hand, where careful planning and forethought allow the Stoic to pick out and follow the least painful path through life. On the other, there is the direct function, where instead of removing or avoiding obstacles in life’s path, the Stoic reconsiders these obstacles in a way that changes his feelings towards them. One is a change in practice, while the other a change in thinking.

Stoicism’s distinctive contribution to ethics lies in the nature of the change in thinking it recommends, according to Schopenhauer. First, the Stoic observes that painful feelings of privation ‘do not follow immediately and necessarily from not-having, but rather from wanting-to-have and yet not having’. It then becomes obvious that to avoid these painful feelings altogether, we must eliminate the wanting-to-have part. Furthermore, the bigger our ambitions about what we want to have and the higher our hopes of achieving them, the sharper the pain when we fail. If we cannot help wanting to have some things, then we should at least keep those wants within realistic and achievable proportions. Perhaps lapsing back into his own pessimism, Schopenhauer adds that we should become suspicious of ourselves if we begin to expect a great amount of happiness waiting for us in the future; we are almost certainly being unrealistic. ‘Every lively pleasure,’ he says, ‘is a delusion.’

‘The external motive for sadness plays the same role that a blister remedy does on the body’

Thus the Stoic aims for ataraxia, a state of inner calmness and serenity however turbulent the world outside might be. Schopenhauer believes his observations about the inevitability of suffering can help to achieve this aim if taken on as convictions. Pain and suffering sting all the more if we think they are accidental and could have been avoided. While it might be true of any particular suffering that it could have been avoided, suffering in general is unavoidable and universal. If we manage to take this on board, Schopenhauer thinks, we might worry less about encountering suffering, or at least worry about it in the way that we worry about other things we can’t avoid, such as old age (for most of us) and death.

The last thing we should do is believe the opposite: that we are destined to find happiness in life rather than encounter suffering. If we believe the world owes us happiness, we are bound to be sorely disappointed, not least because, when we do achieve whatever we think will make us happy, we will have new unfulfilled desires that will supersede the old ones. We are also bound to feel resentment towards the obstacles that stand between us and the happiness we feel entitled to. Some people, Schopenhauer observes, concentrate and externalise this resentment by setting a goal for a happy life that on some level they know is unachievable. Then, when it never materialises, they always have something other than themselves to point to and blame for why they aren’t happy. ‘In this respect,’ Schopenhauer says, ‘the external motive for sadness plays the same role that a blister remedy does on the body, drawing together all the bad humours that would have otherwise been scattered.’

While Schopenhauer does feel an affinity for the Stoic way of thinking, he doesn’t see eye to eye with Stoicism on every issue. In fact, he rejects the basic premise common to all the ancient Greek schools; a happy life is not even possible, according to Schopenhauer, because, remember, all life is suffering. Devising systems of morals to act as a guide to a happy life is, as far as Schopenhauer is concerned, a fool’s errand. The logical end of Stoicism is especially sticky, according to Schopenhauer, because it conceives the goal of happiness as the task of eliminating pain. If he is right that all life is suffering, then the only way really to eliminate suffering is to eliminate life itself. The ultimate end of Stoicism, then, would be suicide.

Instead, Schopenhauer gives us a different picture of a happy life, one that is not total happiness. While suffering can’t be excluded from life altogether, it can be reduced by making sure no kind of suffering goes on for too long. Going back to Schopenhauer’s image of the pendulum, a happy life would include enough success in fulfilling our desires that we are never in too much pain, but also enough failure to ensure that we are never too bored. It would be a ‘game of constantly passing from desire to satisfaction and from this to a new desire, a game whose rapid course is called happiness and slow course is called suffering.’ A well-paced oscillation between wish and fulfilment, which is at most a semi-satisfied life, is the best we can hope for as far as happiness is concerned.

If a good life, conceived as a happy life, is a futile aim for ethics, this raises the question of what the real aim of ethics should be. The background of Schopenhauer’s pessimism is never far away from this question. It’s not obvious to Schopenhauer that the semi-satisfied life presented above is better than nonexistence. Such a life would still contain a preponderance of suffering, even if no kind of suffering would go on for too long.

Rather than trying to make the world into a happy home, then, Schopenhauer opts for an ethics that might save us from the world altogether. He endorses asceticism, the practice of severe self-denial exemplified in the saints and mystics of many world religions, over Stoicism:

How completely different they seem, next to the Stoic sage, those who the wisdom of India sets before us and has actually brought forth, those voluntary penitents who overcome the world; or even the Christian saviour … who, with perfect virtue, holiness and sublimity, nevertheless stands before us in a state of the utmost suffering.

Note that Schopenhauer’s otherworldly ascetics are not happy. They have entirely given up the game of a semi-satisfied life. Instead, they accept, and come to symbolise, the universality and inevitability of suffering, in order to transcend it. In relation to the ascetic, Schopenhauer is more likely to use words such as composure and peace than happiness and pleasure.

To say that Schopenhauer endorsed asceticism might appear to suggest that he practised it himself. Far from it. The most ascetic part of his daily routine in Frankfurt was the cold sponge bath he took between seven and eight every morning. After that, he made his own coffee and settled down to write for a few hours before receiving selected visitors, until his housekeeper appeared at noon, cuing them to leave. He played flute for half an hour each day – an activity that, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, belied the sincerity of his pessimism – and then made his way to his favourite spot to eat, the Hôtel d’Angleterre, for a hearty afternoon meal. After this he might make himself another coffee, take an hour’s nap, then read a little light literature before walking his dog, a white poodle called Atma, while smoking a cigar, all before settling in for his typical nine-hour sleep. The life of the Buddha it was not.

Schopenhauer’s endorsement of asceticism is more admiration than aspiration, then. In his defence, and again unlike the ancient Greeks, Schopenhauer thought that the theoretical study of ethics had little to do with living an ethical life, or vice versa: ‘it is just as unnecessary for the saint to be a philosopher as it is for a philosopher to be a saint,’ he wrote, ‘just as it is completely unnecessary for a perfectly beautiful person to be a great sculptor or a great sculptor to be beautiful.’ Only a small number of exceptional individuals achieve the ascetic life in which true salvation consists, he said. The rest of us have to make do with a semi-satisfied life at best. But if Schopenhauer’s way of living constitutes an example of such a life, it might not seem so bad after all.

For more on emotions and the history of ideas, visit Aeon’s sister site Psyche, our new digital magazine that seeks to illuminate the human condition through three prisms: mental health; the perennial question of ‘how to live’; and the artistic and transcendent facets of life.