The Meaning of Suffering
Schopenhauer vs Nietzsche: The meaning of suffering
The answer depends on how you respond to tragedy
Joshua Foa Dienstag | Professor of Law at UCLA and author of Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit
We know that every life contains a good deal of suffering. However, what counts is how we respond to it. Schopenhauer recommends a limiting of desire and resignation from life. While Nietzsche recommends an artistic response to the tragedy of life and an embracing of the suffering it entails. The best response, really, might be to laugh, writes Joshua Foa Dienstag. “If there are happy people on this earth,” wrote E.M. Cioran, “why don’t they come out and shout with joy, proclaim their happiness in the streets? Why so much discretion and restraint?”
Some people have easier, more privileged lives than others, but all human lives contain suffering and some contain a great deal of it. Centuries of technological progress, although relieving some sources of extreme distress, have on the whole not made humans much happier, as numerous studies confirm. What explains the persistence of suffering and what attitude should we take toward it?
One powerful answer to this question was offered by Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher born in 1788 whose book of pessimistic essays Parerga and Paralipomena (“Appendices and Omissions”) became wildly popular after its publication in 1851. “Life,” he famously wrote, “is a business that does not cover the costs.” Human desires, he thought, would always outstrip the world’s potential to satisfy them, leaving each individual in a kind of permanent deficit.
Writing a generation later, Friedrich Nietzsche, who had once considered himself Schopenhauer’s disciple, offered a pointed rebuttal. Acknowledging the ubiquity of suffering, Nietzsche nonetheless believed that Schopenhauer had failed to respond adequately to the challenge it posed.
In fact, he thought, the older philosopher had suffered a failure of nerve. Rather than toting up pleasures and pains like an accountant, Nietzsche thought that our confrontation with suffering could be the key to a different kind of attitude toward life; “a hammer and instrument with which one can make oneself a new pair of wings”.
The confrontation between these two perspectives has much to teach us about how to think of suffering and life in general. Is the goal of life to achieve a surplus of pleasure over pain? Or is there another way to measure our experiences that is less mechanistic? Is the goal of life to achieve a surplus of pleasure over pain? Or is there another way to measure our experiences that is less mechanistic?
Schopenhauer was writing just as the first translations of Buddhist texts into Western languages were being made and he does endorse, in a sense, the Buddhist idea that “life is suffering,” that is, that suffering is the substance of life. Humans are largely motivated by pain – by thirst and hunger for example – and what we call pleasure is largely just the relief of those conditions, a relief that was always fleeting in comparison to the pain that preceded it. “All enjoyment,” he wrote, “is really only negative, only has the effect of removing a pain, while pain or evil … is the actual positive element”.
This explains why we might feel perpetually in deficit. We respond to some source of pain, only to have others spring forward to take its place. And the relief we win is always temporary with the return of suffering always on the horizon. What’s more, we constantly experience the ‘leveling-up’ phenomenon where things that once brought us pleasure become just part of the scenery.
But for Schopenhauer the real source of suffering for humans is the time-consciousness that distinguishes us from the animals. All living beings suffer physical pains and pleasures after all – but in not knowing past or future, animals “remain free from care and anxiety together with their torment.”
Humans regret the past we cannot change and have hopes for the future which are rarely fulfilled. Drawing on a line of argument first developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Schopenhauer argued that consciousness multiplied the pains of life without increasing the pleasures. Even when our dreams are fulfilled, he maintained, we cannot hold onto the enjoyment we experience, and experience its loss with regret. Love fades, friends die, achievements and physical possessions that once brought satisfaction cease to satisfy us. “Time,” he wrote, “is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.” Compare the amount of time you’ve spent hoping and dreaming about love or regretting its passing – something no animal does – to the hours when you actually experience its pleasures, and you have the basic idea. “Human life,” he concluded, “must be some kind of mistake.” The conscious mind is like the proverbial leaky vessel that always needs filling up but can never stay full.
The only thing to do about this situation, according to Schopenhauer, was to limit our suffering by limiting our desires, as the Stoics had suggested centuries before for different reasons. The less we want, the less we suffer by losing it or not getting it in the first place. Life is hell but we can build “a fire-proof room” to wait out its torture. “Resignation,” he wrote, “is like the inherited estate. It frees its owner from all care and anxiety.” All this to Nietzsche was a prescription for passivity and, indeed, nihilism. Indeed, he blamed Schopenhauer and his disciples for German culture’s late nineteenth-century descent into self-pity and romanticism, embodied for him in Wagner’s operas.
Nietzsche did not deny that human life was full of suffering. And he even endorsed Schopenhauer’s description of its origins, accepting the theory that with consciousness of time, human beings face an existential landscape with more pain than pleasure, something no science or technology can alter.
But the ‘fire-proof room’ that Schopenhauer suggested seeking was to Nietzsche a fool’s errand. It meant a life that was no life at all, a life lived in denial of the human condition. The point was not to hide from the world but to find a way to live in it and to even find “gratitude for existence”. And Nietzsche thought there was a path to this gratitude, despite the pains of existence.
How? Nietzsche took his cue from Greek tragedy and other kinds of tragic modern art, like the stories of Dostoevsky that he gratefully discovered one day in a bookshop in Nice: “the things they display are ugly: but that they display them comes from their pleasure in the ugly.” Why do we enjoy tragic opera? Or the marvelous ugliness of a Rodin sculpture? Or the terrible characters of Dostoevsky? Are we sadistically enjoying the suffering of others? Not at all. What these works of art teach us is that pain and pleasure should not be isolated and quantified as Schopenhauer (or utilitarianism for that matter) want us to believe. Rather all our joys are entwined with our suffering in a deeper way. Depth and meaning come from overcoming suffering. You cannot really know love without first experiencing loneliness, beauty without ugliness, nor faith without doubt. And these pains need to be preserved within those pleasures in order for the latter to remain meaningful. Where Schopenhauer wants to hide from the time-bound character of existence, Nietzsche suggests we embrace “the joy of becoming.”
Where Schopenhauer wants to hide from the time-bound character of existence, Nietzsche suggests we embrace “the joy of becoming,” which means taking the narrative quality of life as a feature and not a bug. Suffering and death are the fate of every human but, unlike the animals, we have an opportunity to make something of that experience that no animal could make. Tragic art may show us the way, but one doesn’t have to be an artist to have human relationships with real love, faith and beauty. One only has to embrace the terms of the bargain.
Suffering is not just something that happens to us – it is bound up in who we are as creatures that grow and change: “all becoming and growing,” Nietzsche wrote, “all that guarantees the future, postulates pain.” To take joy in the future means willing the destruction of the present. Tragic art teaches us that something beautiful can be made out of even the worst suffering. It does not take away our pain, but it teaches us how that suffering can be part of a greater whole.
To Nietzsche this was the true pessimism which Schopenhauer, the famous pessimist, was not strong enough to face. “The pessimism of the energetic,” Nietzsche called it. Pessimistic because it did not minimize the perpetual suffering that humans face; energetic because it did not collapse in the face of it.
A character who embodied this energetic pessimism, to Nietzsche, was Don Quixote. Far from the optimist we take him for today, Cervantes’ character was, Nietzsche thought, an energetic and purposeful man in a cruel and violent world who pursued his goals despite constant agony, defeat and eventual death, without once ever stopping to count up his pleasures and pains. The book is one long chronicle of his suffering and yet, Nietzsche believed, it was “the most cheerful of books,” not because it taught optimism but because it embodied the proper attitude to life’s challenges. Cervantes’ contemporaries, he insisted, were right to take it as a comedy. “They laughed themselves,” he wrote, “almost to death over it.”