Sunday, May 14, 2017

Schopenhauer on Existence & Death by Elie Metchnikoff 1903

Schopenhauer on Existence & Death by Elie Metchnikoff 1903

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer endeavoured to give a presentation of a pessimistic theory, borrowed from Hindoo religions and from the views of contemporary poets, in the form of a rational philosophy.

He developed a conception of life according to which "existence is to be regarded as something one is better without, as a kind of mistake which should be remedied when recognised." According to Schopenhauer existence is wrong, and results from the gratification of unrestrained desire. "If an attempt be made to realise the amount of misery, pain, and evil of all kinds, that the sun shines upon in its daily course, it will be seen how much better it would be were the earth to exhibit as few phenomena of life as the moon, and if the surface of the earth were in a similarly crystallised condition. Human life might equally be interpreted as a useless disturbance of the exquisite tranquillity of nothingness," the meaning of the disturbance being wrapped in impenetrable mystery.

This melancholy state of life was the result of the cosmic process, which has created so much evil, and which finally evolved the human species, capable of feeling and appreciating to the full the pain of the world. The lower animals he regards as happier than man, their senses being less fully developed, and being unconscious of the worst aspects of their existence. In man, pleasure is purely a negation, whereas the sensation of pain is passive, contemplation, a human monopoly, rendering suffering still more unbearable. "Man's capacity for pain increases far more with the passage of time than does his capacity for enjoyment, and is especially increased by his foreknowledge of death. Animals only fear death from instinct, without having any real knowledge of it, and without having the prospect of it always before their eyes, as is the case with human beings." Schopenhauer was convinced that happiness should not be regarded as the aim of life. "The greatest mistake we can make," he said in his principal work, "is to imagine that we are placed here to be happy." "So long as we continue in this erroneous view which optimistic doctrines serve to foster, the world will continue to seem a mass of contradictions to us." "It would be nearer the truth to regard pain as the aim of life rather than pleasure." "The destiny of all human existence seems to be suffering. Life is wrapped about with evil, and cannot be protected from it. Life, at its very beginning, is signalised by tears, its course is fundamentally tragic, and still more tragic is its end. It is impossible to ignore that all this is meant to be." "Death is the real goal of life. Its attainment brings a solution of all that has gone before."

The prospect and expectation of death, being products of reason, are experienced by men and not by animals. "Only in the case of humanity is the will capable of renouncing and withdrawing from life."

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What is the answer to all these contradictions and the explanation of a cosmic process which on the one hand leads but to death, and on the other hand develops the intelligence so as to enable it to fear and dread the inevitable end? Is the solution to be found in belief in the immortality of the soul, supported as it is not only by nearly every form of religion, but by numerous systems of philosophy? Schopenhauer devotes many pages to the discussion of this question. He neither supports the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, nor the immortality of the conscious soul. "Just as the individual has no memory of pre-natal existence, so after death he will remember nothing of his present life." "Those who regard birth as the actual beginning of man's life must necessarily face death as final, the two being parallel. No man can therefore regard himself as immortal without forfeiting his belief in his own birth. Birth and death have the same origin and the same significance. They represent but one line, extending in opposite directions. If birth implies an origin from nothingness, then death must be complete annihilation."

There is no such thing as individual immortality. But, according to Schopenhauer, to desire such immortality would merely be to advocate "the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake. Each individual existence is a definite mistake, a blunder, something that would better not have been, and the object of existence should be to end it."

But if man, as an individual, is mortal, "death only takes away what was given by birth, that is to say, the principle by which death itself became possible." "Consciousness ceases at death, but the cause which produced that consciousness persists; life comes to an end, but not the principle which became manifest by life."

What then is this immortal principle? It is the idea of the species or genus. Men or dogs, as individuals, perish in due course, but the human species or the canine species, the man "idea" or the dog "idea," endures. Here Schopenhauer reverted to the conception of Spinoza, who, indeed, denied the immortality of the soul, but none the less believed in the immortality of the principle of life. This everlasting principle, according to Schopenhauer, is the will in its widest and most metaphysical sense, while, on the other hand, the mortal soul is the reason, a product of the functions of the brain.

The eternal principle of life cannot be defined, because "we cannot pass outside the limits of our consciousness. And thus the problem of what it is in itself cannot be resolved." 

Schopenhauer himself recognises that this solution of the problem is not satisfactory from the point of view of those who desire reassurance of their immortality. "But," he continues, "it is better than nothing, for those who dread death from the point of view of absolute annihilation should not despise the certainty of the persistence of the most vital principle of life." He further remarks that it must be remembered that nature is interested only in the preservation of the species, being indifferent to the individual. We ourselves being only a part of nature ought to further its plans. "If we wish to attain to a wider knowledge of nature, we must place ourselves more in sympathy with it, and regard life and death indifferently." Schopenhauer himself feels that his theories and arguments are unsatisfactory. When he had reached the full development of his doctrine, he admitted that it was negative in character, and that it ended in negation. It spoke only of what it had to deny and of what ought to be abandoned. It was obliged to regard as nothingness all that could be acquired in the future. As a consolation, he added that he meant relative nothingness, and not absolute nothingness.

As an ultimate aim, there remained nothing but abrogation of the will to live, and thus misery and wretchedness, which are the inseparable accompaniments of human life, led to resignation.

As our life is no more than a succession of misfortunes, and as, according to Schopenhauer, death is the plain conclusion of philosophy, the end of the individual life must be pleasant. As a general rule, he said, the death of a well-regulated life is calm and peaceful. But the privilege of dying willingly, with joy and delight, is reserved for him who has learned resignation, and has abolished and abandoned his will to live. For such an one would be willing to die in reality, not merely in appearance, and would neither desire nor claim a personal immortality. He would give up readily the existence that we know. Whatever may replace that existence is nothing from the point of view of individuality. The Buddhistic faith called the position attained by him who had given up the will to live, Nirvana, or nothingness."

The natural deduction from this pessimistic doctrine of Schopenhauer would be to abolish the will to live by abolishing our individual life by suicide. But such is not the advice of the philosopher. He is far, however, from agreeing with those who regard suicide as criminal. He merely does not admit that it solves the question. "He who commits suicide destroys the individual only, and not the species." "Suicide is the voluntary destruction of a solitary phenomenon, without in the smallest degree affecting the system as a whole." 

The will to live manifesting itself, according to Schopenhauer, by the creation of new individuals, the philosopher would naturally, in accordance with his views of life, abstain from bringing others into the world. Schopenhauer lived and died a bachelor, and, so far as I am aware, had no childern. On the other hand, convinced that the solution of life's problem did not lie in suicide, he clung tenaciously to life. Having relinquished a belief in the immortality of the soul, he fell back upon a belief in the persistence of some ultimate principle, apart from conscious life, and held that in resignation and desire for annihilation (Nirvana, according to his interpretation of the Buddhist doctrines) lay the true consolation for all the evils of human existence.

For a long time Schopenhauer's views found no echo in the opinions of other thinkers. Later, however, they became more and more widely diffused, and philosophic pessimism became quite fashionable. Those who did not adopt the metaphysical principles of Schopenhauer's philosophy agreed with his views on life and on the impossibility of happiness.

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