Schopenhauer, Ecclesiastes and Pessimism by Charles Henry Hamilton Wright 1883
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Inasmuch as Schopenhauer affirms that existence itself is the consequence of "will," or, of "the will to live," and every act of will is attended by more or less suffering, the exercise of will is looked upon as the real cause of all the misery of life. The non-existence of the world is to be preferred to its existence. The world is cursed with four great evils, birth, disease, old age, and death. "Existence is only a punishment," and the feeling of misery which often accompanies it is "repentance" for the great crime of having come into being by yielding to the "will to live." Happiness is unattainable in this world, while a future state of existence is pronounced a mere delusion. And, even if there were another life, the pessimist asserts that there could be no real happiness in it For life implies "will;" and the existence of "will," inasmuch as "the will" must ever meet with some hindrances to the attainment of its desires, is incompatible with happiness.
In arriving at such conclusions, the pessimist writers assert that they are only carrying out to their natural consequences the doctrines taught in the Books of Job and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes). In both these books the day of birth is spoken of as a day of sorrow. The circumstances under which the sacred writers gave utterance to such expressions ought indeed to have been sufficient to restrain our would-be modern philosophers from bringing them forward in favour of their doctrine of the absolute misery of all existence.
The following is a description of the results arrived at by this new philosophy as drawn by no unfriendly pen. "To live signifies to have wants, signifies suffering. Living implies having a body with the iron law of preserving and protecting it against a thousand dangers and pains. Then there is the preservation of the family, all which brings every day new sorrows and demands, calling for the exercise of all the powers, though with the full conviction, however, that we must at last lose the game, and that one is steering steadily towards death. If a man casts off all other burdens, he becomes a burden to himself. When cares vanish man is consumed by ennui, and the greatest efforts have to be made to kill time. . . . These and similar meditations are the everlasting theme of Schopenhauer. Eduard von Hartmann has reduced these ideas to a system and carried them out still further in his three stages of illusion, (1) illusion especially as to the expectation of happiness here, (2) illusion as to the expectation of individual happiness in another world, (3) illusion as to the expectation of happiness as ultimately to be attained by the world's progress. All is illusion; for the more knowledge, the more suffering." Such is the interpretation the pessimist puts upon the statement of Koheleth i. 18, "he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Schopenhauer has, however, curiously enough maintained that Pessimism may be made the means of benefiting mankind. "Everything is miserable, everything entreats for pity, be pitiful. Think not that thou hast before thee a wicked stupid creature, but think upon the suffering necessarily belonging to it, Virtue, indeed, according to Schopenhauer, can by no means be taught, but that does not hinder him from teaching it as forcibly as any one else. . . . No one down to Schopenhauer has known how to make such an idea (that of universal misery) the principle of a metaphysic of morals, which can also be supported by the finest psychological investigations."
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From Ecclesiastes by William John Deane
"The abortion has the advantage in not having known anything; for it is better to know nothing at all than to know nothing but trouble. It is laid in the grave without having tasted the miseries of human life; in the grave, where, amid the silence and solitude of death, the cares and disappointments, the disquietudes and mortifications and distresses of this world are neither felt nor dreamed of" (Wardlaw). However gloomy these reflections of our author's may seem at first sight, when we examine them a little more closely we find that they are not so sombre in their character as many of the utterances of pessimistic philosophy. He does not contrast being with not-being, and declare that the latter is preferable, but he declares a joyless life to be inferior to that which has been "cut off from the womb." His teaching that the value of existence is to be measured by the amount of good that has been enjoyed in it, is so far from being the utterance of a despairing pessimism that most sober-minded persons would accept it as reasonable and true. Specimens of utterances which, to a superficial reader, might appear to be closely akin to his, but which really are the expression of a very much darker mood than his, might easily be given. Thus we have in Theognis:
"Best lot for man is never to be born,
Nor ever see the bright rays of the morn:
Next best, when born, to haste with quickest tread
Where Hades' gates are open for the dead.
And rest with much earth gathered for our bed."
And in Sophocles:
"Never to be at all
Excels all fame;
Quickly, next best, to pass
From whence we came."
And according to the teaching of Schopenhauer, the non-existence of the world is to he preferred to its existence. The world is cursed with four great evils—birth, disease, old age, and death. "Existence is only a punishment," and the feeling of misery which often accompanies it is "repentance" for the great crime of having come into the world by yielding to the "will to live" (Wright,' Ecclesiastes,' p. 158). Such despairing utterances, when found in the writings of those who have not known God, move us to compassion, but we can scarcely avoid the feeling of indignation when we find them on the lips of those who have known God, but have not "retained him in their knowledge." And we must beware of concluding, after a hasty and superficial reading of the Book of Ecclesiastes, that its author, even in his darkest mood, sank to the depth of atheism and despair which they reveal.
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