Arthur Schopenhauer as an inexperienced sage

Imagine you are in a shop where the vendor is a refined young woman with a sweet speech and a cunning smile who is adept in promoting her goods; the customers are all charmed by her skills and happily purchase everything, giving her all their money. By observing closely you notice that the quality of the stuff she sells is poor. By the time it is your turn you already decide that you are not going to be cheated like the rest of the crowd. When you confront her with your discovery her cunning smile suddenly fades away; she looks at you with interest and compassion. “It is true, I am cheating all these people. The fact that you have seen through my tricks is quite remarkable. I can help you. I can sell you the real thing; you just have to come upstairs to my secret storage of first class products. But can you pay the price? Do you at all believe that these real goods actually exist?” What would be your answer?


The shop is the material world, the amiable shopkeeper is the Lord’s illusory potency (Maya). She bewilders all living entities by cheating them out of their real self-interest. The goods are the various goals in life. And we are the customers.


Most of the people in this world are happy to be cheated by Maya. They are buying into her products and consider their acquisitions to be all and all. There are others who can at least partially see the fraud; the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is one of these rare persons.


Schopenhauer’s view is that existence is troublesome and painful. Life is intrinsically miserable. Happiness is just the temporary absence of pain. (Of course, strictly speaking, as pointed out by Srila Prabhupada, there is no such thing as absence of suffering in the material world. The very fact that the pure spirit soul is encaged in a material body implies constant pain; we ought to be subject to at least one type of misery at all times, we are simply given the opportunity to not be extremely plagued by them at certain times and these rare moments are what we call happiness.)


Schopenhauer is well known as a pessimistic philosopher. “I shall be told, I suppose”, he writes, “that my philosophy is comfortless — because I speak the truth.” Schopenhauer reminds me of Morpheus, the famous character from “The Matrix” movie. When he persuaded Neo to take the red pill, which was supposed to grant him access to Reality, he warned him, “Remember, I promise you only the Truth.” The kind of truth that was promised and shown to Neo was quite repulsive indeed. It was merely an enormous field of human beings kept by evil machines in containers just like animals, for the sake of the energy of their bodies. Quite disappointing and frightening. Fortunately, this truth is only a partial truth. The Absolute Truth is, of course, the origin of all bliss and beauty. That made clear, we all agree with Arthur’s relentless critic of material existence.


According to him, life is suffering in at least two fundamental ways:


“Life presents itself chiefly as a task — the task, I mean, of subsisting at all, “gagner sa vie”. If this is accomplished, life is a burden, and then there comes the second task of doing something with that which has been won — of warding off boredom, which, like a bird of prey, hovers over us, ready to fall wherever it sees a life secure from need. The first task is to win something; the second, to banish the feeling that it has been won; otherwise it is a burden.”


We have to struggle to even maintain our lives. In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna says that without working one can’t maintain even one’s body. This is the famous struggle for existence phenomenon, so often mentioned by Srila Prabhupada. Even after securing the requirements of survival one is prone to suffer of boredom, or emptiness in life. In other words, in material existence we are destined to strive for things and, having attained them, to be disappointed by them.


“In the first place”, writes our Sri Arthur, “a man never is happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbor with masts and rigging gone. And then, it is all one whether he has been happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than a present moment always vanishing; and now it is over.”


According to the Vaisnava scriptures, the moment we acquire something it moves from our goal (prayojana) back to the field of our activities or the resources we use to attain our goals (sambandha). That means that we are encouraged to find again and again new ways to please the Lord (abhideya). The Lord is also eager to reciprocate with his pure devotee in eternally innovative ways. Since advanced devotional service is motivated by spontaneous affection for Radha-Krishna it is not possible to be hampered by boredom.


Here we are facing a problem. Arthur Schopenhauer’s idea of happiness is impersonal. He is convinced that evil is all pervading. He is deeply upset by the lack of a peaceful location, in both physical and metaphysical sense, where he can just exist in a state of painless contentment. For this type of people it is hard to conceive of life as a dynamic and yet happy journey full of variety and adventure. For them existence is either ever changing, personal and therefore miserable, or impersonal and steady, and therefore free of pain:


“In a world where all is unstable, and naught can endure, but is swept onwards at once in the hurrying whirlpool of change; where a man, if he is to keep erect at all, must always be advancing and moving, like an acrobat on a rope — in such a world, happiness is inconceivable. How can it dwell where, as Plato says, continual Becoming and never Being is the sole form of existence?”


Well, not exactly true. God and his pure devotees are always “Being” and “Becoming” at the same time. They are eternally established in their “perfect-ness” (being) and always experiencing newer and higher bliss (becoming). In other words, God and his devotees do not have the defect of being impersonal.


Of course, in the Bhagavad-gita Krishna also confirms that no one can remain inactive, not even for a moment. Our bodies are products of the three modes of material nature; these modes are always active and ever-changing. This state of affairs proves to be quite annoying for the impersonal philosophers. The Absolute Truth must be changeless, they insist, and rightly do so. But, if this is true, why is the world full of changes? Trying to resolve the problem, some of them claim that the material world simply does not exist at all. They are so troubled by the “panta rhei” status quo of the world that they deny the world’s very existence saying that only Brahman exists (Brahman satyam, jagan mithya).


The Vaisnava philosophers explain that although Brahman is free of change, His inferior, material energy (bahiranga sakti) is changing. The material world, as we know it, is a product of a long succession of such changes. On the other hand, the pastimes of the Supreme Lord and the Spiritual Realm are simultaneously perfect and full of variety. It seems that in order to accommodate this simple truth one needs a special mercy from the Lord’s internal energy. [1]


The impersonal concept of the Absolute Truth entails attaining perfection and stopping there. When one is perfect (not identifying with the material body) one can enjoy peace forever. According to the Vaisnava concept however the attaining of perfection is not the end but only the beginning of the real spiritual advancement:


“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman and becomes fully joyful. He never laments or desires to have anything. He is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” (BG 18.54)


The basic deficiency in the impersonal view is that it does not acknowledge the difference between material and spiritual variety. The fact that the material variety is miserable does not mean that spiritual variety should be miserable too. If you are used to eating only sweet rise mixed with sand does not imply that pure sweet rise does not exist.


Of course, chewing the chewed, eating again and again sweet rise mixed with sand, can be truly frustrating. Especially for the type of disillusioned, grumpy men like Schopenhauer:

“He who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer’s booth at a fair, and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once; and when they are no longer a novelty.”

Schopenhauer might be well over some of Maya’s tricks, but that does not mean he is not bewildered by Her. To be bored by the vanity of material existence is hardly a sign of liberation from it. Here is a definition of liberation according to the Bhagavad-gita:


“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman and becomes fully joyful. He never laments or desires to have anything. He is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.”


One can be bored by material life for millions of lifetimes, but boredom does not grant liberation; knowledge and devotion to God does. Without them one is caught up between the two extremes, need and boredom. Schopenhauer writes:


“Of a truth, need and boredom are the two poles of human life.”


In the Vedic context these two poles are known as bhoga-tyaga (enjoyment and renunciation), or iccha-dvesha (desire and hate). In modern terms they are also known as bipolar disorder (manic depression). The first stage of the illness is characterized by enthusiastic attempts to attain happiness by material endeavor (mania); the second stage amounts to the inevitable and bitter disappointment (depression). Since human beings are mainly governed by the mode of passion, this condition is spread everywhere in human society, though only in its severe forms it is formally granted the status of a disease.


The suffering caused by this condition is so all-pervading that, in Schopenhauer’s opinion, it is the main object of human existence. Otherwise, he argues, what is the point of suffering? As Srila Prabhupada explains, material miseries serve as indirect reminders that material world is not our real home. They are like unpleasant experiences in a dream that are supposed to wake us up. But to wake up from a dream means that there is a real world outside of the dream. How to wake up if you don’t believe in reality? How do you deal with absolute, all-pervading suffering in material existence if you think that material existence is all that exists? Isn’t it better, in that case, to not be so acutely aware of the abundant misery and live a life of a mudha, a beast-like man?


Schopenhauer’s answer is, in some way, yes. Animals are better off in the sense that they are not so distinctly aware of their suffering. One reason for that is that animals are always positioned in the current moment, they enjoy and suffer only in the present moment. Humans are almost never present in the present; they are usually contemplating their failures in the past (tamas) or making plans for the future enjoyments or fearing and anticipating future suffering (rajas). This constant refusal to live in the current moment causes a tremendous amount of mental agony and anxiety. Animals are, to a great extent, free of these types of worries since they are not distinctly aware of their past and future. They suffer only in their present, whereas humans suffer in their past, present, and future.


What is the reason for all this intense and incessant misery?


“…the world… [is] the outcome of our own misdeeds, and therefore, as something that had better not have been… we come into the world with the burden of sin upon us; and that it is only through having continually to atone for this sin that our existence is so miserable, and that its end is death.

There is nothing more certain than the general truth that it is the grievous “sin of the world” which has produced the grievous “suffering of the world”. I am not referring here to the physical connection between these two things lying in the realm of experience; my meaning is metaphysical… There seems to me no better explanation of our existence than that it is the result of some false step, some sin of which we are paying the penalty.“


In other words, we should not blame God for mankind’s suffering. Bad things happen to good people because after all they are not so good. What is this primordial sin, which renders even the nice guys punishable by the cruel laws of material nature? It is the attraction and attachment to sense gratification:

kṛṣṇa-bahirmukha hañā bhoga-vāñchā kare
nikaṭa-stha māyā tāre jāpaṭiyā dhare

It is said in the Prema-vivarta that when a living entity wants to enjoy material nature, he is immediately victimized by the material energy. A living entity is not forced to come into the material world. He makes his own choice, being attracted by beautiful women. Every living entity has the freedom to be attracted by material nature or to stand as a hero and resist that attraction. It is simply a question of the living entity’s being attracted or not being attracted. There is no question of his being forced to come into contact with material energy. One who can keep himself steady and resist the attraction of material nature is certainly a hero and deserves to be called a gosvāmī. Unless one is master of the senses, he cannot become a gosvāmī. The living entity can take one of two positions in this world: he may become a servant of his senses, or he may become master of them. By becoming a servant of the senses, one becomes a great material hero, and by becoming master of the senses, he becomes a gosvāmī, or spiritual hero. (Srimad-Bhagavatam, 4.25.25, purport)


Schopenhauer describes these two positions as well:


“Between the ethics of the Greeks and the ethics of the Hindoos, there is a glaring contrast. In the one case (with the exception, it must be confessed, of Plato), the object of ethics is to enable a man to lead a happy life; in the other, it is to free and redeem him from life altogether — as is directly stated in the very first words of the “Sankhya Karika”.”


This, in a nutshell, represents the two paths, karma, and jnana; performance of pious deeds for attaining material benefits, and cultivation of knowledge and detachment with the aim of liberation from matter, or denial of materialistic life altogether, as pointed out in the paragraph above. The third, middle path is called buddhi, or bhakti. It means performance of one’s duties with knowledge and detachment, for the pleasure of the Lord, with the goal of pleasing Him and attaining His spiritual abode which is even above liberation (or, is the real, actual liberation).[1]


Since the path of bhakti is the original path, it contains in itself the main features of all other spiritual paths, but it also gives the blessing of the Lord’s mercy without which no method will work. The reason for this is that by our nature we are dependent on the mercy of the only independent entity, God, and thus awarded success or failure by Him alone.


Accepting the reality of our dependency on God and accepting the reality of our miserable material existence is a good basis for both material and spiritual progress. This outlook in life will save us from the state of constant frustration and will make us compassionate to all living entities:


“In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another. Nay, from this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not “Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr” but “my fellow-sufferer, Soci malorum, compagnon de misères”! This may perhaps sound strange, but it is in keeping with the facts; it puts others in a right light; and it reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life — the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor, of which everyone stands in need, and which, therefore, every man owes to his fellow.”


It is often said that the illusory energy of the Lord bewilders all living entities in this material world. Schopenhauer shares his insights on the topic:


“The scenes of our life are like pictures done in rough mosaic. Looked at close, they produce no effect. There is nothing beautiful to be found in them, unless you stand some distance off. So, to gain anything we have longed for is only to discover how vain and empty it is; and even though we are always living in expectation of better things, at the same time we often repent and long to have the past back again.”


In other words, material happiness does not exist; it is, as Prahlada Maharaja says, “sruti sukha”, simply pleasing to hear of:


“In this material world, every living entity desires some future happiness, which is exactly like a mirage in the desert. Where is water in the desert, or, in other words, where is happiness in this material world? As for this body, what is its value? It is merely a source of various diseases. The so-called philosophers, scientists and politicians know this very well, but nonetheless they aspire for temporary happiness.[2] Happiness is very difficult to obtain, but because they are unable to control their senses, they run after the so-called happiness of the material world and never come to the right conclusion.”


Schopenhauer continues:


“We look upon the present as something to be put up with while it lasts, and serving only as the way towards our goal. Hence most people, if they glance back when they come to the end of life, will find that all along they have been living “ad interim”: they will be surprised to find that the very thing they disregarded and let slip by unenjoyed, was just the life in the expectation of which they passed all their time. Of how many a man may it not be said that hope made a fool of him until he danced into the arms of death![3]

Then again, how insatiable a creature is man! Every satisfaction he attains lays the seeds of some new desire, so that there is no end to the wishes of each individual will. And why is this? The real reason is simply that, taken in itself, Will is the lord of all worlds: everything belongs to it, and therefore no one single thing can ever give it satisfaction, but only the whole, which is endless. For all that, it must rouse our sympathy to think how very little the Will, this lord of the world, really gets when it takes the form of an individual; usually only just enough to keep the body together. This is why man is so very miserable.”


This is Arthur’s way to describe that worst of the enemies of the conditioned souls, lust. This is how Lord Krishna describes it in the Bhagavad-gita:

“The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material mode of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of this world. As fire is covered by smoke, as a mirror is covered by dust, or as the embryo is covered by the womb, the living entity is similarly covered by different degrees of this lust. Thus the wise living entity’s pure consciousness becomes covered by his eternal enemy in the form of lust, which is never satisfied and which burns like fire.” (BG 3.37-39)


Lust urges us to commit sinful acts, which never really satisfy us. It is very hard to battle this enemy because attaining victory over him implies complete reform of one’s views and way of life. Lust is so deeply embedded in the psyche that it survives even death and continues to torment the soul in future bodies. This is the central consideration in the discussion of Schopenhauer’s view on the suicide, as presented by Saunders:


“According to Schopenhauer, moral freedom — the highest ethical aim — is to be obtained only by a denial of the will to live. Far from being a denial, suicide is an emphatic assertion of this will. For it is in fleeing from the pleasures, not from the sufferings of life, that this denial consists. When a man destroys his existence as an individual, he is not by any means destroying his will to live. On the contrary, he would like to live if he could do so with satisfaction to himself; if he could assert his will against the power of circumstance; but circumstance is too strong for him.”


Thus committing a suicide physically, by killing one’s own body, or spiritually, by trying to merge with God, is not a sign of “a denial of the will to live”, or overcoming lust. Rather, it is a definite statement of this will. This is the reason why the so-called liberated persons have to come back again to the material world. They may be very advanced, even to the point of attaining perfection (realizing that they are not matter). Still, if they don’t surrender to God, they are impure because they still have the desire to control and enjoy independently of God. The primordial anger caused by the fact that they are not God is still alive in them; therefore their typical goal is to become one with God, or to become God. This most subtle form of the will to live, or lust, is called in Bhagavatam citta, or polluted consciousness. The result of this contamination is a falldown:


“[Someone may say that aside from devotees, who always seek shelter at the Lord’s lotus feet, there are those who are not devotees but who have accepted different processes for attaining salvation. What happens to them? In answer to this question, Lord Brahmā and the other demigods said:] O lotus-eyed Lord, although nondevotees who accept severe austerities and penances to achieve the highest position may think themselves liberated, their intelligence is impure. They fall down from their position of imagined superiority because they have no regard for Your lotus feet.” (SB 10.2.32)


The Bhagavad-gita also states:


“Those who are not faithful on the path of devotional service cannot attain Me, O conqueror of foes, but return to birth and death in this material world.” (BG 9.3)


“Thus it doesn’t matter whether one is a karmī, jñānī, yogī, philanthropist, politician or whatever; if one has no love for the lotus feet of the Lord, one falls down”, Srila Prabhupada remarks in his purport.


Human existence, unless dedicated to God, is very unremarkable. As Schopenhauer dryly observes,


“It is only in the microscope that our life looks so big. It is an indivisible point, drawn out and magnified by the powerful lenses of Time and Space.”

Small we shall remain. Our choice is to eternally remain frustrated in our attempts to enjoy this world or to reject it (karma and jnana), or to take the middle path of bhakti and enjoy our loving relationship with God.


[1] Related to this is the fact that the Lord’s form and name do not impose any limitations on Him; that is another Vedic Truth inconceivable to the impersonal philosopher: nāhaṁ prakāśaḥ sarvasya yoga-māyā-samāvṛtaḥ mūḍho ’yaṁ nābhijānāti loko mām ajam avyayam, I am never manifest to the foolish and unintelligent. For them I am covered by My internal potency, and therefore they do not know that I am unborn and infallible. (BG 7.25)

[2] Mukti, or liberation, means becoming free from the results of material activities. As stated in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (2.10.6), muktir hitvānyathā-rūpam svarupeṇa vyavasthitiḥ: mukti means giving up all other activities and being situated in one’s constitutional position.


[3] We must include here our German philosopher. He rejects the temporary material reality without accepting the eternal spiritual variety. This means that, as long as he keeps his views, he can’t have a shelter in the eternal world.


[4] CS Lewis similarly wrote: The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.




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