Arthur Schopenhauer and Greta Thunberg

If I wished to take the results of my philosophy as the standard of truth, I should have 
to concede to Buddhism pre-eminence over the others. In any case, it must be a pleasure to me to see my doctrine in such close agreement with a religion that the majority of men on earth hold as their own, for this numbers far more followers than any other." [then, in 1844]

The World as Will and Representation, II, 169, Ch. XVII.

It dismays me when people glibly refer to Arthur Schopenhauer as a “pessimist“. That feels always like a facile write-off, and betrays a lack of understanding of his insight and his prescription for addressing the sicknesses of the human state. Schopenhauer was profoundly shaped by Buddhist teachings: he stated that he considered them to be the most representative of his own worldview (and he kept a little Buddha statue in his room until his death). It would just stand to reason that he would have a view tracking so closely with the Buddha who declared, “All life is dukkha [“pain,” “suffering,” “stress,” or “dis-ease”].” Yet does anyone glibly label the Buddha a pessimist? I also notice that same reaction inside whenever someone calls Greta Thunberg a “pessimist” or a “scold” for her bold jeremiads. Whenever someone gives a clear-eyed insight into some aspect of the dire condition of human life, we charge them with gloom-and-doomism, as if that is in any way a truly effective analysis. We want happy-food from our teachers: “Follow-your-bliss” teachings will instantly get you millions of “likes” and shares; “existence-is-suffering-and-we’re-totally-fucked-unless-we-wake-up-NOW” will definitely not.

When a doctor examines a patient who has come in for an examination, and the doctor determines that the patient has cancer which has metastasized from, say, the breast to the lungs, the liver, the heart, and the brain (as happened to one of my dearest friends), is the doctor being either “pessimistic” or “realistic” to call it “Stage IV” — terminal, no way out? Is that diagnosis, however heavy, a “pessimistic” deduction if an overwhelming preponderance of the facts all point in that direction? Even clearer than that, if the MRI images themselves depict this spread of tumors from the original site into other reaches of the body, are those images being “pessimistic“ or “realistic”?

I saw this interesting post on social media today, and felt compelled to leave a simple comment. Usually, it’s not something that I am doing, getting involved in the chitter-chatter on social media, but for Schopenhauer – – one of those several Greats who led to me from the depths of a gloomy childhood into the light of dharma, and for whom I feel an almost physical love – – I had to open this foolish mouth, for whatever it’s worth:


And what is Schopenhauer’s prescription for the root maladies of the human condition. According to these Instagram writers: “Schopenhauer believes our best bet for cultivating peace and tranquility is to engender a spirit of universality in our lives.”

Is that pessimistic?

They continue: “The more we see ourselves as part of something larger, the less our individual desires will grip us, and in turn the less we will suffer.”

Or that?

“To engender such a spirit, and transcend our everyday concerns, Schopenhauer recommends actively improving our appreciation of art, of being as compassionate as possible to fellow beings trapped in suffering of existence, and of promoting a life of asceticism where we defy our desires and live lives of simplicity.”

Schopenhauer’s clear-eyed diagnosis of the illness of the human condition, as well as his very practical, common-sense prescription for how to remedy it, tracks almost completely with the insight of one Shakyamuni Buddha of the Indus Valley. And it is something which Greta expresses very passionately in her own full-throated jeremiads.

Anyway, all of this is just down-in-the-weeds of conceptual thinking — a million miles from the truth of practice. As precious Greta would say, “It’s just more blah blah blah.”

But it’s certainly not “pessimistic” blah-blah-blah.

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