Why do we fight to live? It’s a question that a lot of philosophers have addressed, but none have done so with as much miserable panache as this man here.
Arthur Schopenhauer was born in 1788 in the city of Danzig. A brooding and serious child from the very start, he later wrote this in his memoirs:
“Even as a child of six, my parents, returning from a walk one evening, found me in deep despair.”
At the age of seventeen, he was packed off to boarding school in Wimbledon where he spent his time learning to hate the English and fear attractive women. When one of his friends at the time suggested they flirt with some girls, he is reported to have replied:
“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of major effort.”
He went on to become a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Berlin. He then wrote this in his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation:
“Somewhere between love and lust a nut get bust and a baby get made,
It seems that trouble trouble us and follow us like all our days,
In every holy book it says we suffer, that’s what it is.
So riddle me this from the womb to the tomb why do we fight to live?”
Why is life so bad? According to Schopenhauer, it’s because we’re all manifestations of a thing he called the will-to-life (also known simply as the Will). This will-to-life, he says, is both the true reality behind all appearances and the mindless force that powers everything in the universe. As mindless force, it drives all our instincts and desires – forcing us to suffer in our pursuit of new things – but it has no ultimate goal or purpose and so it can never be satisfied. Getting what we want provides only temporary relief from pain. Before long we get bored and the thirst returns. We need more love, more money, more status, and so we suffer again. Schopenhauer thus takes life to be a pendulum swinging between pain and boredom.
So why do we fight to live? Schopenhauer says, because it’s rational to do so. He reckons that if we could see things clearly we’d all come to the same conclusion: we’d be better off not existing. We fight to live because it’s the will-to-life – not the intellect – that decides how we act. Schopenhauer compares the situation to a lame person riding on the shoulders of a blind giant. We can kid ourselves that our intellect is in charge, but it’s really the Will that dictates where we go.
The will-to-life supposedly manifests itself most strongly in our desire for sex. Schopenhauer writes that “the genitals are the focus of the Will” and “sex is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort.” Even though we’re unconscious of it most of the time, the will-to-life is always driving us to pair up and reproduce. It drives us to pair up with people who’ll help us create what Schopenhauer calls ‘well-balanced children’ (three words quite unremarkable in isolation but very creepy when strung together). The problem is, these people who’ll balance our children out are almost never a good match for us emotionally. Not only does the Will load us up with unattainable desires, it hitches us to someone we’ll soon hate. He writes:
“Love…casts itself on persons who, apart from the sexual relation, would be hateful, contemptible, and even abhorrent to the lover. But the Will of the species is so much more powerful than that of the individual, that the lover shuts his eyes to all the qualities repugnant to him, overlooks everything, misjudges everything, and binds himself for ever to the object of his passion.” – Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer thinks that baby-making happens somewhere between love and lust. Only after we’ve been sexually satisfied can we truly see things as they are. Only then can we realise that we’ve been duped by the will-to-life. He writes:
“Directly after copulation the devil’s laughter is heard.”
So when life is awful and even sex won’t fix it, where do you turn?
Schopenhauer turned to Eastern philosophy. In fact, he was one of the first Western philosophers to draw on Hindu and Buddhist traditions. He borrowed heavily from the Upanisads, an ancient set of writings on which modern Hinduism is based, particularly the idea that the world has two aspects: inner reality and outer appearance. What the Upanisads called Brahman and Atman, he called Will and Representation.
From Buddhism he borrowed the idea that the only way we can rid ourselves of suffering is to first rid ourselves of all desire. We have to learn, however difficult it may be, to overcome the will-to-life. We have to renounce all our striving and craving and learn to be satisfied with the barest necessities. We should, in short, learn to live like Buddhist monks, seeking salvation through resignation. Unlike Buddhist monks, though, Schopenhauer sees this kind of lifestyle not as a triumph but as damage control. He writes:
“Nothing else can be stated as the aim of our existence except the knowledge that it would be better for us not to exist.”
When the problem is stated in such bare terms, the answer seems obvious. But suicide isn’t a solution for Schopenhauer because of another doctrine he adopted from Eastern philosophy: reincarnation. Schopenhauer writes that the will-to-life cannot be extinguished. When we die, the Will in us expresses itself through some other object, plant, animal or human being, where we are doomed to suffer all over again. Even death is no escape from the horrors of life. Only the destruction of reality itself could put an end to the meaningless suffering that pervades all existence.
Looking back on Schopenhauer’s philosophy today, it seems almost laughably childish. You might say that his greatest achievement was finally making compatible the two defining philosophies of teenage life. No longer do angsty fifteen-year-olds have to choose! Thanks to old Schopenhauer, they can have the best of both worlds. Everything is terrible and everything is sex!
The fact is that, although his philosophy hasn’t gained widespread acceptance today, it prefigured a lot of the big ideas to come. It’s easy to forget that The World as Will and Representation was published in 1818. That means that his will-to-life – a subconscious drive to create healthy children – prefigured Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by forty years and Freud’s ideas by seventy five. He was the first Western scholar to seriously engage with Eastern philosophy and one of the first to think seriously about sex and love.
He deserves to live on in the hearts and minds of moody teenagers. It’s the only kind of life he wanted to live anyway.