The Damage

In Plato's Apology of Socrates, there's a moment during Socrates's trial where he says that an unexamined life is not worth living. Twenty-two centuries later, after observing life, Arthur Schopenhauer concluded that there's an irrational and chaotic metaphysical force behind reality animating it—and its sole objective is to propagate itself. He named this force the Will. By studying the great pains and sufferings certain living beings—including us—were submitted throughout the ages, Schopenhauer wrote in the second volume of Parerga and Paralipomena that it would have been better if the Earth was like the Moon: incapable of producing and sustaining life.

Two followers of Cadmus devoured by a dragon, by Cornelis van Haarlem

By taking Socrates and Schopenhauer as our starting point, we can conclude the following: the life of the only animal capable of examining life in any profound sense—that is, the life of a human being—is only worth it when it is examined (Socrates); however, when we examine the phenomenon of life we conclude that it is not worth it (Schopenhauer). So, is ignorance really a bliss? It seems like we are always going to be stuck with this question. But in what way could ignorance be considered a bliss? Maybe ignorance is bliss because it put us closer to other animals, who live in the eternal present, or something close to it. However, it wouldn't be a bliss according to Schopenhauer. He argued that the ignorant can't grasp how damned they are, and ultimately this isn't something good. Being alienated and smiling all the time when you're falling in the abyss isn't blissful.

Because we're a predominantly poor nation, there is common saying people often throw around in Brazil: it's not nice to complain on a full stomach. Certainly this saying exists in other forms in different cultures all around the world. It probably has a long history. When we treat the entirety of life from the material perspective, an extremely poor person—even when this person still finds the strength to articulate a thought whilst being in abject poverty—has every reason in the world to find grotesque the complaints of the rich. And the vast majority of the complaints uttered by the rich are, in fact, grotesque. We can even say that in the 21st century, where unnecessary consumption became the rule in many countries, almost the totality of the complaints made by the upper middle classes and the rich are grotesque.

However, there are different kinds of things a human being can complain about. Not all of them refer to the material conditions necessary to sustain life. Yes, this needs to be solved, there is little doubt, but it's not what I'm writing about now. The fact is that even when this problem—the problem of social and economic disparity between those who have much and those who have almost nothing—is tackled with greater resolve, there's something that is never solved within a darker view of life. From this darker perspective, even when all humans are well fed, and have the same opportunities, and access to culture, we'll still exist inside the same mechanism Schopenhauer referred to as the Will.

Not that this should be used as an excuse to halt or discourage societal change. No, we should change our human world into a configuration that is less terrible. There is no need for modern human societies to be so horrific. But the reality is that, from a certain philosophical perspective, there are things that will never be solved. The past is gone. And even if human ingenuity makes the future better, it won't bring a satisfactory resolution to certain deeper problems. We're locked inside an existence that could only be altered if we could truly become gods—not just god-like, but actual gods. Maybe not even that would help.

Even though the gods of Olympus were immortal and had innumerable resources at their disposal, they were in constant war with one another, always conspiring. Their existence was an eternal chasing after things they lacked. They remained imbued with the Will, even though they are not subject to the corruption and sufferings of the flesh. When it comes to the Will and our complete lack of capacity to alter it, and when we observe our powerlessness to change that which is—or would be—behind reality, the real damage is that we already came into the world, that we started to exist. The damage is already done when we are born.

By virtue of my birth, I have a comfortable life. If I complained about not being able to buy a yacht I'd certainly fit in the popular saying I mentioned before: people would be right in calling my complaints grotesque. But when I see those around me suffering, I cannot help sympathizing with them—and I cannot help to complain. And by suffering, I don't mean material suffering only.

Different types of suffering intertwine with each other. Material problems connected to politics, which I believe could be solved, come about because of society's terrible configuration. But they are also inserted in other kinds of problems. Drug addiction is a good a example. It should be treated as a disease by our society—both its consequences and its causes should be viewed in a rational way. Addicts should be seen as sick individuals and submitted to medical and psychological care, while the underlying causes that make people use drugs should be studied and, if possible, remediated by society.

The material, and therefore political part of this problem can be seen (in a simplified manner, of course) in the following way: nothing justifies the differences in treatment when it cames to a rich addict and a poor addict—the rich addict is often able to seek medical treatment while the poor addict is viewed as a criminal and locked up. This is connected to how we deal with the consequences: a rich addict will seek treatment while the poor addict will be viewed as a criminal. The causes of drug addiction, on the other hand, can be linked to our terrible societal configuration, which forces millions to live in poverty and sell their labor to the owners of the means of production—another political problem that could be solved (as a matter of fact, this problem is an even bigger issue than drug addiction, which exists in great part because of this exploitation).

Nonetheless, maybe the fact that the human world in the 21st century is a dystopia that forces everyone to be super productive—even when it comes to leisure, and whether they are poor or not—doesn't completely explain the causes of the drug problem I'm using as an example of suffering common to human societies in the present.

I could have given other examples. I only utilized drug addiction because, unfortunately, it is a problem that has affected lives of individuals close to me. To make matters worse, maybe the drug problem still has another intersection with that other problem, the one that is impossible to solve in the eyes of Schopenhauer's philosophy: the Will. One of the mechanisms used by the Will to perpetuate itself in living beings is pleasure. Schopenhauer theorized that humanity would have gone extinct if our reproduction depended not on pleasure, but solely on reason. And we know that several types of recreational drugs produce incredibly pleasurable sensations in our brains—especially the most destructive ones.   

It is comprehensible, therefore, that people who go through material necessities within our terrible societal configuration—the poor and the marginalized, those who need to comute great distances in order to go to work and get back home, suffering pressure and humiliation—are tempted to seek a cheap escape valve. Does the same happen to the rich? Maybe, since even though they have comfortable lives materially speaking, it is possible that similar societal pressures—the pressures of having to be more productive, to grow more, and to enjoy more of life—act over the rich and make them seek the same escape valves in the form of drugs. Therefore, if we could make our societal configuration more egalitarian and less focused on extreme productivity, maybe this could help everyone in regards to drug addiction.

However, the Will is going to remain, even if we are able to solve all other problems, even if we change the human world for the best. It is true that the material questions aggravate the more basal sufferings of human life. These problems turn a bad situation even more desperate, and they happen in both developed and developing societies around the world. But those aren't the only questions facing the homo sapiens. Even when his belly is full, he finds himself facing a complete lack of meaning to his life. That's why we have religions and philosophies of life. That is why we have drugs, too. Poverty—which is fed by what I call "our terrible societal configuration"—only amplifies all of this. Churches and skid rows proliferate with poverty. But poverty and the pressures of contemporary society only aggravate something that is inside of us and is impossible to be removed without our lives ending as well (i.e. the Will).

By Fernando Olszewski

(This post was first published December 23th, 2019 @ Exilado Metafísico)