The will to suffer

The question, ”Is life possible to live without suffering?” is, to me, an equivalent to, ”is life possible to live without a will?” Those who have read Schopenhauer or Nietzsche will probably understand this, reading these few lines. Those who haven’t will probably need a further introduction: In The world as will and representation, Schopenhauer outlines the suffering of man as something that is inextricably bound to the will. To want something is to constantly yearn for something without ever being satisfied. Perhaps a quote from his essay On the Vanity of Existence will do:

“In the first place, no man is happy but strives his whole life long after a supposed happiness which he seldom attains, and even if he does it is only to be disappointed with it; as a rule, however, he finally enters harbour shipwrecked and dismasted. In the second place, however, it is all one whether he has been happy or not in a life which has consisted merely of a succession of transient present moments and is now at an end.”

You can say from this that all we ever do, is that whenever we try to fulfil our everlasting desires, we never really reach our goals; rather we set ourselves new ones. This, according to Schopenhauer, is our endless suffering. There is something we want and once we get it, we want something else. In this sense, we never really get what we want; we just continue suffering at our own will. Schopenhauer’s solution to this seems to have a Buddhist point of view: Only by releasing ourselves from our will can we avoid suffering.  On our quest of fulfilling our every desire, we never really “catch the moment”. There is no content in the present moment, because we are always opting for another one.

In today’s society, it would look something like this: I want to get married, buy a house and have some kids. I get married, I buy a house and I have some kids. The house is not big enough for all of us. We need a bigger one. I get a bigger one. I want a dog. I get a dog. I want to live in the country, town is too noisy and there are too many people there.  I move to the country, but there is something wrong with the view and I am starting to have arguments with my beloved wife. She doesn’t want to live in the country. She wants to live in town. And so it goes on. There is really no end to what I want. Everything that makes me happy is going away at a rapid speed. There is never going to be a present moment that I can hold on to, because I always desire something else in my mind. Hence, in this sense, I really do enter the harbor “shipwrecked and dismasted” as Schopenhauer puts it. Perhaps I can even look into the future: I know that whenever I desire something, it is going to go away. The happiest moments of my life will run away like sand between my fingers. I simply can’t hold on to the present moment: I will only be in love with my wife for a certain amount of time, until I want something else. My desire for her will fade away. How can one have desire without not having desire? In order to be satisfied (happy, if you insist) I must also not be satisfied at some point. It was a big dream to have children at first, but now I worry about the house bills that keep piling and my neighbour who is playing loud music.

We humans are born into a struggle of everlasting desire to reach or accomplish our goals. We have created our societies from this; many a good thing has come from our will. Yet our desires do not bring us true satisfaction, but rather leads us on to want more (just like the dog chasing its tail). Schopenhauer had a solution for this. In music (one could probably say the same thing about literature and art in general), as a higher ideal, we can free ourselves from our will – and hence also our suffering:

“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain… Music expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never these themselves.”


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