If you are having a bad day, here’s a tip: stay away from Arthur Schopenhauer and anything he has written. To say that his work is a downer is putting it lightly: to read Schopenhauer is morbidly depressing and gloomy, and requires many hours of post-reading uplift in the form of stupid comedy or time spent with cooing children in order to recuperate.
“Children can sometimes seem like innocent delinquents, sentenced not to death but to life, who have not yet discovered what their punishment will consist of. Nonetheless, everyone desires to achieve old age, that is to say a condition in which one can say: ‘Today it is bad, and day by day it will get worse — until at last the worst of all arrives.’”
The reason for his doom is clear once you understand his philosophy: according to Schopenhauer, all human action is futile and pointless, and thus our existence is to not find peace or enlightenment, but instead to overcome frustration pain. This is immediately obvious in the title of the first essay in his collection of Essays and Aphorisms, originally published as Parerga and Paralipomena in 1851. That title, quite fittingly, is “On the Suffering of the World,” and perhaps aptly, he follows that one with “On the Vanity of Existence.”
If you make it that far into Essays and Aphorisms without needing to take a break from all the gloom, I applaud you. After those first two essays, I took a long, nightmare-plagued nap from which I awoke feeling distraught and purposeless. It took me another six seatings to finally make it through the entire collection, and while I was emotionally drained by the end of it, the entire exercise was worth it.
“Not the least of the torments which plague our existence is the constant pressure of time, which never lets us so much as draw breath but pursues us all like a taskmaster with a whip. It ceases to persecute only him it has delivered over to boredom.”
Reading Essays and Aphorisms was worth it mostly because, between all the articulation of suffering and pain, Schopenhauer has some cogent ideas on the how to break ourselves from the self-delusion that we are all inherently happy and that there is something wrong with us when we are not. Allowing ourselves to feel pain and to understand that it is part of our existence is important because it gives us a self-awareness that helps us understand ourselves and the world around us a bit better.
There are some laughable parts of the collection—his essay “On Women” is a piece of misogyny that is worth skipping—and the book features a lot more pessimism than is perhaps healthy, but there are some enlightening moments when he discusses our relationship with time, morality, animals, and even self-criticism. Essays and Aphorisms is worth visiting if only to see how it influenced later thought and art, or even just as a reminder that we all have our own demons, no matter how candy-coated we like to pretend life to be.
“The scenes in our life resemble pictures in a rough mosaic; they are ineffective from close up, and have to be viewed from a distance if they are to seem beautiful. That is why to attain something desired is to discover how vain it is; and why, though we live all our lives in expectation of better things, we often at the same time long regretfully for what is past. The present, on the other hand, is regarded as something quite temporary and serving as the only road to our goal. That is why most men discover when they look back on their life that they have been living the whole time ad interim, and are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived.”