“Nothing in human affairs is worth any great anxiety.” – Plato, Republic, X, 604.
After hearing from Boethius and Montaigne, we come now to the third of our later thinkers on contentment, Arthur Schopenhauer. What can we expect to learn from the greatest Western pessimist-philosopher? Quite a bit actually…
We must start with Schopenhauer’s metaphysic of the thing-in-itself, ‘will’, which he sees as the ultimate force inside us and underpinning the universe. Quoting Aristotle, he notes “not pleasure, but freedom from pain is what the wise man will aim at.”1 This statement in his view turns on an essential truth – pain is the ‘positive’ of life, and happiness its negative. The acknowledgement of discomfort and unease is resisted by the will, but satisfaction of the will requires it meet no resistance. However resisting the will is a fundamental positive, a form of freedom that the will counters with pleasure when resistance eases. Pleasure then is illusory and temporary. Contentment, we learn, comes not from a ledger of pleasures, but a deficit of evils. In his words, “to live happily only means to live less unhappily…”2 In fact, Schopenhauer has backed into a kind of Neo-Epicureanism.
His pessimism goes further; life is not given to us to enjoy, but to overcome, and thus “In old age, it is indeed a consolation to think that the work of life is over and done with.”3 He advises one should “never try to purchase pleasure at the cost of pain,” 4 because “the best that life has to offer is an existence free from pain – a quiet, tolerable life…” 5 Contentment is not happiness (nor is happiness even real); it is acceptance of a moderate life and freedom from anxiety – both of which are undone by the hypocrisy of society, unnecessary mourning, and the folly of excessive desires. He concludes: “Men of worth or value soon come to see that they are in the hands of Fate, and gratefully submit to be moulded by its teachings. They recognize that the fruit of life is experience, and not happiness; they become accustomed and content to exchange hope for insight; and in the end, they can say with Petrarch, that all they care for is to learn: Altro diletto che ‘mpara, no provo.” 6
I’ll stop there …that should be enough for us to think about.
1Saunders, T. Bailey (translator), The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1995. ISBN 978-1-57392-033-9, page 7 (Counsels and Maxims, General Rules) – his italics.
2Ibid . Page 8 – his italics.
5Ibid. Page 11.
6Ibid. Page 16 – translates as “Learning is my sole delight.”