Orestes pursued by the Furies (detail), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

In chapter XI of Parerga and Paralipomena, titled Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Vanity of Existence, Arthur Schopenhauer writes:
To his astonishment, a man all of a sudden exists after countless thousands of years of non-existence and, after a short time, must again pass into a non-existence just as long. The heart says that this can never be right [...] Our existence has no foundation to support it except the ever-fleeting and vanishing present; and so constant motion is essentially its form, without any possibility of that rest for which we are always longing. [...] In such a world where there is no stability of any kind, no lasting state is possible but everything is involved in restless rotation and change, where everyone hurries along and keeps erect on a tightrope by always advancing and moving, happiness is not even conceivable.1
Stability is that which people seek in God, even those who don't understand anything about such concepts. The salvation that the misled poor seek when they give part of their small earnings to the preacher is nothing more than the stability, the calm, the oceanic tranquility of pre-existence. The revealed metaphysics of Christianity, bastardized by its mercantile versions, provides this relief to the faithful, even if in a temporary and illusory way. However, any illusion is better than the reality that your life is comprised only of work, rest and a few mundane pleasures.

Schopenhauer postulated a metaphysics in which all sensorial reality is sustained by one and undifferentiated essence, the Will. All things we can perceive through our senses and scientific instruments are, according to him, individuated manifestations of this one essence. The Will is behind all of the phenomena in the physical universe, including each one of us. We can perceive it in ourselves, through the introspection of our sensations and feelings, by the way we move our body, our limbs, as an act of our will. By extending the understanding provided by this introspection to other representations, Schopenhauer states that the metaphysical principle of all existence is the Will.

This Will isn't conscious, it isn't endowed with intelligence and purpose, but a blind, brute and directionless force, an almost naturalistic metaphysics. The foundation or engine behind the existence of phenomena isn't an anthropomorphic God, but a thirst for manifestation that is alien to the human. The Will individuates itself first in the universal platonic ideas and, later, in the innumerable physical and material manifestations, from the most basic forces of nature, like gravity, to the most complex animals. It is in this aspect of reality that we find ourselves, lost, searching for something that can give meaning to this chaos that surrounds us. While we search for something that can tell us that our pain isn't for nothing, we occupy our time and our minds with several activities, entertainment and justifications.

Nothing guarantees that Schopenhauer is right about reality. Maybe nothing sustains the physical universe. Maybe the physical universe is all there is, and searching for something that sustains it beyond physics is a fool's errand. As a metaphor, however, we can hardly get closer to a description of reality than the metaphysics of the Will. When we see the forces of nature creating and destroying stars, when we see animals devouring each other in an eternal theater of pain, the idea of a Will that has as its sole purpose its own objectification becomes evident.

Nonetheless, man isn't satisfied with this possibility or this metaphor. Not even those who sustain such metaphysics can live daily with its consequences. Schopenhauer himself didn't live the life of an ascetic, something he claimed was the most correct path in his ethics.

Even if we accept that life doesn't have a higher purpose beyond the perpetuation of the Will, it's hard to abstain from the matters of life, especially the dramas pertaining our species. It is within this context that I cite a famous Brazilian influencer by the name of Bruno Aiub, known by the nickname of “Monark”. Famous for defending political, economic and cultural cliches coming from libertarianism and conservatism, Aiub wrote the following in one of his social networks a few months ago, in June 2022:
I keep thinking why we care so much about living if in the end we're going to die, why do we fight so much to experience so much sadness? Without God nothing makes sense.2
In a certain sense, he is right. The attempts made in societies that lived under the shadow of post-revolutionary regimes during the 20th century to destroy religion in the name of progress were, besides tyrannical and violent, failures. And they failed precisely because human and material progress by itself are never going to be able to quench the thirst we have for a higher meaning to our existence. The same happened in the capitalist world, that commercialized everything, including faith, and expelled the sacred mystery from its midst. The mark of those who don't understand this is the exacerbated belief that we can easily create our own meaning in a satisfactory way, a belief common among the adepts of the so-called neo-atheist movement.

Aiub's problem and the problem of all who think like him isn't to say such things as “without God life is meaningless” or—to include religions that don't have a creator figure, such as Buddhism—“without religion life has no meaning”. The problem is something else entirely. Yes, it's almost certain that in the absence of God nothing makes sense, at least when it comes to a satisfactory cosmic sense that would make all lives worthwhile. The problem is that maybe this is all we got.

Going back to Schopenhauer's philosophy: although it has a metaphysics, it's not a metaphysics of reason, it doesn't provide a sense of direction, nor does it provide some justification. It only (supposedly) explains the world. It tries to explain even the ethical attitude of world-denying monks. But taking into account our eternal need for perpetuation and growth, in itself, this metaphysics doesn't provide us with a satisfactory foundation to live, be fruitful and multiply. We cannot wake up, look ourselves in the mirror and smile happily if reality is like what Schopenhauer describes. Reality has a ground in his philosophy, yes, but there's a nihilism in his philosophy when it comes to destiny: there is none.

Although Schopenhauer proposed a metaphysics, it is godless, as in the case of some oriental religions, like the already mentioned Buddhism. Nevertheless, for those who think like Aiub, it's the same thing having a godless metaphysics and being a nihilist, not only in terms of meaning but also in terms of morality. For those individuals, in order for life to have meaning and be worth it, there needs to be an anthropomorphic being that created us with care and planning, a being that has a cosmic plan for us. They can't be satisfied with the reality that they are alone, that this is all there is. In the absence of a personal deity that cares about each one of us, there's only despair for them.

In certain sense, we are all malcontents, even those who reject becoming. After all, no one asked to be brought here in order to, in the words of Aiub, “experience” so much sadness. The difference lies in how one faces this undeniable and brutal reality. To make matters worse, many deny that reality is permeated by so much sadness. But for those who don't deny the obvious, there's basically two paths. There's the path of illusion, be it collective or individual, in which the malcontent dives into fantasy in order to bear the pain. And there's the path of recognizing reality. In both cases it's possible to “accept”, in the vulgar sense of the word, that negative states are a vast ocean in comparison to positive states. The difference is in the way this acceptance happens.

The self-deluded, dissatisfied with the pain and silence coming from a universe that does not care about his supplications, accepts reality by immersing himself in fantasies. In this regard, the most fanatic of all religious fundamentalists and the unbeliever who embraces the absurd by creating his own meaning are side by side.3 This fantasy can be inherited from others or it can be made up by the person. What's fundamental is that there is an attempt to create positive values in order to face the frictions inherent to existence, including its lack of meaning.4 In opposition to illusion, there's the rejection of becoming, and that can happen in several different ways as well. Even if he participates in the world, the rejectionist will live his life in automatic mode. Perhaps he'll be anhedonic, resigned to exist as if he were on top a train tracks unable to escape.

While both can be seen as malcontents, there is at least a qualitative difference between Aiub's religiosity and the life of a monk who meditates about the beatific vision or about nirvana—and here the difference between beatific vision and nirvana really doesn't matter, since both Christian and Buddhist monks seek a form of transcendence, and they understand the impermanence of the world of becoming. The two of them have an ascetic belief that sees this world as a place of suffering meant to be left behind, in opposition to optimistic religions that reject all forms of asceticism.

There's also a difference between Aiub, a man who justifies the world of becoming as God's plan, and the rejection of becoming by negative philosophy. What Aiub wants is something to justify the world, something capable of saying that the world is good, despite all sorrows. What monks and negative philosophers realize is that this isn't true, even if some popular monks always appear smiling and say that life is beautiful.

While discussing the transparent self model of consciousness, German philosopher Thomas Metzinger described the biological advantages that self-illusion provides not only to our species, but to all animal species gifted with some type of consciousness:

In a certain sense [...] the transparent conscious self model is one of the nastiest inventions of mother nature, because it forces an organism to [...] irrevocably appropriate their own pains and needs and fears and [...] impulses. They cannot distance themselves from it. We cannot separate from many of these internal states. Because they are transparent, they're not just hunger or jealousy or horniness. They are my horniness, my hunger, my jealousy, and they are real. If anything is real, it's pain, for instance.

That is real. [...] It glues animals to the logic of survival in a very nasty way by creating not only joy and pleasure and reward, but also suffering. And maybe it's an evolutionary accident that something like us appeared, for various reasons, because some of us (at least) behave strangely. Instead of trying to have children, some of us try to understand the process as a whole, and that wasn't meant to happen [...]

Or [...] shave their heads and become monks and don't have children anymore. No animal does something like this. I [...] think a fact that many of us repress is that the evolution of consciousness on this planet, one way to look at it is also to see [...] it as an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion and deepening [...] Many things just happen which are actually not funny. Like the evolution of predators. Why should animals evolve to have an absolutely (like all of us) transparent urge to survive and the only way to do this is, like philosopher Schopenhauer said, to become the living grave of hundreds of other sentient beings?

[...] Some naturalists have a tendency to glorify the process of evolution. [...] it's a big truth that evolution is the greatest show on Earth. But that show really has two sides. [...] The conscious self model [...] got better and better and better with evolution: we knew our bodies better, we introspected more brain states. But it can actually be shown that there was an evolution in self-deception. That is, to have self models with false content is really adequate. [...] I'll give you some simple examples: you can show that all parents directly, not cognitively, directly perceive their own children as more pretty and intelligent than everybody else. 

There was a famous study in the 70's: if you asked American college professors if they thought they were average or over average, 96% of them had firm conviction they were over average in their achievements. They all know it cannot be true [...] There's research starting [...] in threatening behaviors in animals. It's good if you want to [...] pick a fight with somebody or impress somebody to enter a delusionary state for a certain time where you actually believe that you are stronger than this guy [...]

There is a new scientific approach developing showing that self-deception is not only something to protect yourself (denial from things you don't want to know, past failures) but it's actually a strategy of aggression. [...] Many people have beliefs that we know that are false. For instance, that children make you happy. It's not true.

[...] If you put buzzers into people's arms and have them report: “how do you feel now? Happy or unhappy?” and you do it with people who don't have children: it is very clear parents are more often unhappy and stressed. But if you do interviews with them, there's this robust self description that their lives have become much more meaningful and happy since they had children. It's clear that these forms of delusions would have been evolutionary successful. These people were our ancestors. [...] People who became monks and didn't have children, they were not our ancestors.5 
As Metzinger implies, the issue with us, Homo sapiens, is that many individuals of our species are able to see beyond the illusions, even those prone to self-deception such as Bruno Aiub. But among those who can see the machinery behind the theater of life, I speculate that few reject it. Apparently, the predominant attitude is to become dissatisfied with the awareness that one has of the illusion and not with the pains of the world: the targets are those who point out the fictions that we create in order to cover up the pain. That is why human beings like Aiub resent anyone who dare question or deny the illusions propagated throughout the centuries, especially the theological illusion of those who believe this world is God's perfect work.

The antagonism towards those who accept that “without God nothing makes sense” and draw from this the consequence of rejection comes from the believer who sees the world as place of human fulfillment. Truth be told, even religions that do practice asceticism don't look kindly on disbelief, it really doesn't matter if the unbeliever rejects or embraces the world of becoming. It's not like Buddhist and Christian monks approve of the common disbelief held by philosophers of pessimism, even though these reject the world as much as they do. Despite this, there will always be an admiration towards religions that endorse asceticism among unbelievers that reject becoming: the admiration towards Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism and monastic Christianity is clear in Schopenhauer and Cioran.6, 7

The same will not necessarily be true of unbelievers who accept existence with all its tragedy, such as Nietzsche, who in The Gay Science wrote one of the most famous affirmations of becoming. There he states that if a demon were to tell us that we would have to live our lives the same way over and over again, forever, instead of cursing him—as Schopenhauer's philosophy would incite us to do—we should reply that we have never heard anything so wonderful.8 For Nietzsche, the rejection of becoming is the greatest heresy. Hence his criticism not only of Schopenhauer's atheistic pessimism, but also of religions that practice asceticism, calling them “pessimistic religions”.9

Almost all of us are dissatisfied with becoming. Religious optimists, religious ascetics, unbelievers who create their own meaning, unbelievers who reject the illusion and existence: they all started their careers realizing that there was something wrong or strange with reality. The difference is in what each one did after coming to the realization that reality is a sea of tears. What Aiub and those who think like him are is something else: they are resentful with those who do not accept their self-deception.

by Fernando Olszewski

1. SCHOPENHAUER, A. Parerga and Paralipomena. Translated by E.F.J. Payne. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1974. p. 283-284.
3. More on the topic of the creation of meaning in the face of the absurd of a meaningless existence, see: CAMUS, A. The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 2019. E-book.
4. On the creation of positive values in order to defend oneself in the face of frictions inherent to the world of becoming, see: CABRERA, J. Discomfort and Moral Impediment. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019. p. 23.
6. SCHOPENHAUER, A. Chapter XLVIII: On the Doctrine of the Denial of the Will-to-Live. In: The World as Will and Representation. vol. 2. Translated by E. F. Payne. New York: Dover Publications, 1969. p. 603-633. 
7. See: CIORAN, E. The Trouble with Being Born. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Seaver Books, 1986.
8. NIETZSCHE, F. The Gay Science. Translated by Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. p. 194.
9. NIETZSCHE, F. Human, All Too Human. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. p. 75-77.