Schopenhauer’s Logically Self-Destructive Philosophy of Pessimism

Rereading Schopenhauer

When I learned that a family member of mine was likely struggling with the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, I felt like it would be a good idea to revisit his work. I wanted to familiarize myself with his writing, just in case I was asked for my thoughts as a Christian who has spent some time thinking through philosophical systems and ideas. And upon rereading his work, I quickly remembered how effectively the man could make you sink to his level of despondency and depression. He does this, in part, by abusing his readers. What do I mean?

Well, he alternates between giving the reader hope and then snatching it away almost as quickly as he has given it. This results in the reader entertaining a hope that there is perhaps some light at the end of Schopenhauer’s morbidly bleak tunnel of ruminations, although there is none.

Thankfully, however, I also recognized just how logically self-destructive his philosophy is when scrutinized in light of itself. Below, I’ll give my reasons for thinking this to be the case.

1. Appearance vs. Reality

The first glaring problem is that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics differentiates between the world-in-itself and the world-for-us, that is to say between what is actually the case and what we perceive to be the case. The world-in-itself is a unity; the world-for-us, however, is diverse. What this means is that the suffering and the pleasure upon which Schopenhauer waxes for pages and pages and pages is, well, an illusion. Because suffering is part of the world-for-us, and is not the world-in-itself, it is merely a representation of the underlying unity of all experiences and objects. The world-in-itself is merely a pulsating will, as it were, that cannot be said to be good, bad, painful, or pleasurable.

It just is.

This means that the entire focus of Schopenhauer’s pessimism has no foundation in his beliefs about what reality is, namely a single unconscious, a-rational, a-logical Will. And this further de-fangs his pessimism, seeing as the unity of the world-in-itself lacks teleology (i.e. a goal toward which it is tending), moral value, emotion, and reason. It needs to be remembered that we are part of this world-in-itself. Consequently, whatever we think is teleological, moral or immoral, emotive or apathetic, and rational or irrational is illusory. If Schopenhauer is right about the world as Will and Representation, then he is wrong. This is self-contradictory and, therefore, false. His metaphysics destroys his pessimism, rendering all of his claims about the futility and pain and pointless of human existence false.

2. Observation as Epistemological Authority

Schopenhauer, moreover, cites his observations as the authority that justifies his claims about suffering and pain and futility and death. However, given that Schopenhauer makes universal claims about the nature of reality, the nature of pain, the nature of pleasure, human nature, animality, time, psychology, and many other subjects, his citation of observation only serves to show that his observations do not justify his claims as true. While he may talk about individual experiences that he has observed, he has no ground for asserting that because of his observations he can make universal claims about the subjects I mentioned. Why? Because universal claims can only be evidentially justified, i.e. proven to be true by evidence, if the evidence for them is total, lacking no other pieces of evidence. For example, if Schopenhauer says that upon the basis of his observations he has concluded that all of human existence is ultimately suffering, he is either claiming to have observed human existence at all times and in all places and under all conditions, or he is claiming to know something he could never observe, namely human existence at all times and in all places and under all conditions. Schopenhauer isn’t speaking the facts, as he claims, but his opinion based upon his limited observations. He is overextending the legitimate applicability of his observations to his system of philosophy.

3. Existence is Pure Goodness, According to Schopenhauer

For anyone whose read the old, disgruntled codger, it might be surprising to see that Schopenhauer identifies existence as pure goodness. This is because Schopenhauer harps on and on about human existence being a mistake, an accident, and ultimately purely comprised of suffering and evil. Yet his own metaphysics makes this impossible. If the nature of reality is one, an indivisible throbbing Will that has no emotions or morals or reasons – then it follows that it is just as true to say that all of human existence is Jell-O Pudding as it is to say that all of human existence is suffering.

But even if we ignore this glaring contradiction, for the sake of argument, and grant his irrational belief to him about reality being comprised of suffering and futility, what do we see? Well, in a word, we see that all of existence is tending toward death, which is the cessation of physical and conscious experience, including experiences of pain and suffering and futility. And this is precisely what goodness is, the absence of pain and suffering and futility, according to Schopenhauer. How, then, can he say that the universal movement toward death – and note that this is another universal claim he cannot justify by an appeal to his senses or observations – is a bad thing? If the end result of all of existence is death, then the end result of all of existence is a state of perfect goodness in which pain and suffering and futility have come to an absolute end.

Not only this, but part of our pain and suffering in this life comes from being consciously aware of our eventual and inevitable death, as Schopenhauer claims, and death is the end of pain and suffering and futility, then it follows that our conscious awareness of our eventual and inevitable death is not a cause of suffering and pain, but one of pleasure, seeing as by contemplating death and obsessing over it, as Schopenhauer does, we are actually contemplating and obsessing over an eternal state of goodness in which there is neither pain nor suffering nor futility. How is the contemplation of an never-ending goodness, a never-ending state of deathlessness and painlessness and futility-less-ness not pleasurable?

Even Schopenhauer recognizes that human being’s can derive a great deal of pleasure from hoping for a state of goodness that they have no experiential access to. Does it not, therefore, follow from Schopenhauer’s own philosophical assumptions that the contemplation of one’s own death is equivalent to the contemplation of the overarching goodness of the whole of reality, which is constantly striving toward eliminating pain and suffering and futility?

It does follow, and inexorably so.

Schopenhauer’s belief here reduce to absurdity. For if pessimism is true, then it is false.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. I may at some time in the future address Schopenhauer’s immensely ignorant comments about the Scriptures and the Christian faith.


Ontology – A Brief Reflection


Far from being mute on the subject of ontology, the Christian faith, following Scripture, makes some foundational ontological distinctions. The first of these is the distinction between God and his creation. Perhaps most importantly, we teach that God is ontologically simple (i.e. not composed of parts), whereas his creation is ontologically complex (i.e. composed of parts). From this initial distinction, numerous others follow necessarily. For example,

If God is simple, then he is not composed of parts.
If God is not composed of parts, then he lacks nothing.
If God lacks nothing, then he is pure actuality.
If God is pure actuality, then he is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnipotent.

And so on.

So what is the doctrine of divine simplicity? James Dolezal explains —

The classical doctrine of simplicity, as espoused by both traditional Thomists and the Reformed scholastics, famously holds forth the maxim that there is nothing in God that is not God. if there were, that is, if God were not ontologically identical with all that is in him, then something other than God himself would be needed to account for his existence, essence, and attributes. But nothing that is not in God can sufficiently account for God. He exists in all his perfection entirely in and through himself.

[God Without Parts, Kindle Ed. loc. 127]

The TLDR version = God is ontologically identical with all that is in him. Put another way, theologians have asserted that God’s existence and attributes are identical. Whereas creatures derive everything they are, ultimately, from God, he derives nothing from any one. Every attribute of God is essential to his existence, such that if he were to cease to be, for instance, all-knowing, he would cease to exist. This is not the case where his creation is concerned.

Every Thing Has Essential Properties

Nevertheless, while creatures are not ontologically simple, they have certain essential properties/attributes without which they would cease to be. Here’s what I mean. If you saw an ad for a dining room table on Craigslist, and the price was so good you decided to throw all caution to the wind and meet up with the stranger supposedly selling this table you need, you would expect the table to be comprised of a rectangular, square, or circular slab of wood upheld by some kind of a “leg” base. Why is that?

Well, you would assume that the table has a leg base of some kind (either having a single leg with a round base/foot, two parallel-facing legs, or four such legs) because having a leg base is essential to the being of a table. So if you went to buy the table you found on Craigslist, and you found that it was just a slab of wood, you wouldn’t be too happy. The slab of wood may have been created for the express purpose of being a table top, or it may have formerly been a table top, but it isn’t a table. A slab of wood without a leg base is not a table – it’s a slab of wood.

The Cash Value of Ontology

It may be hard to see how thinking through ontology relates to apologetics, theology, and personal devotion. However, the value of such thinking is undeniable when we consider the following.

  1. The Nature of God’s Word: If all of God’s properties are essential to his being, then it follows that his inability to lie or err are likewise essential to his being. Consequently, the unbeliever’s assumption that the Scriptures could be in error is an implicit assumption that God does not exist. This makes his reasoning circular. It also implies that any claim that identifies the Scriptures as the source of one’s unbelief are, necessarily, false. One must first assume that God is not God, i.e. God is not truth and impeccable and omniscient, that God does not exist, in order to even suppose that God’s Word could be in error at any point.
  2. The Fate of Man: As we’ve seen, the essential properties of a thing are those properties without which a thing will cease to exist. The thing in question cannot receive the properties in question, for without these properties it would not be existent. Similarly, the thing in question cannot exist as a form of itself which has been deprived of those properties, for without those properties it does not exist. Consequently, if man can receive life, such that he becomes a living being (cf. Gen 2:7), then life cannot be an essential property of man’s being. And if life is not an essential property of man’s being, then the deprivation of man’s life cannot constitute a loss of his being. Similarly, if the organization of man’s bodily members can be lost without the man ceasing to exist, and this is most certainly the case, then if follows that neither does the disorganization of man’s bodily members constitute a loss of being. Being killed and being destroyed, in other words, cannot be made to mean “Being put out of existence,” for neither life nor the organization of one’s bodily members are essential properties of man’s being.
  3. The Necessity of Monergistic Regeneration: Under the first point, I mentioned that unbelief in God must precede any criticisms of his Word due to the fact that God’s being and attributes are one. This further implies that belief in God cannot come prior to a change in one’s nature. For if the questioning of God’s Word depends upon prior unbelief, and the process of attempting to prove God’s Word true is merely an outworking of one’s unbelief, one cannot come to believe by the process of accumulating truths about God. This is not only the case because God is truth and impeccable and omniscicent, but because “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8). If a man can please God – e.g. by believing the Gospel, by seeking forgiveness for his transgressions of God’s law, by attempting to love his neighbor as himself – then that man is not carnal. Being unable to please God is essential to being carnal, in other words, and this implies that no carnal man can ever of himself come to saving faith in Christ. The work of being born again can only be the work of another, namely God the Holy Spirit.

To the above three points, I could add many others. But I think the point is clear: Every thing has essential properties, and what the essential properties of a thing are has profound implications for our theology, anthropology, and soteriology.

Solus Christus