Not many people looked to Arthur Schopenhauer in his lifetime, but his thinking about human nature has deeply influenced a long list of subsequent writers and philosophers.
He was one of the first major Western thinkers to incorporate aspects of Eastern philosophy into his work, except that many of his conclusions were generally a little more pessimistic.
He saw reality as driven by a blind will that manifested itself in humans as illogical and pointless desires. For him, the only way out of this was through a kind of asceticism, where much of our material pleasures are given up as to fight against this irrational will.
The biggest criticism of Schopenhauer is indeed this defeatist view, one that didn’t attempt to strike a balance. Nonetheless, it’s clear that he had thought deeply about these issues, and even if his conclusions were unsatisfactory, there was still a kernel of truth to them.
In his essay The Wisdom of Life, he did something unlike him. He deviated away from his pessimism and tried to outline what it would take to live a happy life in this world as it is. In doing so, he insightfully pointed to one of the chief struggles of our existence:
“The most general survey shows us that the two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom. We may go further, and say that in the degree in which we are fortunate enough to get away from the one, we approach the other. Life presents, in fact, a more or less violent oscillation between the two.
The reason of this is that each of these two poles stands in a double antagonism to the other, external or objective, and inner or subjective. Needy surroundings and poverty produce pain; while, if a man is more than well off, he is bored. Accordingly, while the lower classes are engaged in a ceaseless struggle with need, in other words, with pain, the upper carry on a constant and often desperate battle with boredom.”
Stuck in the Pleasure/Pain Axis
Traditional psychology and neuroscience have assumed that humans have innate biological pathways embedded into us by evolution, expressed as feelings like anger and joy.
This reasoning holds that emotions are universal and specific and that we can map them out if we study the human body in close detail across a variety of cultures and environments.
This view is so deeply ingrained in popular culture that most of us, too, would argue that there is something specific like anger and joy that we can identify in others at different times.
The theory of constructed emotions, however, argues otherwise. While, yes, something we roughly identify as anger is experienced by us, it doesn’t exist in the concrete and specific way that we think it does. It’s a complex and summarized mixture of everything going on in our body at a particular time (as to orient us), and it varies from one instance to another.1
According to this view, the only thing that exists is the pleasure/pain axis, which serves to absorb information both from our body and our surroundings to give a rough idea of what we need. Within this axis, we experience affect – an ever-changing conscious reality.
Everything else – particularly emotion and cognition – only exists because we create linguistic distinctions between them. Anger is only anger because we collectively call it anger.
The interesting thing is that Schopenhauer takes it a step further with his distinction of pain and boredom. While pain can be constant and ever-present (it’s a call to action, so if you don’t respond to it, it persists), pleasure (or a similarly good feeling) isn’t and turns into boredom if you have everything you need (if it didn’t, survival would be out of the question).
In a way, as Schopenhauer points out, we are essentially stuck in this fluctuation. If we get away from one, we move towards the other, and neither provide any long-term satisfaction.
Now, it’s easy to see how pain is unwelcomed, but a deep existential boredom can be similarly torturous. In some cases, perhaps even more so, leading to nihilism and depression.
There is a lot we are still uncertain about in terms of how we experience our conscious reality, but the fact that we are living within the pleasure/pain axis seems close to certain.
Cultivating a Mind/Body Connection
To solve this problem, Schopenhauer suggests that we leave behind our preoccupations with the world around us and instead retreat to the world of thought and create inward wealth.
Well, he doesn’t necessarily suggest that physical pain can be escaped in the mind, but he does make the case that we can break the shackles of boredom, at least, with thought.
By ignoring the external world and the associations we have in it with pleasure and pain, he argues that we can somehow leave behind this pleasure/pain axis altogether within the mind. And this, perhaps, is where Schopenhauer sounds better on paper than in real life.
If the theory of constructed emotions is right, then there is really no hard distinction where thought somehow lives outside of the pleasure/pain axis. It’s all one side of the same coin.
In fact, thought, in some instances of boredom and pain, does nothing but augment what causes dissatisfaction. Quite often, it’s not as simple as thinking about something else to get away from what you don’t want to face. We don’t always have control over that.
A better solution, maybe, is to create inward wealth by cultivating a more holistic mind/body connection, where you pay just as much attention to the body as you do to your thoughts.
In many cases of pain and boredom, when it is thought which augments the dissatisfaction, observing the body and the sensations on it, without attaching yourself to them as thought does, you can see the ever-changing nature of the affect that you are experiencing.
Very few people consciously spend time in their body, experiencing movements and feelings that arise, but when it’s done with intention, it can be just as therapeutic as a mental escape.
It reminds you there is more to what you experience on a daily basis than whatever it is that boils to the surface. By default, we don’t think about being in our body because we have automated the parts of our awareness that consciously pay attention to it, and it’s precisely for this reason that getting in touch with that awareness can point us in a new direction.
The problems of pain and boredom can’t be solved by retreating to one or the other, either thought (subjective, internal) or body (objective, external), but they have to work together.
Regardless of whether Schopenhauer was right about everything, it’s hard not to respect his courage in trying to see reality for what it is rather than settling for an unfounded idealism.
His whole philosophy works in a fairly coherent fashion, and much of it is understandable enough to apply to our day to day life in a way that clears out some of the muddy waters.
The chief struggle experienced in the human condition, as identified by Schopenhauer, says something that modern biology has known since Darwin and takes it a step further: we live in the pleasure/pain axis, yes, but sustained pleasure almost always leads to boredom.
Pain gives us information that something is wrong and we need to fix it, and some form of it tends to persist until the problem is solved. Pleasure, on the other hand, is a reward, but if the reward is continuously present, it ceases to be rewarding, leading to a certain dullness.
While there are ways to escape this dullness by retreating to the mind and to intellectual thought, we can’t completely sever the link between experience and the pleasure/pain axis.
To balance the ever-changing affect we live with, in a healthy way, we need to develop a mind/body connection, one that holistically incorporates the two to manage change.
By watching and paying attention to our body, outside of the boundaries of thought, we can bring to the foreground the feelings and sensations that are masked by an inattentive mind.
When stated, it’s quite evident that the mind and the body work together, that they have a feedback loop that connects them, but in reality, we often ignore this at our own peril.
Dissatisfaction exists whether we want it to, but how we deal with it makes all the difference.
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