Monday, August 26, 2013

Our experiences are rarely pure

When I commented on Schopenhauer’s statement that to life is to suffer, my point was that it is oversimplified. Suffering is not the background noise of everything we do, not to speak of the thread through life. Rather I think that suffering and happiness are personal experiences brought about by the personal and individual happenings of life. In fact, everything is possible and what will be the case depends on where you live and in what circumstances, on your personality type and character, and on much more. There are moments and periods that we are happy and moments and periods that we are unhappy and that we are suffering. For some or maybe many or even most the latter may prevail, for others perhaps the former. This doesn’t imply that happiness or suffering is inherent in life, although one might tend to think that the latter is, if one realizes what is happening in many places in the world. Maybe life was so different in Schopenhauer’s days that for him it was the natural way to think so and maybe it still is in many parts of the present world.
Nevertheless, Montaigne, who lived a few centuries before Schopenhauer, had a more balanced view on life, I think. Montaigne didn’t ask whether the foundation of life is suffering or happiness, or whatever, but he wrote a lot about experiences and facts of life and what they mean for us. While Schopenhauer stressed that actually life is suffering, according to Montaigne pure experiences do not exist, as we can see in his essay “That we taste nothing pure” (Book 2, XX). Both our joys and our sorrows, both our positive experiences and our negative experiences are mixed and contain at least a bit of the opposite. “Of the pleasure and goods that we enjoy, there is not one exempt from some mixture of ill and inconvenience”, as he says there,  which he illustrates with a quotation from Lucretius: “From the very fountain of our pleasure, something rises that is bitter, which even in flowers destroys”. “Our extremest pleasure has some sort of groaning and complaining in it…”, so Montaigne.
On the other hand, Montaigne refers to Metrodorus, who remarked “that in sorrow there is some mixture of pleasure”. Although Montaigne seems not to be completely sure what Metrodorus meant by it, he adds that it can be seen that way, for instance, that “there is some shadow of delight and delicacy which smiles upon and flatters us even in the very lap of melancholy.” The “confusion” between joy and sadness can be seen well, when painters hold, so Montaigne, “that the same motions and grimaces of the face that serve for weeping; serve for laughter too”. This is actually an exemplification of the fact that both pure delight and pure sorrow do not exist. And I think that for most people it’s the same for suffering and happiness. Schopenhauer interpreted the world that way that everything we do has at least a shade of suffering if it is not suffering in disguise or suffering right away. But wouldn’t a more optimistic mind have said that the reverse is the case and have called happiness the essence of life? But in view of what Montaigne says we can ask whether any pure principle of life exists at all.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Can one desire without suffering?

Despite the remark by Schopenhauer quoted in my last blog and my comment on it, the main function of books remains that they are there for being read. So, I didn’t stop reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation after the preface. But when to read such a thick book of nearly thousand pages if one has no special reason for doing it besides simply wanting to take note of its contents? I always read a lot when I am on holiday, so I put it in my luggage for my summer travel and I begun reading it from the first day on. But even then I haven’t finished it yet, also because I have read two other books at the same time (and because I am not on holiday for reading, of course, but for getting new impressions). I still have about half of the book to go. Nevertheless I can give some first thoughts.
What I found most striking in the book till now is what I see as its central theme, namely: Das Leben ist ein Leiden, or, in English: To live is to suffer. For Schopenhauer suffering is part of the human condition. It is the consequence of the fact that we always are busy striving for things. People never do nothing or they become bored. We always have desires, so Schopenhauer, and we want to fulfil them. These desires can be small things or they can be big things, such as wanting to read a book (like the one by Schopenhauer); making a travel; having a special job; and so on (the examples are mine). As long as the desired goals haven’t been attained we are more or less unhappy and we keep looking for ways to achieve them. However, once a wish has been fulfilled, we are happy for only a short moment. In another blog of mine you can read that such “moments of happiness” last three months at most according to present insights in psychology. Then we become bored. We begin looking for other desires and the process starts again, so Schopenhauer. That’s why he says that desiring, and human life in general, is suffering: Life is the striving to fulfil unfulfilled wishes. It is mainly a matter of being dissatisfied with what one has and so of wanting to have it better, but this is basically impossible.
Is it true? When one looks at the portrait of Schopenhauer on the cover of his book, I see a happy man and not someone who is suffering. But maybe it’s merely a pose. Be it as it is, I want to state that by and large Schopenhauer’s thesis is false. I agree that people become bored after some time once a desire has come true, so they start to strive again. It shows that man is made for acting. But does this make suffering the foundation of life? I think that there is much that denies it. When I want to start a new project, once one has finished, this doesn’t mean that I am unhappy because my last project has come to an end; even not after three months. I have done a lot in my life long ago that I still enjoy when thinking of it. The thought of having done it still makes me happy. Moreover, no person is trying to fulfil wishes one after another. One is always trying to do several things at the same time. Career, being a good parent, being a good sportsman, being a good club member, having relations with other people, to mention only a few things, are activities one does simultaneously. Most times moments of happiness and moments of being less happy go together. Life is a stream of concurrent activities, which are often a pleasure to do. And even if these activities are guided by aims, achieving these aims needs not be most important of what one is doing. Often it’s so that going on the road is more important than reaching the end of the road. The desire as such is often less important than Schopenhauer thinks. It is often a guide and not a purpose as such: One can be happy in the doing as such; not only for a moment by the fact that a wish has been fulfilled. All this makes, I think, that suffering is rather an extreme phenomenon of life than a basic fact of life.
But it is true that once I have finished Schopenhauer’s book, I want to read another one (not counting the fact that I am always reading several books at the same time), but it doesn’t involve that I am continuously suffering.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The function of books

Four years ago I posted here a photo of my study by way of illustration of a blog: The walls of the room are full of books, as you can see; not only the one in the picture, but also the other walls. Once I have finished reading a book, I put it there. The books yet to be read have a special shelf. Books are the wall paper of my study, so to speak.
I have uploaded the photo of my study also to a social networking website. People there often ask me: Have you read all those books? Actually, I find it a bit a silly question. For why else should I have my books? Okay, I did not read the dictionaries and the atlases, for one doesn’t “read” such books but one uses them. But I have read my books insofar they have been published for reading in the normal sense. All of them? I must admit that the answer is “no”. Indeed, there are a few books that I didn’t read for some reasons, or I did only for a part. Why? Some had been so long on the waiting shelf that I wondered why I had ever bought them. Again and again I postponed reading them, because other books I had bought later looked more attractive and got a preferential treatment. Now I have solved the problem by reading books more or less in the order I have bought them: It has no sense to read a book ten years later when your interest has changed. Another reason why I sometimes postponed reading a book is that it looked so difficult to me that I found it better to read it with extra attention instead of reading it quickly and a bit superficially, as I often do. However, I did not make time for doing it and in the end the book came in the “Why had I ever bought it?” category. And there are also those books that I started to read but I found them so boring or incomprehensible or obscure that I put them aside before having finished reading them. Without a doubt there are other reasons why I didn’t read some books, but these are some of the most important. In fact, it didn’t happen so often so when asked “Have you read all those books?” I can honestly answer: “Yes, I did, or at least, say, 95% of them”.
Nevertheless, I always feel myself a bit ashamed when admitting that I haven’t read all, for in the end that’s why I bought them. But is this feeling right? Maybe my idea that books are there only for being read is too narrow minded. I got the idea that they can have other functions, too, when I read Arthur Schopenhauer’s preface to the first edition of his The World as Will and Representation, where he said:

“The reader … has bought the book for cash, and asks how he is to be indemnified. My last refuge is now to remind him that he knows how to make use of a book in several ways, without exactly reading it. It may fill a gap in his library as well as many another, where, neatly bound, it will certainly look well. Or he can lay it on the toilet-table or the tea-table of some learned lady friend. Or, finally, what certainly is best of all, and I specially advise it, he can review it.”

When writing this blog, I still have to read the rest of Schopenhauer’s book, which will be quite a job, for it has nearly thousand pages. But even if I’ll not succeed to read it till the end, I’ll have learned at least one thing: A book can have many functions. Using it as wall paper is acceptable even if you haven’t read it (so Schopenhauer). Improving the relation with an intelligent lady friend is good, too (how about a gentleman friend? Schopenhauer doesn’t talk about it). Writing about it makes also sense (it seems that Schopenhauer supposes that you do not need to read a book in order to criticise it). And certainly there are more usefull applications for a book as well (like supporting a wobbling table). And in the end a book has another possible function as well, for you can read it, too.