Happiness, Schmappiness

What follows is 42% of an article about Schopenhauer written by a philosophy professor for Aeon:

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’. . . .

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. . . .

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 fulfillment, 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 . . .

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.


Happy or not, we can still vote for every Democrat in November and damage that other party for years, possibly decades, to come. Arthur and Atma would agree.