Schopenhauer: Death and Suffering in the Absence of Love.
Reading Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) is like reading a pessimists interpretation of the Bhagavada-gita. In his philosophy he writes about the ‘will-to-live’ as the blind force which drives us on in life. This ‘will’ manifests itself in the form of desire, driven by lack and want, it fructifies inevitably in frustration and misery. If you have read the Gita you may be thinking ‘that sounds familiar’. Krishna makes this point in the Bhagavad-gita verse 5.23: ‘Before giving up this present body, if one is able to tolerate the urges of the material senses and check the force of desire and anger, he is well situated and is happy in this world.’ In the verse before this (5.22), desire is described to be the seed of all suffering, and giving up desire, as stated in this verse, is where the key to a happy life exists. However for Schopenhauer there is no question of the ‘happy life’, for him existence itself is miserable and he therefore suggests: ‘our existence is happiest when we perceive it least; from this it follows that it would be better not to have it’. Certainly the solution of self-annihilation is not supported by the Gita because the true self or the atma, as presented by Krishna, is joyful and eternal.
Schopenhauer sees the ‘kernel’ and ‘concentration’ of the will to live as being the sex drive. He calls it the ‘manifestation of the species’ which exceeds and consumes us, never finding its fulfilment no matter how much we submit to it. Its presence is ‘painful yearning’ and its release leaves us ‘no happier than before’. No doubt these are true words, but are they Schopenhauer’s or has he taken them from Krishna? Consider verse 3.39 the very same point has been presented: ‘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.’ However, the Gita’s solution is not to end one’s existence, rather it is to overcome the lust which is harming it by spiritual knowledge and practice. Srila Prabhupada compares solutions such as Schopenhauer’s to be like a person who cuts off their own head in attempt to rid themselves of a headache. I think you will probably agree that such a remedy is worse that the disease itself.
A good example is given by Schopenhauer in describing life’s toil. He compares it to man running down a mountain. If he tries to stop himself he will fall on his face, so he keeps running and to run is the only solution. Sometimes life can feel like this, one thing after another without end; as the old saying goes ‘when it rains it pours’. The Gita, however does have a solution to this problem, whereas Schopenhauer’s is only the hope for unconsciousness. In his conclusion he posits: ‘Suffering is the true destiny of human existence, a purifying experience which leads us back from an erroneous, exhausting will-to-live’, and then his solution: ‘we must learn to renounce the will-to-live and to revere death.’ Certainly he paints a very bleak picture of life, where life means to suffer and the only solution is death. This is very much not the point or pointlessness of life according to the Gita and the several other eastern traditions that Schopenhauer fondly quotes from. Human life, in which we do suffer, is considered to be a great opportunity and if used appropriately it can bring an end to all our suffering. The only consequence of death is life, as Krishna states in the Gita: ‘for one who has taken birth death is certain, and for one who dies birth is certain’. So contrary to Schopenhauer’s estimation, suffering doesn’t end with death, it remains with us in every life until we use life (not death) itself to address it.
When we live life for the purpose of our own enjoyment we suffer, it is inevitable and that’s why as children our parents told us to share. They were pointing us towards a manageable way of life and away from the ugliness of selfishness. The direction was towards fulfilment and fairness not enjoyment. Schopenhauer rightly makes the point that pleasure is ‘fleeting’ and not what it is all hyped up to be. It comes, it goes and if we get too much of it we are sickened. After we enjoy we have to detox therefore the busiest time at the gym is right after Christmas. Obesity and alcoholism are forms of excessive pleasure which are equal to misery. However love as opposed to enjoyment is a different story, its joy and pain are both deeply fulfilling. Love begins with sharing and finds its full expression in service, serving others and serving the origin of ourselves: love personified. The will-to-live is the search for unadulterated love, in the absence of which the meaninglessness of life equates to suffering. In the Upanisads which Schopenhauer is fond of quoting it explains that we are love seeking by nature and when rejoin with the origin of love we become complete, we become blissful(Gopal Tapani). The will-to-live is not our problem: it is our constitution; it is the need-to-love. What makes the difference is when that will becomes free to love. In loving, our existence is forgotten as Schopenhauer desires but it is not ended; it is ever born from moment to moment. Love's anguish and bliss are one and the same; they are our deepest fulfilment, a subliminal truth. So therefore in the conclusion of the Gita, all suffering ends in loving Krishna and caring for others. To love, death is required, the death of self interest, the death of material pleasure: so death does serve a function. But it is life which gives death value and it is only in a life of pure love that death no longer serves a function. Therefore to ‘revere’ death in this sense is not wrong, death is the solution. Death is the shedding of an old and burdensome skin, of the selfish egocentric person we have become. It is the end of our past, the who we were and regret to have been: a death without which the will-to-live would never evolve to become the will-to-love.