Durant 1926: The World as Evil (Schopenhauer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VII Section 5 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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V. The World as Evil

But if the world is will, it must be a world of suffering.

And first, because will itself indicates want, and its grasp is always greater than its reach. For every wish that is satisfied there remain ten that are denied. Desire is infinite, fulfillment is limited—“it is like the alms thrown to a beggar, that keeps him alive today in order that his misery may be prolonged tomorrow. … As long as our consciousness is filled by our will, so long as we are given up to the throng of desires with their constant hopes and fears, so long as we are subject to willing, we can never have lasting happiness or peace.” And fulfillment never satisfies; nothing is so fatal to an ideal as its realization. “The satisfied passion oftener leads to unhappiness than to happiness. For its demands often conflict so much with the personal welfare of him who is concerned that they undermine it.” Each individual bears within himself a disruptive contradiction; the realized desire develops a new desire, and so on endlessly. “At bottom this results from the fact that the will must live on itself, for there exists nothing besides it, and it is a hungry will.”

In every individual the measure of the pain essential to him was determined once for all by his nature; a measure which could neither remain empty, nor be more than filled. … If a great and pressing care is lifted from our breast, … another immediately replaces it, the whole material of which was already there before, but could not come into consciousness as care because there was no capacity left for it. … But now that there is room for this it comes forward and occupies the throne.

Desire is infinite, fulfillment is limited. And fulfillment never satisfies; nothing is so fatal to an ideal as its realization. Each individual bears within himself a disruptive contradiction; the realized desire develops a new desire, and so on endlessly. But there is a natural desire to evolve.

COMMENT: There is actual pleasure in evolving even when there is no end to evolution.

Again, life is evil because pain is its basic stimulus and reality, and pleasure is merely a negative cessation of pain. Aristotle was right: the wise man seeks not pleasure, but freedom from care and pain. 

All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is, in reality and essence, negative only. … We are not properly conscious of the blessings and advantages we actually possess, nor do we prize them, but think of them merely as a matter of course, for they gratify us only negatively, by restraining suffering. Only when we have lost them do we become sensible of their value; for the want, the privation, the sorrow, is the positive thing, communicating itself” directly to us. … What was it that led the Cynics to repudiate pleasure in any form, if it was not the fact that pain is, in a greater or less degree, always bound up with pleasure? … The same truth is contained in that fine French proverb: Ie mieux est l’ennemi du bien [the better is enemy of the good]—Ieave well enough alone.

Schopenhauer is a pessimist. It is true as he says that life is evil because pain is its basic stimulus and reality, and pleasure is merely a negative cessation of pain.

COMMENT: But there is positive pleasure in research and discovery that leads to evolution. 

Life is evil because “as soon as want and suffering permit rest to a man, ennui is at once so near that he necessarily requires diversion,”—i. e., more suffering. Even if the socialist Utopia were attained, innumerable evils would be left, because some of them—like strife—are essential to life; and if every evil were removed, and strife were altogether ended, boredom would become as intolerable as pain. So “life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and ennui. … After man had transformed all pains and torments into the conception of hell, there remained nothing for heaven except ennui.” The more successful we become, the more we are bored. “As want is the constant scourge of the people, so ennui is the scourge of the fashionable world. In middle-class life ennui is represented by the Sundays and want by the week-days.”

Life is evil because the higher the organism the greater the suffering. The growth of knowledge is no solution. 

For as the phenomenon of will becomes more complete, the suffering becomes more and more apparent. In the plant there is as yet no sensibility, and therefore no pain. A certain very small degree of suffering is experienced by the lowest species of animal life—Infusoria and Radiata; even in insects the capacity to feel and suffer is still limited. It first appears in ‘” high degree with the complete nervous system of vertebrate animals, and always in a higher degree the more intelligence develops. Thus, in proportion as knowledge attains to distinctness, as consciousness ascends, pain also increases, and reaches its highest degree in man. And then, again, the more distinctly a man knows—the more intelligent he is—the more pain he has; the man who is gifted with genius suffers most of all.

Life is evil because if all strife were altogether ended, boredom would become as intolerable as pain. We observe that the higher the organism the greater the suffering. The growth of knowledge is no solution. 

He that increaseth knowledge, therefore, increaseth sorrow. Even memory and foresight add to human misery; for most of our suffering lies in retrospect or anticipation; pain itself is brief. How much more suffering is caused by the thought of death than by death itself! 

Finally, and above all, life is evil because life is war. Everywhere in nature we see strife, competition, conflict, and a suicidal alternation of victory and defeat. Every species “fights for the matter, space, and time of the others.” 

The young hydra, which grows like a bud out of the old one, and afterwards separates itself from it, fights, while it is still joined to the old one, for the prey that offers itself, so that the one snatches it out of the mouth of the other. But the bull-dog ant of Australia affords us the most extraordinary example of this kind; for if it is cut in two, a battle begins between the head and the tail. The head seizes the tail with its teeth, and the tail defends itself bravely by stinging the head; the battle may last for half an hour, until they die or are dragged away by other ants. This contest takes place every time the experiment is tried.  … Yunghahn relates that he saw in Java a plain, as far as the eye could reach, entirely covered with skeletons, and took it for a. battle-field; they were, however, merely the skeletons of large turtles, … which come this way out of the sea to lay their eggs, and are then attacked by wild dogs who with their united strength lay them on their backs, strip off the small shell from the stomach, and devour them alive. But often then a tiger pounces upon the dogs. … For this these turtles are born. … Thus the will to live everywhere preys upon itself, and in different forms is its own nourishment, till finally the human race, because it subdues all the others, regards nature as a manufactory for its own use. Yet even the human race … reveals in itself with most terrible distinctness this conflict, this variance of the will with itself; and we find homo homini lupus [man is a wolf to man]. 

Sorrow increases with knowledge for most of our suffering lies in retrospect or anticipation; pain itself is brief. Everywhere in nature we see strife, competition, conflict, and a suicidal alternation of victory and defeat. 

The total picture of life is almost too painful for contemplation; life depends on our not knowing it too well. 

If we should bring clearly to a man’s sight the terrible sufferings and miseries to which his life is constantly exposed, he would be seized with horror; and if we were to conduct the confirmed optimist through the hospitals, infirmaries, and surgical operating-rooms, through the prisons, torture-chambers, and slave kennels, over battle-fields and places of execution; it we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it hides itself from the glance of cold curiosity, and, finally, allow him to look into the starving dungeons of Ugolino, he too would understand at last the nature of this “best of all possible worlds.” For whence did Dante take the materials of his hell but from our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell out of it. But when, on the other hand, he came to describe heaven and its delights, he had an insurmountable difficulty before him, for our world affords no materials at all for this. … Every epic and dramatic, poem can only represent a struggle, an effort, a fight for happiness; never enduring and complete happiness itself. It conducts its heroes through a thousand dangers and difficulties to the goal; as soon as this is reached it hastens to let the curtaIn fall; for now there would remain nothing for it to do but to show that the glittering goal in which the hero expected to find happiness had only disappointed him, and that after its attainment he was no better off than before.

The total picture of life is almost too painful for contemplation; life depends on our not knowing it too well. 

We are unhappy married, and unmarried we are unhappy. We are unhappy when alone, and unhappy in society: we are like hedge-hogs clustering together for warmth, uncomfortable when too closely packed, and yet miserable when kept apart. It is all very funny; and “the life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole, … and only lay stress on its most significant features, is really always a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.” Think of it: 

At the age of five years to enter a spinning-cotton or other factory, and from that time forth to sit there daily, first ten, then twelve, and ultimately fourteen hours, performing the same mechanical labor, is to purchase dearly the satisfaction of drawing breath. But this is the fate of millions, and that of millions more is analogous to it. … Again, under the firm crust of the planet dwell powerful forces of nature, which, as soon as some accident affords them free play, must necessarily destroy the crust, with everything living upon it, as has already taken place at least three times upon our planet, and will probably take place oftener still. The earthquake of Lisbon, the earthquake of Haiti, the destruction of Pompeii, are only small playful hints of what is possible.

The life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole, and only lay stress on its most significant features, is really always a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.

In the face of all this, “optimism is a bitter mockery of men’s woes”; and “we cannot ascribe to the Theodicy” of Leibnitz, “as a methodical and broad unfolding of optimism, any other merit than this, that it gave occasion later for the immortal Candide of the great Voltaire; whereby Leibnitz’ oft-repeated and lame excuse for the evil of the world—that the bad sometimes brings about the good—received a confirmation which was unexpected by him.” In brief, “the nature or life throughout presents itself to us as intended and calculated to awaken the conviction that nothing at all is worth our striving, our efforts and struggles; that all good things are vanity, the world in all its ends bankrupt, and life a business which does not cover expenses.”

To be happy, one must be as ignorant as youth. Youth thinks that willing and striving are joys; it has not yet discovered the weary insatiableness of desire, and the fruitlessness of fulfillment; it does not yet see the inevitableness of defeat. 

The cheerfulness and vivacity of youth are partly due to the fact that when we are ascending the hill of life, death is not visible; it lies down at the bottom of the other side. … Towards the close of life, every day we live gives us the same kind of sensation as the criminal experiences at every step on his way to the gallows. … To see how short life is, one must have lived long. … Up to our thirty-sixth year we may be compared, in respect to the way in which we use our vital energy, to people who live on the interest of their money; what they spend today they have again tomorrow. But from the age of thirty-six onward, our position is like that of the investor who begins to entrench on his capital. … It is the dread of this calamity that makes love of possession increase with age. … So far from youth being the happiest period of life, there is much more truth in the remark made by Plato, at the beginning of the Republic that the prize should rather be given to old age, because then at last a man is freed from the animal passion which has hitherto never ceased to disquiet him. … Yet it should not be forgotten that, when this passion is extinguished, the true kernel of life is gone, and nothing remains but the hollow shell; or, from another point of view, life then becomes like a comedy which, begun by real actors, is continued and brought to an end by automata dressed in their clothes. 

The nature or life throughout presents itself to us as intended and calculated to awaken the conviction that nothing at all is worth our striving, our efforts and struggles.

At the end, we meet death. Just as experience begins to coordinate itself into wisdom, brain and body begin to decay. “Everything lingers for but a moment, and hastens on to death.” And if death bides its time it is but playing with us as a cat with a helpless mouse. “It is clear that as our walking is admittedly nothing but a constantly-prevented falling, so the life of our bodies is nothing but a constantly-prevented dying, an ever-postponed death.” “Among the magnificent ornaments and apparel of Eastern despots there is always a costly vial of poison.” The philosophy of the East understands the omnipresence of death, and gives to its students that calm aspect and dignified slowness of carriage, which comes of a consciousness of the brevity of personal existence. The fear of death is the beginning of philosophy, and the final cause of religion. The average man cannot reconcile himself to death; therefore he makes innumerable philosophies and theologies; the prevalence of a belief in immortality is a token of the awful fear of death. 

The fear of death is the beginning of philosophy, and the final cause of religion. The average man cannot reconcile himself to death; the prevalence of a belief in immortality is a token of the awful fear of death. 

Just as theology is a refuge from death, so insanity is a refuge from pain. “Madness comes as a way to avoid the memory of suffering”; it is a saving break in the thread of consciousness; we can survive certain experiences or fears only by forgetting them. 

How unwillingly we think of things which powerfully injure our interests, wound our pride, or interfere with our wishes; with what difficulty do we determine to lay such things before our intellects for careful and serious investigation. … In that resistance of the will to allowing what is contrary to it to come under the examination of the intellect lies the place at which madness can break in upon the mind. … If the resistance of the will against the apprehension of some knowledge reaches such a degree that that operation is not performed in its entirety, then certain elements or circumstances become for the intellect completely suppressed, because the will cannot endure the sight of them; and then, for the sake of the necessary connections, the gaps that thus arise are filled up at pleasure; thus madness appears. For the intellect has given up its nature to please the will; the man now imagines what does not exist. Yet the madness which has thus arisen is the lethe of unendurable suffering; it was the last remedy of harassed nature, i. e., of the will.*

*A source of Freud. 

Just as theology is a refuge from death, so insanity is a refuge from pain. 

The final refuge is suicide. Here at last, strange to say, thought and imagination conquer instinct. Diogenes is said to have put an end to himself by refusing to breathe;—what a victory over the will to live! But this triumph is merely individual; the will continues in the species. Life laughs at suicide, and smiles at death; for every deliberate death there are thousands of in-deliberate births. “Suicide, the willful destruction of the single phenomenal existence, is a vain and foolish act, for the thing-in-itself—the species, and life, and will in general—remains unaffected by it, even as the rainbow endures however fast the drops which support it for the moment may chance to fall.” Misery and strife continue after the death of the individual, and must continue, so long as will is dominant in man. There can be no victory over the ills of life until the will has been utterly subordinated to knowledge and intelligence. 

Misery and strife continue after the death of the individual, and must continue, so long as will is dominant in man. There can be no victory over the ills of life until the will has been utterly subordinated to knowledge and intelligence. 

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