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.


Diana H. said...

Hi Henk. I should visit your site more often:)
I get your point about Schopenhauer and suffering. But let me tell you, I thnk a lot depends on your personality. I can understand the optimism of your position because I see your temperament in a well balanced condition. But we, human beings, are all different. And we perceive reality in different ways, what makes us feel differently too. So maybe mine is a Psychological point of view, I'm definitely not entitled to discuss Philosophy with you :))
I've enjoyed your post.

HbdW said...

Thank you for your comment, Diana. Actually, your point is my point, too. I am not a Schopenhauer expert, but as I see it, his statement that life is suffering is simply too over-simplified. For some it is, for others it isn't. Or there are long periods of suffering and long periods of happy life; etc. In fact, everything is possible and much depends on your personality, your life experiences,where you live and in what circumstances, and much more. As you say it, we are all different and so is the way we perceive life and how we live life (or how life lives us). So, I think that we agree here.