Last night my 10-year old son and I fell into a philosophical conversation about happiness. He has a tendency to ask me questions involving carefully formulated distinctions or elaborate ranking schemes: Would I rather win the World Series or write a best seller? Would I prefer the super powers of incredible strength or flying? And would I still choose flying if it didn't come with super speed? As an aside to our discussion of happiness, I happened to quote (or misquote more likely) Shopenhauer's definition of it as just the smallest amount of misery.
My son snorted and asked, "Who's this Schopenhauer guy? He sounds interesting." So I told him what I knew, which isn't much. I have tried to read Schopenhauer before, but I have always been defeated by German idealism, all that labyrinthine complexity. What I take from him is this: he somewhat disagrees with Kant that all we can know of the world are the unavoidably imposed categorizations of our own mind. He argues we do have a slight opening onto the world as it really is because a part of us belongs to that world: our body.
Of course our body is known by its representation in the mind, but it is also known by its nagging appetites for food, warmth, sex, etc. Each of us, then, experiences the dictates of an irrational will, one seemingly undaunted by its Kantian categorization as mere representation. Indeed, we first know the world through hunger. As infants we scream when our wants aren’t instantly met, and although we domesticate our wills to a large degree, their hectoring presence never wholly leaves us.
Much of what Schopenhauer has to say about the will strikes me as intuitively on the mark. Many philosophers denigrate the will. Reason, the alleged master of will, receives far more philosophical attention. But Schopenhauer acknowledges one definitive truth about human nature: our willful appetites will have their way.
They are unslakeable. No sooner do we satisfy one craving than another appears and another and another, ad infintitum. And what would be the result of satisfying all of our desires forever? Just boredom, the most excruciating boredom we can possibly imagine. I am reminded of something my brother once said. We were working downtown years ago and on the street we saw the most astonishingly beautiful young woman walk past. My brother laughed and said, “You know what’s funny? Somebody, somewhere, is bored with her.”
All this means, of course, that we can never be happy. We are designed by nature to tend toward eternal dissatisfaction. Schopenhauer writes,
It would be better if there were nothing. Since there is more pain than pleasure on earth, every satisfaction is only transitory, creating new desires and new distresses, and the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer.My son was especially amused when I told him that Schopenhauer's lectures were scheduled opposite those of the more optimistic Hegel. Consequently, hardly anybody attended Schopenhauer's gloomy presentations.
Later we watched Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a film whose darkly pessimistic original ending was recut at the mandate of the studio. In Gilliam's original version, the main character, Sam, experiences happiness and fulfillment only to awaken and find it's all been a delusion brought on by a torture-induced coma. He only imagined his escape from the totalitarian regime. The studio hated this ending and had it recut so that Sam really did escape with his lover into a beautiful countryside and happiness.
So there it is. The studio heads nailed it Nobody goes to Schopenhauer's lectures.