[Originally written January 2016]
The works of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche introduced me to challenging philosophical ideas which formed a great part of my thinking in recent years.
These thinkers were both German and they both lived in the 19th century. Schopenhauer came first. He espoused a philosophy that was admittedly pessimistic. He believed that existence was ultimately negative because pain is more prevalent than pleasure.
“Pleasure is never as pleasant as we expected it to be and pain is always more painful. The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don’t believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other.”
You can gather the essence of most of Schopenhauer’s philosophy from that one quote. He was an anti-natalist, which means anti-procreation. Since he believed existence was bad, he thought, “Why have kids?” and advocated the complete rejection of all procreation. In his eyes, to bring a child into the world was to cause suffering to an innocent being without asking it permission, which is immoral, therefore you should not do it, therefore if you want to be moral you will not have kids, therefore his end goal was that people would all eventually stop having kids and the human race would die out. This would create the ultimate peace: silence. If everyone is dead, there is no pain. There is no suffering. There is just emptiness and silence. Some may view this as a depressing and repulsive worldview, but I see the beauty in it.
You see, Schopenhauer mostly got this sort of thinking from reading Eastern philosophy and spirituality. He was an atheist, but very much admired the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism. Keep in mind that he is one of the few Western philosophers that drew influence from Eastern philosophy. What this says about Western thought I won’t touch upon directly today.
Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, expressed that view that reality is inevitably an illusion because it can only be perceived through one’s own biased mind. The “Four Noble Truths” taught by the Buddha are that:
- Life is suffering
- Suffering is caused by attachment
- Suffering is cured by ceasing attachment
- This can be achieved by practicing the “Noble Eightfold Path” which is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Schopenhauer viewing it like this:
- Life is suffering
- Suffering is alleviated by the negation of life
- Negation of life is achieved by death and the abstinence of creating new life
Look, Schopenhauer eliminated and reduced it to only three steps! What an achievement!
Anyway, the enigmatic thinker Friedrich Nietzsche appears and Schopenhauer dies shortly thereafter. As a young kid, Nietzsche reads Schopenhauer and considers him and his thoughts as a model to strive towards. Nietzsche was a true genius and so intuitively was attracted to Schopenhauer, a fellow genius.
Sidenote: Can you imagine how easy it was to get through a book in the 19th century? There was no internet to distract you. No social media. No movies, no television. You had almost nothing else to do and so you just kept reading the book. What a great thing to experience. Think about this and how it relates to your life.
Then a lot of other stuff happened to Nietzsche but I will shorten it or brevity’s sake and my topic’s sake. Nietzsche met and started to love the German composer Richard Wagner, who advocated life and adventure.
This influenced Nietzsche towards the polar opposite of the denial of life: the affirmation of life, which would eventually become the main subject of his whole philosophy. Nietzsche suffered from many health problems. He was taking large doses of opium to help him sleep. He was rejected romantically and felt depressed and humiliated. This suffering and pain made him turn towards the love of life and the love of fate – amor fati – as a means of subverting suffering and turning it into something that he could appreciate and embrace. This is a reactionary philosophy. It’s erratic and based on a sort of hidden psychological resentment towards life. “Life screwed me over, so I’ll show it!”
Nietzsche a lot of his views on that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which he so admired. He was an advocate of chaos and danger and loved the artistic merit of “great” men like Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great leading these epic lives of drama, war, and conquest.
“You want, if possible – and there is no more insane “if possible” – to abolish
suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible – that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Schopenhauer was an advocate of truth, a la Buddhism, and of pure peace (transcendence from life), a la Buddhism. He was reportedly taught meditation techniques by his neighbor, Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, who was very knowledgeable on ancient Indian wisdom and knew Sanskrit. So, because of this unlikely but beautiful influence, Schopenhauer was able to calmly and gently justify his “life-denying” philosophy by putting it in the context of Buddhism. Meditation brings the individual to a state of non-thought, of detachment from thought, of cessation of and suffering.
Nietzsche did not meditate. The main point he took away from Indian thought, particularly Hinduism, was his admiration for the caste system and how the “chandala”, the lower caste, were basically kept in their place like the lower beings they were.
So, this simple contrast of attitudes and philosophies between two individuals, one a meditator and the other not, brings to light a very interesting discovery about what meditation does to someone. While I am do not completely support Nietzsche or Schopenhauer’s philosophies, I do find more rational sense in Schopenhauer’s. Nietzsche openly denounced truth as sometimes “life-denying” and so called for lies and delusions because they could, if used right, be “life-enhancing”. While he was an intuitive genius, this is indicative of his chaotic and unstable nature.
Meditation is grounding and brings one closer to the truth and what actually is. Without meditative awareness, the mind can become so ransacked with deluded thoughts that up becomes down and down becomes up.