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Seeking Happiness Could be a Form of Slavery


For the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the continual pursuit of happiness was a safe prison.

In our own time, the imperative to be happy is practically ubiquitous. From the bombardment of advertising to the advice of gurus and charlatans, happiness is equated with consumption and participation in some kinds of socialization, and these too are mediated by forms of consumption. The point is to have a “good” job, to marry, have children, contribute to the development of capitalist society … and then to die, as did all human beings who came before and those who’ll come later on.

If this view of existence seems impoverished, that’s because it is. Why go on struggling with temporary forms of joy when we could make ourselves aware of our own finitude and of the pain not only in ourselves but in others? These and other reflections inspired the thinking of one of the most influential philosophers of the 19th century, one whom Friedrich Nietzsche considered nothing less than his own teacher, Arthur Schopenhauer.

The dark vision of Schopenhauer’s existence (often labeled “nihilism” or even “anti-naturalism,” the idea that it would’ve been better never to have been born at all) came, curiously, from a romantic response to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. This was expressed with enormous and frank eloquence in Schopenhauer’s treatise The World as Will and Representation, first published in 1818. “In my 17th year,” wrote Schopenhauer,“I was gripped by the misery of life, as the Buddha had been in his youth when he saw sickness, old age, pain, and death.” He refers, here, to the four noble truths of Buddhism, which teach the destiny to which all beings are subject according to fundamental ignorance (samsara).

The truth was that this world could not have been the work of an all-loving being, but rather that of a devil, who had brought forth creatures into existence in order to delight in their sufferings.

Within all the suffering reserved for mankind by this evil demiurge, in Schopenhauer’s thinking, none was more atrocious than love. Love, according to the philosopher, is the direct expression of the “will to live.” This wasn’t something optimistic, but is treated as a kind of Freudian libido; a blind force that throws us directly into the boil of that which will consume us. In even more obscure terms, love understood as that which unites us with other people to form couples and families is to be totally avoided, especially in its sexual expression. “Directly after copulation, the devil’s laughter is heard.”

What, then, is left to us born subject to the desires of existence? For Schopenhauer, only two paths are possible: one of them, reserved but for the strongest, is to seek the path of wisdom: renounce the world and submit to the arduous spiritual discipline of hermits in temples. The second, perhaps more accessible but no less disciplined, is to spend “as long as we can with art and philosophy, whose task is to hold up the mirror to the frenzied efforts and unhappy turmoil created in us by the will-to-life.”

Rather than withdrawing from suffering and closing our eyes to the despair of others, Schopenhauer’s solution, that of the unhappy teacher, comes not from the consolations of positive thinking and optimism. Rather it’s from a form of compassion, a submission to the distress of other human beings as expressed in art, philosophy, and literature so that the world can’t deceive us with its false illusions.

At every stop, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being happy. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are deeply etched with such disappointment.


*Image: heumann – flickr / Creative Commons

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