A reflection on Schopenhauer’s pessimism and the relationship between pain and pleasure.
Schopenhauer views human existence through an extremely negative lens and talks about life simply being a perpetual suffering. In this reflection, I am going to focus on why I do not find Schopenhauer’s pessimism to be compelling, and the relationship between pleasure and pain in regards to Schoperhauer’s views. Whilst reading the excerpt from On the Suffering of the World, I found Schopenhauer’s pessimism to be intriguing in the sense that I had never thought about the idea of suffering as a positive experience- I had a very one dimensional view of life and every time I faced a difficulty or low point, I would repeat cliches in my mind such as “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “every obstacle is a stepping-stone to success” in order to justify the suffering. However, what I understand from Schopenhauer’s way of thinking is that he did not find the need to give grounds for suffering in life the way I tend to- he simply accepted it as a fundamental component of our experiences. Although I find Schopenhauer’s pessimism to be an interesting way of perceiving life and I understand that we need suffering in order to enjoy the moments of bliss, I do not necessarily agree with his perspective as a whole.
Schopenhauer mentions that “each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule”.
I believe that this view is on the extreme end of the spectrum because Schopenhauer is claiming that suffering is the norm and any pleasure that is experienced is relief from the pain. I like to think that not every moment of life has to be categorized as pain or pleasure- there is also the grey area in between where we are merely existing. On some days we wake up in the morning on the right side of the bed, buzzing with excitement, looking forward to an eventful day ahead. On other occasions, we might wake up groggy from a tireless night, wanting nothing more than to go back to an eternal slumber and forget about the worries in the world. However, on some days, it’s neither one nor the other- you just wake up and go about your day following muscle memory and with no time to contemplate whether you are about to endure suffering or pleasure, and those are the moments that I think Schopenhauer is not accounting for in his radical interpretation of the meaning of life.
Moreover, Schopenhauer also writes that, “The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more unfortunate than we: and everyone can do this. But what does that say for the condition of the whole?”.
Something that I’ve always grown up hearing is that gratitude is the key to happiness. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, think of what you do. Observe the people around you who live a lower quality of life than you in order to grasp a sense of appreciation, and this is exactly what is being described in Schopenhauer’s quote. However, we need to understand why humans do this. Is it because misfortune and suffering are not the default and so every time that we are inflicted with any kind of pain we feel the need to observe others around us who have to endure pain at a level that is equal if not more in order to make ourselves feel better? I believe that looking at life as an endless suffering is ironic because going about life in such a pessimistic way will lead to even more pain.
The relationship between pain and pleasure is focused on quite heavily by Schopenhauer, and he says that “the happiness of a given life is not to be measured according to the joys and pleasures it contains but according to the absence of the positive element, the absence of suffering.” Once again, Schopenhauer is fixated on the idea of suffering being the “default setting” in life. As opposed to Schopenhauer, I like to think of life as a blessing, something to be grateful for, and measure it by the happy moments and milestones. The pleasures of life are sprinkled with moments of suffering in order to truly make me appreciative of the pleasure-filled ones.
By succumbing to the idea that suffering is written in fate and that pleasure is just the absence of pain, I believe that Schopenhauer is resorting to a very despairing sense of reality and personally, this pessimistic lens is not the way that I would go about viewing my own life.
In conclusion, Schopenhauer’s pessimism ascribing a moral meaning to suffering was an eye-opening interpolation of pain and I have come to the realization that we all find a way to justify the suffering that we go through- just not necessarily to the extent that Schopenhauer goes to. His way of thinking does not take into consideration the middle ground between pain and pleasure, and unlike Schopenhauer, I do not think of suffering as the default but rather as a tool to amplify the feelings of pleasure that are scattered throughout our lives.