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The Emptiness of Existence

Posted by aviel on June 24, 2011

I was listening to a podcast the other day, where the essay The Emptiness of Existence, by Arthur Schopenhauer, was being read. Now, I’ve found myself being very attracted to the thinking and style of Schopenhauer, being a combination of stark realism (or pessimism, whichever way you prefer), wit and clarity of thought.

In this essay Schopenhauer paints a grim picture of life. Life is for him a constant striving to satisfy needs and attain desires, which when grasped, will only lead to a state of painlessness and in the continuation to boredom and the feeling of the emptiness of existence. Which itself engenders other desires which we then imagine may lead to the much-wanted happiness that seems so elusive. Life is, in this sense, constant motion without the possibility of finding rest, continual Becoming and never Being.

Schopenhauer. Perhaps pondering the emptiness of existence at this very moment..

No doubt we can all connect to this at some level. Schopenhauer states that it would be wisest to regard life as a delusion. The implication of Schopenhauer’s essay seems to me to be actively minimizing desires, after having realized how they in any case are only vanity. Actually, what would even be the point of staying in this game if you can never score?

I do not doubt the futility of life and the impossibility of finding true rest, but I believe that precisely in this nature of ours, of pursuing our desires, lies our salvation from this reality. As human beings we are capable of appreciating just how utterly irrational our existence is, at least at an intellectual level. However, I find it necessarily true that we are designed to disregard this and keep on going until we drop dead (food and sex being the main drivers). The alternative, according to Schopenhauer, would be boredom and the realization of how empty existence is. Perhaps  it is better then to avoid dwelling on this, remain committed to the illusion and keep on pursuing pleasures. The endless cycle of anticipation and reward, both in small and great things, is what seems to make life at all tolerable. And life CAN be tolerable for most of us, I believe. So it would seem the question is if maintaining the illusion (of the possibility of attaining happiness) is better than not to. And I think that nothing makes you as miserable as dwelling on the bleakness of existence. Thus I prefer attempting to tolerate existence by actively forgetting that “all flesh is grass”.

If there is anything more cheerful we can learn from Schopenhauer’s essay, it would be how pointless it is to dwell on past mistakes, regretting all those bridges you never crossed or the ones who took you to a place where you had not intended to go. As he states:

How foolish it is for a man to regret and deplore his having made no use of past opportunities, which might have secured him this or that happiness or enjoyment! What is there left of them now? Only the ghost of a remembrance!

What do you think? Is Schopenhauer right in his assessment of life? If so, what, if anything, can we do about it? Do you think it’s possible to disregard the knowledge of life being without meaning or value, as I suggested?

Read the essay here among other essays by Schopenhauer.

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